National News

Franz Beyer, Who Revised Mozart’s Requiem, Dies at 96

Posted July 26, 2018 5:22 p.m. EDT

Franz Beyer, a German violist and musicologist who carefully revised Mozart’s Requiem, the choral masterpiece that the composer left unfinished at his death nearly two centuries earlier, died on June 29 in Munich. He was 96.

His family announced his death in a German newspaper.

The Requiem is one of Mozart’s most beloved works, often turned to at times of communal grief, but it is not entirely his. He received a substantial commission for the work in the summer of 1791, but when he died that December he had not completed it.

Needing the money that would come with its completion, Mozart’s wife, Constanze, asked his student and assistant Franz Xaver Süssmayr, then only 25, to finish what was roughly half-done. In the eyes of some, Süssmayr’s effort was imperfect at best, but it became the standard.

Beyer’s revision of the Requiem, which he finished in the early 1970s and mainly addressed matters of orchestration, is considered by many to be a substantial improvement over Süssmayr’s version.

In a booklet that accompanied a 1983 recording of the Requiem, Beyer wrote, “We can be confident that we are gradually achieving a closer and more conscious understanding of the Mozartean spirit, and hope that, in an active exposition of his last work, this is sufficient justification for the new instrumental clothing.”

The revision, he added, “could only mean bringing out the manuscript’s ‘original state.'”

Robert Levin, a pianist and musicologist who wrote a more extensive revision of the Requiem in the 1990s, said in a telephone interview that Beyer brought a characteristically modest approach to the Requiem, one of an estimated 140 works that Mozart left unfinished.

“Franz Beyer took the Requiem to the dry cleaners and took the spots out,” said Levin, the Dwight P. Robinson Jr. research professor of the humanities at Harvard and a visiting professor at the Juilliard School. “He made it more transparent and simplified it so it was less burdened by Süssmayr’s infelicities.”

Leonard Bernstein and Neville Marriner were among the conductors who recorded the Requiem using Beyer’s restoration.

When his edition of the Requiem was performed by the Dessoff Choirs at Alice Tully Hall in 1988 under the direction of Amy Kaiser, Donal Henahan of The New York Times wrote, “Miss Kaiser pleaded the Beyer case well in a poised reading that insisted neither on the Requiem as a semi-operatic Romantic tragedy nor on the more austere churchbound liturgical view.”

Kenneth Woods, the artistic director of the English Symphony Orchestra, said Beyer’s scholarship provided a greater understanding of the Requiem. In an email, he wrote that Beyer delineated “how much of the piece we know is by Mozart and how much is by Süssmayr,” adding, “In the preface to the score, Beyer made a very strong case that much more of the composition is by Mozart than most people realize.”

The autograph manuscript shows that Mozart completed one movement, the Introit, and for another, the Kyrie, finished everything but a few aspects of the instrumentation. For eight more sections he wrote most of the vocal parts and a figured bass line, and left some direction on instrumentation, according to The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia (2006), edited by Cliff Eisen and Simon P. Keefe. Nothing in Mozart’s hand exists for three sections of the piece, believed to be Süssmayr’s product, although there is speculation over how much he knew of Mozart’s intentions.

The Requiem was a central element in “Amadeus” (1984), Milos Forman’s Academy Award-winning film about Mozart. In the movie, which Peter Shaffer adapted from his play, Antonio Salieri, the desperately jealous court composer to Joseph II, the Holy Roman Emperor, secretly commissions the Requiem, then plots to pass it off as his own. That plot point was wholly fictional.

Beyer was born on Feb. 6, 1922, in the town of Weingarten, in southwestern Germany. His studies at a music school in Stuttgart were cut short by World War II, during which he was, according to published reports, imprisoned in France.

He joined the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra after the war and played with the highly regarded Max Strub String Quartet. Beyer was also a professor of viola and chamber music at the University of Music and Performing Arts in Munich from 1962 to 1995.

He restored and finished many classical pieces, including others by Mozart. But his ultimate challenge, as it was for many other musicologists, was the Requiem — a profound, mysterious work tied in to Mozart’s early death whose vexing provenance has inspired numerous attempts to revise or complete it.

“Some would say they’ve done it because it’s there and some would it’s because they love the Requiem but cringe when they hear something unsatisfactory about it,” Levin said.

Beyer’s motivation appeared to be straightforward musical repair.

“This edition,” he wrote in 1983, “attempts to remove the obvious errors” in Süssmayr’s instrumentation, which had been “subject of criticism more or less since he made it at the request of Constanze Mozart, and furthermore to color it with the hues of Mozart’s own palette.”

Beyer’s survivors include his wife, Anneliese, and three sons, Daniel, Johannes and Friedemann.