Much mystery clouds the magnificent Mozart Requiem in D Minor.
Peter Shaffer tells a juicy tale of dishonesty, manipulation, and murder, in his brilliant stage play, Amadeus.
You can find this story and plenty of variations scattered over the web. And while deliciously entertaining, most of these stories are far from the truth! So I’ll spare you a retelling. Just Google it in your free time.
This article is strictly for you choral directors interested in hearing a composer’s/choral director’s perspective on the Mozart Requiem. Specifically, the beautifully haunting and dramatic seventh movement, the Lacrymosa.
Now, this tidbit is interesting and important to know before teaching the Lacrymosa to your choir.
Mozart only composed the first eight measures of the Lacrymosa. That’s right! He completed the first two measures for strings and the following six measures for chorus before his untimely death at the age of 35 in 1791.
Mozart’s wife, Constance, would pass along the task of finishing the Requiem to his most capable pupil, Franz Xaver Süssmayr. And he was the perfect candidate to complete the work, although, the last on Constance’s mind for some strange and mysterious reason that baffles scholars to this day.
Why was he the ideal candidate? Well, Mozart gave Süssmayr the rare opportunity to see each movement in progress while he was still living and teaching the prolific student.
Score analysis is one of the best ways to pass along the craft of music composition. Mozart knew this. And Süssmayr would have been ecstatic to witness his teacher compose the Requiem firsthand.
The beautiful and expressive soprano melody fits perfectly with the subtle and sparse string accompaniment. It’s nothing short of pure ecstasy!
And the Lacrymosa’s ascending and descending chromatic lines coupled with the subito dynamics pose a unique challenge for choirs of all shapes and sizes.
Mozart’s music is challenging!
The following is a rehearsal approach that I’ve used to teach the Lacrymosa to a large auditioned chorus made up of singers of all ages. This approach assumes that the conductor allocates roughly ten to fifteen minutes per rehearsal over the course of ten rehearsals before the performance.
Of course, you want to begin varying the approach as the chorus begins to master certain elements of the music. Constantly reinforce good vocal technique and choral blend along the way. Don’t let them get away with sloppy vowels and consonant placement!
FIRST REHEARSAL –
Begin with the final section, mm. 22-30.
It’s important to establish the 12/8 feel before diving into the music. Speaking the text in rhythm is a brilliant way to help solidify the feel while teaching folks how to speak the somewhat complicated Latin text.
TIP – Look for time-saving strategies that reinforce two principles at once. The stronger vocalists in your chorus will appreciate this level of effort, and you will accomplish much more in rehearsal.
The vast intervallic makeup of the individual vocal lines poses a unique challenge to singers. They want to scoop! But don’t let them. Instead, ask them to audiate.
The Gordon Institute for Music Learning defines audiation as the foundation of musicianship. It takes place when we hear and comprehend music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present.
Of course, asking your choir to audiate implies that they know what’s coming next.
SECOND REHEARSAL –
Next, turn to mm. 15-19.
Mozart’s music is extremely chromatic. For this reason, the wise choral director will look for occasional tuning spots throughout the piece. These are typically cadential points, unisons, or other passages that allow choristers to listen and tune.
TIP – Have you and your choir ever encountered a section of a piece that seems impossible to sing in tune? Chances are it’s the vowel. Remind your chorus that vowel placement is central to tuning.
Begin on m. 15 – the phrase “Huic ergo parce Deus.” This is a perfect tuning point – Mozart’s haunting fully diminished seventh chord beginning on “D.” The soft dynamic allows choristers to center in and listen to what’s going on around them.
This is a difficult passage. The lines themselves are easy to sing, but the harmonies are complex. So take it slow and stay super focussed on intonation and blend.
THIRD REHEARSAL –
Spend your time reinforcing mm. 15-30. Reemphasize the importance of tuning points and careful attention to each note in the chromatic lines.
FOURTH REHEARSAL –
Mozart’s masterful use of subito dynamics (sudden dynamic contrast) in the Lacrymosa gives it the superb dramatic element that we’ve grown to know and love of the Classical era and points to Beethoven and the Romantic period.
Notice the sotto voce (Italian term for lowering the volume of one’s voice for emphasis) in m. 9.
It’s preceded by a crescendo into a forte dynamic and immediately followed by another forte dynamic just before another piano dynamic in m. 15 on the phrase “Huic ergo parce Deus.”
Point this out to your choir. They’ll appreciate this fascinating fact. And it will help them remember to sing dynamically.
The basses leap a lot in mm. 9-14. You may need to spend a few moments slowly and meticulously singing the passage. Remind them not to scoop. They should place each note.
FIFTH REHEARSAL –
Now it’s time to learn the final passage in mm. 3-8.
This is perhaps the most difficult passage due to the intricate rhythm (single eighth notes followed by two eighth rests) in mm. 5-6 and the intense ascending lines in mm. 7-8.
Have your choir speak the rhythm precisely, releasing each syllable on the second eighth note in each eighth note group (mm. 5-6). Then switch to the dotted quarter note rhythm in mm. 7-8.
Pay careful attention to the “s” in “us” in m. 8. Things can get out of control pretty quickly here!
Finally, put the whole passage together adding dynamics when you feel your choir has a good grasp of the intricate rhythm and pitches.
FINAL REHEARSALS –
Congratulations! Now that your choir knows each passage, it’s time to put them all together.
Spend the next 4-5 rehearsals reinforcing intricate details such as cut-offs, dynamics, vowels, etc. Most choirs seem to forget these things pretty easily!
Bring in a couple of different interpretations for your choristers to listen to. It’s beneficial for them to hear different interpretations. I’m very open in my rehearsal approach, so I often ask choristers for their input. It helps them have a sense of ownership.
Best of luck to you in your rehearsal and performance of Mozart’s mysterious Lacrymosa.