Monday, March 21, 2011

Mozartian Counterpoint: Part VII

Mozartian Counterpoint
Part I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII

Having discussed already the Overtures to La clemenza did Tito, [24] and Die Zauberflöte [25] we have left to discuss the scene from Act II of The Magic Flute with the "two armed men" and Tamino's trial and the Requiem.

37. Die Zauberflöte, KV.620. Act II, Finale: Der, welcher wandert diese Strasse voll Beschwerden

The laws of counterpoint in the era before "Classical" or "Rococo" taste took over were not simply musical rules. Perhaps one might say with greater accuracy that musical rules were not simply rules for composition. In 1739 Johann Heinrich Dedler's encyclopedia the Grosses Universal Lexicon music defined music as, "everything that creates harmony, that is, order. And in this sense it is used by those who assert that the whole universe is music." [Wolff, 2000. 335] Musical rules were then identical or proportional to the "musica universalis" or the "music of the spheres," i.e. the proportions and relationships of the movements of heavenly bodies. The origins of this thinking lie with Pythagoras' theories that, as related by Aristotle, "the principles of mathematics are the principles of all things."[Metaphysics I.v] In the 17th century this view took on additional relationship to God's creation and ordering of the universe and his eternal reign. There were, of course, variations on these views as well as disputes about their academic and theological implications. [26] I only mean to suggest that in many respects to many composers and theoreticians, the laws of musical composition were not artificial but natural and universal, at least to some extent.

Yet times did change. While contrapuntal procedures retained associations with grave, and often sacred, music, and with a "learned" style it was not necessarily on account of a perceived fundamental relationship. Tastes too changed, evidenced by Rousseau's famous distaste for baroque complexity [27] and later, by Koch's distinction that the "Contrapunktist" was more grammarian than poet. [Chapin, 101] Counterpoint of course would endure, as it does to this day, although:
The respect for the principles of strict counterpoint seems to follow pendular swings in history. If in the 1780s musicians began to experiment with counterpoint, in the 1840s they increasingly aimed at historical accuracy, and in the early twentieth century they again sought malleability. In other words, although the strict style always carried symbolic associations of law and order, this law had different implications at different times. [Chapin, 104]
It is the world and weight of this association with immutable law that Mozart invokes with the style and procedures of the choral fantasia of the two armed men. As a slight aside, I do not concur with Chapin (but rather with Hammerstein) that the scene emphasizes a fluidity to the law because it is neither at all clear precisely what the laws are nor whether exceptions to it are made for Tamino and Pamina.

The scene of course works as a scene of cinema and drama. Too, as Abert notes, the words to the song are inspired by those sung in Masonic lodges at the time and the melody is the old chorale "Ach Gott vom Himmel, sieh darein, which Mozart likely saw the theoretical work, Die Kunst des reinen Satzes in der Musik, "The Art of Strict Composition in Music" by Johann Kirnberger, composer, theorist, and student of J. S. Bach. Abert also traces the dotted (first appearing piano in the second violins) to the Kyrie from Heinrich Biber's Missa S. Henrici of 1701, and suggests, correctly I would say, that Mozart intended by it to give the scene an "ecclesiastical coloring." [Abert, 1291]

Mozart draws on all of these associations for this scene of terrible and perpetual power in which the "ticking of the Kyrie theme" calls forth "demonic restlessness" and the "choral melody moves through the intricate weft of the voices like the voice of implacable fate itself. This whole section attests to the greatest contrapuntal rigor, limiting the interludes to their absolute minimum, so that the course of the chorale is never interrupted. [Abert, 1291]

Too one could not miss the parallel to the aria, "Blute Nur, Du Liebes Herz" from Part I of Bach's St. Matthew Passion[28]

Here Mozart has drawn on counterpoint not just as a musical device but for symbolic purpose by also drawing on the cultural traditions with which it was associated.

36. Requiem, KV.626 

Latin text and English translation of the Requiem Mass (Missa pro defunctis) via Wikipedia.

