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Angel sculpture and unfinished column near Mozart’s burial site in St Marx Cemetery, Vienna.

(#13 in the Laney’s List series)

When my brother and I were teenagers, we knew just enough about music to be insufferable. We’d listen to something by Mozart that we hadn’t heard before, and as the end of each phrase approached, we would sing the last measures, then laugh at how spot-on we had guessed it. Stupid, predictable Mozart.

If you want to reach across the decades and slap us, you’ll have to wait behind him and me both.

Once Charles Rosen and some education and experience had their way with me, I realized that our spooky predictive powers stemmed from the fact that Mozart had done more than almost anyone in creating those expectations.

Mozart was a composer in the Classical style from his first harpsichord minuets at age four (K. 1) to the Requiem Mass at 35 (K. 626). Instead of destroying the box of the period he was born into, he explored and defined the box, then played every possible game with it before folding it up into an exquisite origami model of Vienna. So much for boxes, said Beethoven, who ran naked into the forest of Romanticism.

We’ll chase those retreating buns later.

But some of Mozart’s compositions did look forward to the Romantic style, and the Requiem was one of those — not just in the music, but in the web of mythology that was spun around it after his death.

Most of what most people think they know about Mozart’s Requiem came from the film and play Amadeus. The actual circumstances of its composition are almost as strange as the myths.

How cruelly perfect that Autocorrect doesn’t know his name.

The play and film depict a shadowy commission of the Requiem from the gravely ill Mozart by the composer Antonio Salieri in disguise, who plans to pass the composition off as his own when it is performed at Mozart’s funeral. But after Mozart dies, his wife Constanze tears the score from Salieri’s hands and locks it away. Funeral, burial, curtain – and the fate of the unfinished Requiem is left a mystery.

In reality, the Requiem was commissioned by a minor composer named Count Walsegg who wanted to pass it off as his own. It’s something Walsegg was apparently known for — he would commission a piece, then have a private concert for friends, claiming he wrote it. I imagine they humored him for the pre-concert schnitzel and schnapps.

Mozart did die before finishing the Requiem, and it’s then that the story gets interesting. Constanze solicits the help of Mozart’s friend Süssmayr and others in finishing the Requiem, then rushes it to publication and performance, carefully omitting the fact that Mozart didn’t write the whole thing.

She had good reason for the deception. Remember her line in the film, “Money just slips through his fingers, it’s ridiculous”? It was true. He’d left his family in dire financial straits, and she naturally wanted to maximize the income from his last composition. “Mass for the Dead Written by W.A. Mozart on His Deathbed” sells way more tickets than “Mass started by W.A. Mozart and Finished by Some Guys.”

But I have to think close listeners knew something was up when they heard it. The 14 movements of Mozart’s Requiem vary from breathtaking to meh. Even on the edge of the grave, Mozart would never have phoned in a tediosity like this:


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That’s the Sanctus. There’s nothing wrong with it, which says it all. It’s just forgettable. And sure enough, it’s a Süssmayr.

The Sanctus is a checked box, a solid B. But the Lacrimosa movement was written by a whole different animal, namely Mozart. To see how Mozart mastered the details, I’ll focus on just the first eight beats of the Lacrimosa, and only one aspect of that brief passage.

Lacrimosa (“Full of Tears”) is about the anguish of damned souls on the day of judgment. It opens with eight slow beats of three notes each — one low, answered by two high, like so:


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There’s so much there to talk about, but I’ll stick to just one — the selection of pitches. If Süssmayr (or I) had written those bars using the same bass line, it might have sounded like this:

Each of those “sobs” is just…you know, fine. Nothing incorrect, every choice safe and normal. There’s little variety, partly because every note is a chord tone, meaning it belongs to the triad for that beat. As a result there’s very little dissonance, which is what tears are made of.

By contrast, Mozart’s sobs are full of yearning dissonance, and more often than not, that dissonance comes from non-harmonic tones  — pitches foreign to the triad of the moment. For a D minor triad, for example, the chord tones are DFA, and if you play a G, that’s a non-harmonic tone. They usually fit one of 12 rules (patterns with the notes around them), which is how your ear makes sense of the pitch despite it being a chordal immigrant. I’ll eventually write more about these fantastic notes, but for now I want to show how the skilled use of non-harmonic tones helps to make Mozart Mozart.

I’ve isolated each of the eight sobs of the Lacrimosa below and slowed them down in brief audio clips so you can hear the non-harmonic tones (red circles).

Sob 1

Hear how the C# creates a searing tension before going up to the D? That’s a non-harmonic tone. In that faux Süssmayr clip above I changed it to an A, which is part of the triad, so there’s not much tension or interest. C# is better — it’s a non-harmonic tone called a displaced neighbor, and it aches against the low D before resolving upward.

Sob 2

Sob 2 reverses the poles: the first note on the top line is in the chord and the second is the non-harmonic. This time the pattern is called an escape tone — a B♭ pops out the top, knocking boots with the As below.

Sob 3

The D is an appoggiatura, my favorite non-harmonic, one I definitely don’t have to look up every single damn time I spell it. See how the eighth notes in Sob 1 are dissonant→consonant and in Sob 2 are consonant→dissonant? Even if you call both of the eighths in #3 chord tones, they are both dissonant against the lower notes, forming a 7th and a tritone respectively (the devil in music). And notice that we’ve now had three upper notes in a row that are dissonant, which builds the tension.

Sob 4

This is the one, oh my god, this is the beauty. Those bottom two notes form a tritone, G and C#, that’s nice. But the corker is the next one, that high C. I’ve written before about the melodic minor scale and the fact that the 7th note in the scale can be raised or lowered depending on whether the line is going up or down from there. But here you get both forms of the note at the same time — C# against C. Play that clip again. Combined with the tritone, it’s just achingly lovely, and the tension that’s been ratcheting up for the past two sobs reaches peak density.

Sob 5

Then right at the midpoint of the phrase, the tension is released: Sob 5 is all chord tones and an expressive leap up the the peak of the phrase, the high D. Now we’ll start tumbling down with the next sob.

Sob 6

This one’s a nice little crunch called a diminished triad. The E and B♭ form a tritone, the “devil in music” again. Looking ahead, you can see we’re in a tumbling pattern melodically — after climbing to that high D (Sob 5) we drop down in 6, small reach upward in 7, big fall in 8.

Sob 7

D against E is a 9th, an elegant clash. The E is a non-harmonic called a displaced passing tone. (I’ll write more about the twelve kinds of non-harmonic tones eventually — they are the spice.)

Sob 8

We’ve reached the cadence now, the harmonic punctuation at the end of a phrase, so nothing fancy here. It’s a half cadence, meaning it ends on an arrow pointing to our minor home, which is where the choir comes in. The sobs then continue under the entrance of the voices, unifying the emotion like a ground bass.

When you realize that this is a light analysis of one aspect of the first 12 seconds of one movement of one piece by Mozart, you can start to see why his music is playing in a hundred places around the world every minute of every day 250 years later, while poor Süssmayr’s Wikipedia page says, “Popular in his day, he is now known primarily as the composer who completed Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s unfinished Requiem.”

13. MOZART “Lacrimosa” from Requiem Mass (3:20)

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EXTRA CREDIT  Four-pepper theorists will enjoy working out the Romans for 0:24-0:48. It is a four-bar harmonic master class.

1 Chopin | 2 Scarlatti | 3 Hildegard | 4 Bach | 5 Chopin | 6 Reich | 7 Delibes | 8 Ravel | 9 Ravel | 10 Boulanger | 11 Debussy | 12 Ginastera | 13 Mozart | Full list YouTube playlist

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.