Rethinking Mozart’s Tuba mirum – part 1

Rethinking Mozart’s Tuba mirum – part 1

To readers of The Last Trombone: Since I wrote this article in October 2016, I have continued my research on this subject. This has led to publication of a follow up article, written on April 25, 2017, to the comments that appear below; I urge you to read Rethinking Mozart’s Tuba mirum – part 2 when you finish reading this article.

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The trombone solo in the Tuba mirum of Wolfgang Mozart’s Requiem is one of the most important solos for trombone in the orchestral literature. It appears on nearly every tenor trombone audition – whether an audition for college or a professional symphony orchestra. As most trombonists know, Mozart (1756-1791) did not live to finish the Requiem and many people have stepped in to put the piece in a playable form since Mozart’s wife asked Franz Süssmayr to finish the piece shortly after the composer’s death. A look at Mozart’s manuscript shows us that he made very few markings to guide how the solo should be played.

Over the years, a type of settled wisdom came to define how players should approach the solo. Süssmayr added dynamics and many slurs, and most conductors ask players to, after the initial opening seven note “fanfare,” to play the solo in a legato, beautiful style. Audition committees seem to expect this style as well.

But I wonder if it isn’t time to revisit how we play this solo. I think it’s possible that we have been approaching it all wrong.

The “historically informed performance practice” movement (HIP) of recent years has helped us to revise our thinking about this in some important ways. First, many reproductions of the trombone solo of Mozart’s Tuba mirum, including its inclusion in many orchestral excerpt books, have shown the movement’s time signature to be common time, or 4/4. But when we look at Mozart’s manuscript, we see that the composer clearly intended the movement to be in cut time, or 2/2.

Here is a detail of the beginning of the Tuba mirum in Mozart’s manuscript; the cut time marking is unambiguous:


Here is the beginning of the Tuba mirum as found in Orchestral Excerpts from the Symphonic Repertoire for Trombone and Tuba, ed. Keith Brown, Volume 1, p. 83; the meter is given as common time:


And here is the beginning of the Tuba mirum as found in Moderne Orchesterstudien Für Posaune und Baßtuba, ed. Alfred Stöneberg, Vol. 1, p. 3; the meter is given as common time:


So, we have our first question: what is the tempo of a late 18th century Andante in 2/2? In fact, if you look carefully at the first page of Mozart’s manuscript above, he underlines the word Andante in the tempo – he could not be more emphatic that he wanted this tempo. Until recently, most conductors have conducted this movement in 4/4, with a tempo of approximately quarter note = 82. Or slower. Herbert von Karajan’s recording of the Tuba mirum  with the Berlin Philharmonic clocks in at about quarter note = 66 and he has all three trombone players play the solo in unison. Copyright restrictions do now allow me to embed von Karajan’s recording in this article but you can hear it by clicking on this link (the recording will open in YouTube in a new window).

But is that kind of tempo REALLY Andante? A tempo of quarter note = 82 would be a tempo of half note = 41, or Lento, or in von Karajan’s case, quarter note = 66 is the same as half note = 33, or Grave. We first must examine whether the “traditional tempo” is too slow. I think it is. Listen to this performance of the solo by trombonist Susan Addison with John Elliot Gardiner conducting the English Baroque Soloists. This tempo is about half note = 50 (and do not be thrown off by the fact that this performance is in A major rather than B-flat major; the performance is at Baroque pitch, A=415):

Even this tempo seems a little slow for Andante, a tempo that is often defined as “walking tempo.” From a correct understanding of Mozart’s intentions regarding the tempo flow other questions.

Here is a larger point that I think bears some consideration: the text of the Tuba mirum and its implication on the musical character of the movement.

Tuba mirum is part of the Dies irae of the Requiem mass. In the Requiem, Mozart combines five sections of the Dies irae into the movement he titles “Tuba mirum.” These are Tuba mirum (baritone solo with trombone), Mors stupebit (tenor solo), Liber scriptus (tenor solo), Judex ergo (alto solo) and Quid sum miser (soprano solo and vocal solo quartet). For the sake of this discussion, I am limiting myself to talking about the first part, Tuba mirum, with the three lines of text reproduced below. Its text is in Latin, in trochaic meter, and it describes the day of judgment when all mankind is called before the throne of God. This is not a text that is gentle in any way:

Tuba mirum spargens sonum

Per sepulchral regionum,

Coget omnes ante thronum.

A “standard literal” English translation of this text is:

The trumpet, scattering a wondrous sound

through all the sepulchers of the regions,

will summon all before the throne.

A fuller translation that gives the Biblical sense of the text runs something like this:

The trumpet, blowing its amazing sound to all of the corners of the earth,
signals to all of the dead in the world
to rise from their tombs and come before the throne of God for judgment.

Here is how Michelangelo pictured the moment described in the Tuba mirum, in his famous fresco of  The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. Trumpets sounding, the dead being raised before the throne, in fulfillment of these words from John 5:28:

“The hour is coming in which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil unto the resurrection of damnation.”


Here, below, is a detail of the lower left of Michelangelo’s work, showing the dead rising from their tombs. Certainly this is a moment of exceptional drama:


The point I am making is this: does the text of the Tuba mirum support a gentle style of music making, with the soft dynamic and generous legato that has become so commonplace in our performances?

Listen, for instance, to how Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) set the Tuba mirum text in his Requiem. He required four brass bands – one for each corner of the earth – to call the dead from their graves to judgment:

It’s easy to argue that Berlioz was French, a 19th century Romantic-era composer and it is unfair to compare him with Mozart. But can it really be disputed that Berlioz didn’t capture the character of the Tuba mirum with the drama of dozens of brass players being the summons of God to judgment?