What paragraph of summary could serve to introduce Mozart's Requiem? The massive fugues, the harmonic design, the sheer force of the terror it unleashes, the Gothic images. . . not to mention the myths surrounding Mozart's death, its incomplete state, the challenges to its authenticity, the studies of the fragments and, of course the scholarship devoted to all of these facets which has accumulated over the past 200 and some years. One must, I think, approach it with a little modesty. Modesty in the face of what we are unlikely to clear up, before what is lost, and before the greatness and solemnity of the piece. As in the rest of our survey, we will not be performing in-depth investigation or speculation, but rather highlighting this final work of Mozart's counterpoint. In the Requiem we will see that Mozart's use of counterpoint is is so perfectly suited to this unique use, the Requiem Mass, as to seem almost a distinct usage, "the Mozartian conception of the Requiem." For as surely as Mozart had models for opera and far surpassed them, so has he his models for the Requiem Mass. Likewise his use of Handelian subjects and Bachian choral-writing is so subsumed into Mozart's idiom and the unique demands of the Requiem as to be a whole new creation.

He employs counterpoint here not as study, not for humor or whimsy, as "learned style" contrapuntalizing, incidentally, synthetically, or as climax. Nor is it even employed simply as development as part of a larger sonata-form framework, though of course the counterpoint develops the themes. Rather it is employed persistently throughout the work, though in many varieties, as the ideal expression of the musical ideas, musical ideas themselves either inherited from the Catholic tradition of the Mass for the Dead or developed to give musical expression to this particular text. Here is not the standard setting of "Cum sancto spiritu" as a fugue but the creation of precise and unique settings within a large-scale framework for the Requiem Mass. Mozart draws on the natures of the sections of the mass, of the "tuba mirum," "Rex Tremendae" of the flammis acribus," and "lacrymosa" to create unique small-form structures for this unique text, the requiem mass, and unifies them with unique large-scale harmonic and structural symmetry.  This is in essence word-painting in "motet style," i.e., deriving the musical ideas from the meaning of the text and the musical structure from the stanza-structure of the text.

The Requiem certainly, as Eisen has said [Eisen, 167], demonstrates the profound "unity of affect" of late Mozart. Too as Eisen said we have unity of affect despite variety of technique. Even the words traditionally set to fugues, those based on some of the oldest words and ideas of Christianity, while Mozart does indeed set them to fugues, the fugues are quite extra ordinary. Yet the unity of affect is so profound that even in its incomplete state the piece looms impossibly large in the memory. So much that one is tempted to consider this requiem the "Mozartian conception of the requiem."

Yet perhaps this is not a satisfactory classification of contrapuntal use. Perhaps we might say then the Requiem represents a synthesis of contrapuntal usage, both technically via use of inversion, imitation, double-counterpoint, fugato, and fugue, and stylistically, through variety of texture and expression of text, all of course infused with Mozart's technique and inspiration.


The D minor key in which we open will in fact dominate the whole work, particularly the Introit-Kyrie, the Sequence (Dies irae through Lacrymosa), the Sanctus, and the Agnus Dei.) Dominate as it does the mood though, with its inherent chromaticism D minor functions as genus chromaticum of the Requiem, the point of departure for the voluminous modulation throughout. The requiem theme, from Handel's Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline ("The Ways of Zion do Mourn") HWV.246, is introduced in canon between the bassoons and basset horns against staccato quavers in the strings, achieving a disconcerting, but not yet overwhelming mood between the eerie sonority of the winds and the stalwart march of the strings.

The basses enter on D with the theme then rising upward through the voices, the altos joining on D and the others a fifth above. Yet soon the voices come together on "dona eis Domine," ending with a  half-cadence on A. Mozart proceeds with homophonic statement of "et lux perpetua luceat eis" followed by "Te decet hymnus in Sion" for the solo soprano, based on the ninth psalm tone (the tonus peregrinus) used only for In exitu Israel de Aegypto[29] but slightly altered to contain a strict inversion of the main theme of the Requiem. [Maunder, 122] This votive is offered over over a new motif (A), which later will set "dona eis requiem." This motif is developed in imitation and inversion in the strings under the solo soprano.

He proceeds with a dense contrapuntal section for all of the strings and the chorus, the strings developing a portentous dotted figure as the chorus cries "Exaudi" and the soprano tutti developing a more lyrical version mostly doubled by the basset horns. The movement ends with a final fugue for which the basses enter with the "requiem theme" followed by the altos a fifth above with the "new" (A) theme that accompanied the soprano.

