Joel Ivany, stage director, holds up a sketch of his semi-staged production of Mozart’s Requiem during rehearsals. Ivany promises the performance will be a dramatic and engaging experience. Photo courtesy of Toronto Symphony Orchestra

A Requiem for today

  • January 17, 2016

Few artists have left as lasting a legacy as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In just 35 years of life he composed more than 600 musical works that are acknowledged as the pinnacle of symphonic, operatic, orchestral and choral music.

Less known is that included in those 600 works, Mozart composed over 60 unique pieces of sacred Catholic music. The solemnity and complexity exhibited in his sacred music has inspired generations of admirers.

Pope Francis is a great fan of Mozart’s work. He told America magazine in 2013 that Mozart’s ‘Et incarnatus est’ from his “Great Mass in C Minor” is “matchless; it lifts you to God!”

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, also wrote of his love for Mozart’s sacred music in his 2000 book The Spirit of Liturgy.

“Whether it is Bach or Mozart that we hear in church, we have a sense in either case of what gloria Dei, the glory of God, means,” he wrote. “The mystery of infinite beauty is there and enables us to experience the presence of God more truly and vividly than in many sermons.”

On Jan. 27 the classical world celebrates the 260th birthday of one of the most prolific and most influential composers of the classical era. In honour of this great composer, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra will perform some of Mozart’s greatest masterpieces Jan. 15-23 during a two-week Mozart@260 Festival.

The festival’s grand finale will celebrate one of Mozart’s most famous and mysterious compositions, “Requiem Mass in D Minor.” The production will be semi- staged, incorporating on-stage choreography throughout the performance.

“What’s different is they’ve asked me to come in and I’m adding visual, and intention, and dramatic context to the piece,” said Joel Ivany, stage director.

The Requiem is typically performed in a church or a concert hall. In this semi-staged production, Ivany said he wants the singers  to memorize the music and interact with the dramatic swells of the piece.

Ivany hints at the idea of soloists moving around the stage and the orchestra coordinating its movements and gestures in different sections of the performance.

“It really invites people to enter into the piece and really engage in it,” said Ivany.

Ivany said that what fascinated him about dramatizing the piece is the concept of a requiem Mass itself. In Mozart’s time, composers were hired by noblemen to write music. The requiem Mass (or Mass for the Dead) is a traditional funeral service in honour of a deceased loved one. The service is typically held in a large cathedral and the grand music is incorporated into the liturgical structures of the Mass.

Such compositions were meant to be incorporated into liturgical services with monophonic chant. The music is set to key moments in the Mass, including the Kyrie eleison, the Sanctus, the Benedictus and the Agnus Dei. In Catholic tradition, the funeral Mass is not merely an expression of grief and mourning. It is a reflection of the paschal mystery, Christ’s triumph over death and the promise of eternal life to come.

Ivany said that the Toronto Symphony’s production is more than just a reflection of Mozart’s own death and mortality. It is a commentary on death and how people treat death in today’s society.

Ivany said he was influenced by the people who sometimes die on the streets of Toronto, and in the world. He wants the performance to bring death to the forefront of public consciousness in a way that will commemorate those who have died without recognition.

“For me, it came about as I was wondering who was playing requiems for the people who die in our city, who are stabbed downtown... or that little boy who wandered out of an apartment building last year and froze to death,” said Ivany.

“One of the big moments in the Requiem is ‘and light eternal shine on them’ and it’s an important reminder, as human beings, are we shining our light for good.”

The liturgy has appealed to many composers over the centuries, but the Requiem Mass has become its own genre within Classical music. What makes Mozart’s Requiem unique is the mystery behind what was to be the composer’s last known composition.

In 1791, Mozart was anonymously commissioned by the eccentric count Franz von Walsegg to write a requiem Mass that the count could claim he composed in memory his wife. Mozart took on the project sometime that October. He fell ill in November but continued to work despite being confined to bed. It was during these last days that many believe Mozart began to reflect on his own mortality.

“It’s fascinating and it’s a romantic ideal,” said Michael Coghlin, graduate program director at York University’s music department. “But how do we know? We’re not even sure what he died of. In the last year of his life… he was busy. He wasn’t sitting around thinking, ‘I’m going to die soon. I better write this piece.’”

Coghlin finds it hard to believe Mozart wrote the requiem for himself.

But Ivany disagrees and said Mozart would definitely have had death on his mind.

“I read a lot on Mozart because he would’ve had death on his mind up until the end,” Ivany said. “His father also passed away  (years) before he did,” he said.

Mozart died on Dec. 5, shortly after midnight, his Requiem Mass unfinished. His wife Constanze found the unfinished manuscript and asked one of Mozart’s students, Franz Xavier Sussmayr, to complete the composition so she could earn the commission.

When Mozart died, only the opening movement was complete in all its orchestral and vocal parts. Sussmayr added much of his own orchestrations plus a final section, Lux aeterna, by adapting Mozart’s opening movements. Sussmayr’s completion has been the standard edition of the score for more than 200 years.

“One of the things that makes that work survive is it’s just great music,” said Coghlin. “If you had to list the 10 great pieces of sacred music, it would be probably number one or number two. I think most people will agree with that.”

Mozart’s Requiem will be performed by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall from Jan. 21-23. For more information about Mozart@260 festival, visit www.

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