Süssmayr’s name is well-known nowadays solely because of his completion of Mozart’s requiem. However, he was a composer in his own right—and a successful one too.
Süssmayr was born in 1766 in Schwanenstadt, Upper Austria. His parents were Franz Karl Süssmayr and Anna Maria Priessinger (married 1765). He had two younger sisters, Therese (1769-1803) and Maria Anna (1770-1851), His father was a sacristan and teacher at a local church, and he spelled the family name “Siessmayer,” reflecting the Austrian pronunciation. Franz Karl had an addiction to alcohol; in fact, it ran in the family. The mayor of Schwanenstadt said that the alcoholism did not cause him to neglect his duties as a teacher.
In 1772, when Franz Xaver was six years old, his mother, who was not yet thirty, died of tuberculosis, the same disease that Franz Xaver and Therese both died of later on. His father remarried and had five children, one of them being Joseph Süssmayr, of whom the mayor of Schwanenstadt said, “He followed in his father’s footsteps, as a drinker, not a teacher.”
Süssmayr left home at the age of thirteen to study at Kremsmünster, a Benedictine Abbey. According to contemporaries, the place was a center of the faith, the arts, and the sciences. In school, Süssmayr was at the head of his class, and he participated in performances and church services as a singer (alto, later tenor) violinist, and organist. After his voice changed, he joined the orchestra in the abbey’s theater for performances of opera and Singspiele. In all, he was eager to learn and had many opportunities to do so.
Georg von Pasterwitz (1730-1803) was an outstanding teacher and scientist, who directed Kremsmünster’s musical life. He was also a talented composer who had written stage works and church music, including a requiem. Studies of his works show him as a master of counterpoint. Contemporaries said, “If you want to hear some good music, go to Kremsmünster.” Pasterwitz was familiar with the “Italian style” from several trips to the south in Vienna, and he passed this knowledge to Süssmayr, his favorite student. The two remained lifelong friends and died in the same year.
Süssmayr familiarized himself with operas by Gluck and Salieri. This inspired him to write a few stage works for the abbey’s theater. Der Liebe für den König (Love for the King) was written before he was even twenty, and it was an early success. A member of the audience wrote that “except for [Salieri’s opera] La Fiera di Venezia, this was the most beautiful stage work ever given here.”
Süssmayr’s next opera, Nicht mehr als sechs Schüsslen (No more than six bowls) was premiered a year later; it was to be his last work for Kremsmünster. An eyewitness wrote:
“The delightful music was written by our student Süssmayr in the style of La Fiera di Venezia. It concluded with a ballet that lasted a half hour and was danced by close to thirty students. The solo parts were taken by the two dancing masters, father and son. They distinguished themselves and were honored by general applause. The comedy lasted from three to seven o’clock.”
Kremsmünster, being an abbey, gave Süssmayr opportunities to compose church music. His sacred works from his years at the abbey include two masses, two German Requiems, seven offertories, a Magnificat, a Gradual, Psalms, and Hymns. He was rewarded with eight gulden for his Vesper Psalms in five movements.
The Salzburg archbishop Hieronymus Collerado (whom Mozart detested) encouraged the use of vernacular in church music. The people at Kremsmünster went along with this; Pasterwitz had studied at the University of Salzburg for a while. Süssmayr was probably the first composer to write a requiem in German.
In 1788, Süssmayr went to Vienna to seek his fortune. He was not a complete stranger; Pasterwitz was there representing his abbey at court. Pasterwitz was much respected and had good connections with important people in the city, including Salieri and Mozart. We do know that Süssmayr was Salieri’s student, but we are unsure if he had a formal teacher-student relationship with Mozart.
In 1790, both Süssmayr and Mozart contributed secco recitatives to another composer’s opera. It is not clear if the two had met at this point, but it appears to be unlikely. 1790 was a bad year for Mozart and his family. They were in debt, and there were only a few commissions. In fact, he had practically stopped composing! There wouldn’t have been enough work to do to keep Süssmayr, as a copyist, sufficiently busy.