Requiem in D minor - Introit - m.34-35

What a contrast of textures in such a brief period! Too Mozart varies the instrumental accompaniment: colla parte here, strict obbligato there. The tension builds until arriving at "et lux perpetua luceat eis," first declaimed forte and then pleaded piano over a lamento bass, ending on A and preparing the way for the great double fugue of the Kyrie.


This Kyrie is a tense and twisting ride. Unlike the Kyrie to the C Minor Mass this is one big fugue without a central section on Christe. Too there is no arrival at, or moment of, renewal or respite, only the despair of guilt and the imminence of judgment. The subjects enter and re-enter suddenly, the jarring Kyrie subject always seemingly a moment away. Even the sections in F and B-flat retain the terrible urgency.

Requiem in D minor - Kyrie - subjects

At m.28 the Christe subject (B) enters for the first time in stretto, rising from the bass. Here, as Abert points out, "its ascending diatonic line is compressed to he point where it becomes chromatic," [Abert, 1321] yet another harmonic daring which troubled Mozart's contemporaries. The fugue rushes headlong into a rest, cutting off eleison mid-word as if the day Judgment has indeed arrived. In the following, mostly homophonic, movement of the Dies Irae, it has.

Rex Tremendae

In awe and supplication the chorus cries out three times, supported by the basset horns and bassoons and followed immediately by a descending dotted semiquaver figure, suggestive of both kneeling and collapse. Then the upper voices treat the theme of "Rex tremendae maiestatis," unfolding with its octave leap, in canon over the lower voices in canon alternating "qui salvandos salvas gratis," and all of this over the orchestra which treats yet another theme in canon between the upper and lower strings. The choral parts converge in a homophonic section before switching roles, the tenors beginning the canon with the basses as we modulate to D minor. The movement concludes with the plaintive cry "salve me!"
 Requiem in D minor - Rex Tremendae - m.9-10


This is the longest movement of the Requiem, setting six stanzas of the Sequenz. The notion of "Recordare" permeates this movement, which Abert wisely describes as possessing a "discursive" character due to its rondo-like structure and an "interiority" through the counterpoint. We begin with two themes in counterpoint which perfectly set the tone of "Recordare" and whose dialogue throughout will maintain it. The first [A] enters in canon between the basset horns and its first minim followed by the rising quavers followed by entrance of the other voice is astonishing like something taking shape in the memory. So too is the other figure, [B] which enters along with the first but in the bass, a descending figure with a trilled motif. Mozart maintains the intimacy and "interiority" throughout with only the soloists and strings and contrapuntal development. This scalar theme then enters in canon in the violins against a bass pedal point, again suggestive of things tumbling from the memory to one's attention. The soloists will take up theme A with "Recordare" and theme B will become the main theme between the episodes. There interiority and internalization we associate with the inversion of the themes and canonic entrances of the soloists contrasts the emotional and physical reality suggested by the homophonic declamation of phrases like, "Ingemisco" and "tamquam reus," set off as they are by singultiary pauses.


Where the Recordare ends in hope and assurance the Confutatis begins in terror and tremor with the hellfire in the bass instruments crackling over and over. The basses enter "confutatis maledictis" and the tenors follow in close imitation, as if writing in the flame. (The effect of the close imitation, the relentless elevation of tension, is similar here to that in KV. 497.)Yet at m. 7 the women enter in C with the pure, plaintive cry, "voca me cum benedictis." Modulating through the dark realms of A minor and G minor Mozart concludes in F major, the key not of despair but of the mystic brotherhood in Die Zauberflöte.

This movement, one of Mozart's most glorious, has been brilliantly described by a source I now defer to:

Amadeus, dir. Milos Forman. 1984.

Domine Jesu

Perhaps even beyond the relentless entrances of the Kyrie and the hellfire of the Confutatis the Domine Jesu is the most terrifying movement of the Requiem. The piano opening quickly gives way to the forte outburst "Rex Gloriae," the alternating dynamics, startling imagery, and abrupt entrances of "de poenis inferni" and the dark tonality of "et de profundo lacu," and the sudden forte leap of a seventh at "de ore leonis," and the rearing of the lion's hear create a scene of terrible grandeur.

The subsequent fugato on "ne absorbeat eas tartarus ne cadant in obscurum" for the chorus has the rhythm of a dance but is no merry gigue but rather reminiscent the dance of death. The gaping sevenths suggest both distance from God and outcry as the twitching semiquavers in the bass nervously urge the movement on.