If we go to Requiems of contemporaries of Mozart, we find that many treat the Tuba mirum with more drama than we traditionally give to our interpretations of Mozart. Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), Mozart’s contemporary, uses trumpets and three trombones to loudly proclaim the call to judgment, while the chorus alternates between a breathless declaration and a loud summons. In it you can hear a foreshadowing of Berlioz’s brass bands:

In his unfinished Requiem in B-flat major, Johann Michael Haydn (1737-1806) employs three trombones in dramatic fashion at the presentation of the Tuba mirum:

The same can be said for the Requiem of Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842), whose setting of the Dies ire begins with a loud brass fanfare, the crash of a gong, and a brisk, dramatic treatment by chorus and brasses. The audio clip below begins at the Dies irae and the Tuba mirum follows about seconds later, at 9:24:

It should be noted that this issue – the editorial dynamics and phrasings that have been added by editors other than Mozart that cause the Tuba mirum to be performed in a way that is rather disconnected from the character of the text – is not discussed in any of the Mozart literature that I have read. There are many editions of the Requiem and many completions of Mozart’s incomplete score. Most contain extensive front matter and a discussion of editorial decisions. Yet none speak to this issue. Among those I have examined are those by Alfred Schnerich (first publication of Mozart’s manuscript in facsimile, Gesellschaft for Graphische Industrie, Vienna, 1913), Leopold Nowak (Bärenreiter edition of Süssmayr’s completion, 1966), Franz Beyer (Beyer’s instrumentation, Edition Kunzelmann, 1971) and Richard Maunder (Maunder’s instrumentation, Oxford University Press, 1987). Nor is this discussed in The Mozart Compendium (H. C. Robbins Landon, G. Schirmer, 1990), Mozart (Maynard Solomon, HarperCollins, 1995), or Constanze Mozart: After the Requiem (Heinz Gärtner, translated by Reinhard Pauly, Amadeus Press, 1991). Neither it mentioned in Alfred Einstein’s important study, Mozart: His Character, His Word (Oxford University Press, 1945). In short, the Mozart literature is mute on this subject.

There are two recordings of the Requiem that are of particular interest to me and show that some conductors ARE thinking about this.

The recording below, by Christoph Sperling with Das Neue Orchester, contains a complete recording of the Süssmayer edition and also a recording of the Requiem as Mozart left it, without any editorial additions. The instrumentation of Mozart’s manuscript is very thin and the trombone soloist (who is unidentified in the liner notes but the three trombone  players are listed as Robb Tooley, Katherine Couper and Uwe Haase) plays with strength and clean articulation. Note, too, the tempo, which is faster that we are accustomed to hearing:

Another interesting recording for comparison is that by Boston Baroque, conducted by Martin Pearlman, in the completion of Mozart’s manuscript by Robert Levin. The trombone soloist is Cormack Ramsey and the tempo and interpretation seems to better reflect the character of the text. Copyright restrictions do not allow me to embed that recording in this article but you can hear it by clicking this link (YouTube will open in a new window).

As with the presentation of any idea that is outside the established box, people will raise questions. I’m good with that. Let me answer some questions here:

  • Yes: I know that Mozart did write three slurs at the end of the Tuba mirum trombone solo; these are verified to have been Mozart’s own instruction in his own hand (they are the only slurs for trombone that were written by Mozart in the Tuba mirum). But does the inclusion of slurs necessarily mean the phrase should be played softly?
  • Yes: Mozart wrote several dynamic markings in the Tuba mirum but the first one, forte-piano, doesn’t occur until measure 18, where the tenor begins singing Mors stupebit natura. Mozart wrote no dynamics during the entire trombone solo (measures 1-18; we must keep in mind that the “second half” of the trombone solo, that in some editions appears starting at measure 24, is entirely a creation of Süssmayr, not Mozart). As well, keep in mind that for the entire Tuba mirum, the only music that we have in Mozart’s own hand is written for cello/bass, trombone solo and vocal soloists. He wrote no parts for violins or violas or any wind instruments apart from trombone. Mozart left the movement, as he did most of the Requiem, as an uncompleted torso.
  • Yes: I know that the way the Tuba mirum is traditionally played is quite lovely, and it makes for a very nice musical presentation. Mozart had previously used a trombone solo as an obligato to a vocal line to great effect (with a very different kind of text) in his  Die Schuldigkeit des ersten Gebots. My point is that the way we traditionally the Tuba mirum doesn’t seem to fit with the message of the text.

But none of this prevents me from asking: Can we start a conversation about the way in which we are interpreting the Tuba mirum of Mozart’s Requiem? Does our traditional way of playing the Tuba mirum – with its soft dynamic and gentle legato – fit the drama of the text? Have we added too much to the sparse instructions Mozart left in his unfinished manuscript? Knowing how conductors somehow overlooked the correct meter and tempo for this movement for so long, have we overlooked the fundamental character of the movement as expressed by the text? Have we gotten into a habit of how we interpret this without considering other options might open new doors of understanding?

I am posing an idea, a theory; I am not presenting this as a settled thought in need of adoption. Certainly more research and study needs to be done. I am simply posing the question. Let’s keep thinking.

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Please note: After reading this article, please read my follow up article, Rethinking Mozart’s Requiem – part 2, published on The Last Trombone on April 25, 2017.