Things changed in 1791. Mozart was extremely busy now, and he needed Süssmayr’s help. Süssmayr worked as a copyist for Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute) and probably wrote the secco recitatives for La clemenza di Tito (The clemency of Titus). Mozart even sent Süssmayr to Baden to look after his wife Constanze, who was at the spa there because she was pregnant and needed treatment for varicose veins.
Other than his association with Mozart, We are virtually in the dark about Süssmayr’s means of financial support for his first years in Vienna. In Vienna, Süssmayr lived with his sister Maria Anna and enjoyed the patronage of Ignaz, Graf Fuchs and his brother Alois. He worked at the Burgtheater, but we are unsure of exactly what he did there. Records show he was paid 26 florins in the week of November 27 to December 3, 1790. Operatic productions that week included Guglielmi’s La pastorella nobile, Pasiello’s La molinara, and Salieri’s Axur; it is not clear what Süssmayr’s precise role way though. In 1791, from 3-9 December, he was paid 23 florins “for extra services.” Two weeks later, he received ten florins. Süssmayr probably played in the orchestra, and it might have been his idea to have the theater hire a piano from Anton Walter in the last week of 1791.
Süssmayr worked as an assistant to Joseph Weigl for a short period of time, who had succeeded Salieri as Kapellmeister at the Burgtheater. He was also a substitute violinist in Salieri’s Hofkapelle.
The only piece of church music by Süssmayr known to have been written in Vienna when Mozart was still alive was the aria for bass and orchestra “Alleluia.” A later hand (not Süssmayr’s) added “for Benucci” at the top of the first page. The aria may have been written for the singer Francesco Benucci, who sang in the premiere of Mozart’s Figaro (as Figaro), the Viennese Don Giovanni (as Leporello), and Così fan Tutte (as Guglielmo).
Always ready to help, Süssmayr saved Constanze Mozart from poverty and embarrassment by completing the unfinished requiem Mozart had started. Mozart had died on December 5, 1791. For Süssmayr, this ended the matter, for he didn’t want to be involved in Constanze’s illicit business affairs concerning selling and publishing the requiem. She had tried to make money by claiming the work as “Mozart’s swan song” and never mentioned Süssmayr, though he had written half the work. Süssmayr probably didn’t feel obligated to help her.
After Mozart’s death, Süssmayr decided to go his own way. Emanuel Schikaneder was the librettist for Mozart’s Magic Flute, and he was the first to realize that a work by Süssmayr presented a good opportunity of success with a financial potential. So Schikaneder were ahead and commissioned Moses, oder Der Auszug aus Ägypten (Moses, or the Exodus from Egypt) from Süssmayr. As usual, he wrote the libretto himself.
They were probably rushing this too much and setting expectations that were too high. The opera was premiered at Schikaneder’s Theater auf der Wieden on May 4, 1792, and it failed in spite of the advertisement stating that Süssmayr had been “trained by both Kapellmeister Salieri and the late Herr Mozart.”
It was to no avail, but Süssmayr helped it achieve lasting success by turning the opera into a cantata for concert performances. It was also around this time that he became second director and composer at the Kärtnertortheater.
Prague, the “Mozart City”, wanted to honor Süssmayr. The university commissioned him to write a song for the emperor’s birthday to a text by Professor Franz Xaver Niemetschek (later the first Mozart biographer). At the first performance, the rector of the university said:
“Continue to use your great talent to the glory of God and to honor the exalted name of our great Emperor Franz, so beloved by his people. Perhaps one day you may as fortunate as to equal your great master, the immortal Mozart, for with your industry and talent anything is possible. If so, do not forget that it was the people of Bohemia, above all others, who recognized and appreciated your talent.”
In the long run, the comparison of Süssmayr and Mozart would be as detrimental to his career as it was at first helpful.
Neither Süssmayr nor Schikaneder gave up, even after the failure of Moses, oder Der Auszug aus Ägypten. Der Spiegel von Arkadien (The mirror of Arcadia) was premiered at Schikaneder’s theater on November 14, 1794. It was a huge success that exceeded both of their expectations. Schikaneder had written the libretto using Die Zauberflöte as a guide. The lovers Ballamo and Philanie are clearly based off of Tamino and Pamina in The Magic Flute. Metallio and Giganie are similarly the equivalent of Papageno and Papagena.