The soprano soloist enters with the entrance of the image of St. Michael the Archangel, urging the music though a canon and brighter tonality on "sed signifer sanctus Michael repraesente sanctam," with each successive voice entering a fifth below.

The movement ends with the great "Quam olim" fugue on "quam olim Abraham promisisti," thematically contrasting the terrors of the underworld with the promise of God's covenant with Abraham for his descendants.  The fugue is dominated by the one idea and figure, "quam olim Abrahae. . . promisisti" here and there punctuated by "et semini" eius." The absence of a counter-subject and the accompanying motif in the bass make starkly clear the reality that God's promise is all that saves from "de poenis inferni," "de profundo lacu," and "de ore leonis."

"Domine Jesu," "Quam Olim" Fugue, m. 55-57

Benedictus, Sanctus (Hosanna Fugue) & Amen

It would require great length and discursion usefully to discuss these incomplete movements. I would, though, make a few brief points.

While the unusual subject of the Hosanna fugue is certainly by Mozart its working out by Süssmayr is clearly of a rather pedestrian nature. The Amen fugue survives only as a sketch It is unknown whether Mozart intended to repeat the material from the Introit at Lux Aeterna. Abert points out [Abert, 1335] such a repetition was not uncommon at the time and in KV. 220 and KV.317 Mozart himself had made such repeats. Likewise we must wonder whether it was the composer's intent to use the Kyrie fugue for the "cum sanctis tuis in aetarnum" fugue. Clearly the structure of the Requiem demands a fugue at cum sanctis. . . but whether the frightful Kyrie fugue suits "with your saints in heaven" is not obvious. 

Final Thoughts

This Requiem, for all of its thematic borrowing from other works, is an astoundingly original work. For all of its drama and imagery, it is grave and dignified. Despite its incomplete state, it is demonstrates extraordinary unity. We see here what we have seen throughout our look at Mozart's counterpoint: technical mastery and erudition, drama and lyricism, variety, and an overall unity of affect which reconciles the myriad details of the work. With this one, incomplete, work Mozart struck such a chord in the hearts of men as to have defined "requiem." Who imagines another when he hears the word? For something he wanted "to try his hand at" [Wolff, 1994. 73] the Requiem was beyond ambitious.
[Mozart's Requiem] is no longer content to stir specific emotions in the most general terms but that seeks to reflect the detailed psychological development of the work. Time and again it is Mozart the dramatist who emerges from the score, not in the sense of an opera composer or man of the theater, but in the way in which Bach in his vocal works and Schubert in his lieder occasionally plays the part of the dramatist. Mozart was right when he said that he was writing his Requiem for himself, but his remark goes far deeper than he himself intended; it is his most individual and personal confession of his thoughts about life and death. . .  [Abert, 1336]
Mozart reconciled all, leaving us with the sight of man humbled before God at the breaking of the world.


Abert, Hermann. W. A. Mozart. Yale University Press. New Haven and New York. 2007.
Chapin, Keith. Strict and Free Reversed: The Law of Counterpoint in Koch’s Musikalisches Lexikon and Mozart’s Zauberflöte. Eighteenth-Century Music 3/1, 91–107. Cambridge University Press. 2006.

Eisen, Cliff. Mozart's Chamber Music, essay in The Cambridge Companion to Mozart. Keefe, Simon P. (ed.) Cambridge Companion to Mozart. Cambridge. 2003.

Maunder, Richard. Mozart's Requiem: On Preparing a New Edition. Oxford University Press. New York. 1988.

Wolff, Christoph. Johann Sebastian Bach: The Learned Musician. W. W. Norton and Co. New York, New York. 2000

Wolff, Christoph. (Whittall, Mary. (trans.)) Mozart's Requiem: Historical and Analytical Studies, Documents, Score. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles. 1994.

Recommended Reading

Gutmann, Peter. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Requiem. 2006.


26. see: Yeardsley, David. Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 2002.


  1. You've outdone yourself this time! I don't know if it's appropriate to say of the Requiem analysis--I felt as if I'd died and gone to heaven!

  2. Thank you so much Tom! I'm so pleased you enjoyed it. And thanks for sticking with the series; I can't believe I started Part I in August of last year. Actually I started off by making a simple list and just got carried away. Thanks!