There were over ninety-eight performances in Schikaneder’s theater alone in the first year, and the Spiegel played across Europe. It was given in Paris, Prague, and in many German and Italian opera houses, both in its original German and an Italian translation made in 1795.
When Schikaneder had to close down the Theater auf der Wieden, the work continued to be performed in the newly constructed Theater an der Wien. A reviewer in the Wiener Zeitung wrote:
“This able follower of Mozart turned out a felicitous piece of work, the late Herr Mozart himself could not have written a more suitable score.”
Five publishers offered vocal scores and arrangements suitable for playing in the home. This added to Süssmayr’s popularity; he was no longer just a copyist and substitute violinist and accompanist. In 1794, he was appointed Kapellmeister at the National Theater, which was in charge of German opera production.
Now that Süssmayr had secured a key position in Viennese operatic life, he wrote many works for the stage. Most of them were comic operas and Singspiele, such as Die edle Rache, Der Wildfang, and Die Drei Sultaninnen, oder Soliman der Zweite. Others included Der Markschreyer, Das Hausgesinde, and Meister Schnapps, oder Er führt ihm’s Mädchen selber zu.
A Kapellmeister was expected to write a great deal of music in those days, and to compose music the general public would enjoy. Süssmayr, naturally talented with an ability to adapt, was able to compose in the style of Mozart yet still keep the public’s taste in mind.
The six grandchildren of a certain Baron von Lang wanted to honor the baron on his nameday. For this occasion, Süssmayr composed the cantata Das Namenfest (The Nameday). Austrians traditionally celebrate the day of the saint they were named after, rather than their birthdays. Süssmayr also wrote minuets and German dances for the ball at the Gesellschaft der bildenden Künste.
The war with France sent a wave of patriotism throughout Austria; Süssmayr used this to his advantage. Many people, including those from the highest quarters, attended a performance of the sentimental patriotic work, Die Freiwilligen (The Volunteers). This success came at just the right time; Süssmayr had hired a singer from Linz who turned out to be a failure, and he narrowly escaped the theater director’s wrath.
Other composers in Vienna thought highly of Süssmayr; saying he was “one of the worthiest and most popular dramatic composers.” Beethoven used a trio from Soliman der Zweite for his Variations for Piano in F Major, and Paganini based his Le streghe off of a theme from a ballet by Süssmayr.
Even though he was busy, the composer somehow found time for repeated trips to Kremsmünster every year to help with Christmas festivities. Pasterwitz had returned to Kremsmünster, making the music there flourish again. In 1796, on the anniversary of the abbey’s founding, the Mozart-Süssmayr Requiem was performed. A chronicler reported proudly:
“It should be noted, since it is part of our school’s history, that Mozart had been unable to complete his great Mass for the Dead. He had a premonition of his own death and said that he was writing the mass for himself. When he had reached the Sanctus, the great reaper cut him down. Who could have completed the composition but Franz Siessmayr [sic], a former student at Kremsmünster? He acquitted himself to the task nobly; the listener would think that one and the same person had begun and completed the work.”
Only Süssmayr himself could have given this information to the writer!
Kremsmünster Abbey had good relations with the nearby Lambach Abbey. Mozart had visited the place many times; he had helped Süssmayr as he tried to get his singspiel Der rauschige Hans staged at Lambach. It was not staged, but later Süssmayr tried to perform it in Vienna because he knew that “Her Majesty the Empress had a great fondness for such merry characters, and was very partial to such comedies with rustic language.” Nothing came of the plan.
At the turn of the century, Süssmayr’s career collapsed quite suddenly. It was no coincidence that around this time, news of his completion of Mozart’s requiem leaked out, although Constanze had tried to keep it a secret. When the requiem got involved, comparisons between the two composers became unfavorable from Süssmayr’s point of view.
After that, things began to fall apart. After Soliman, only two more operas and one ballet were presented at the Kärtnertortheater. The most exciting aspect of the ballet Die Zauberschwester im Beneventer Wald seemed to be that the famous female dancer Vignano appeared in a flesh-colored body stocking, causing a few raised eyebrows.
For the opera List und Zufall (Cunning and Chance), Süssmayr had to implore Peter von Braun about where it was to be staged. After a few disagreements with the management, Salieri saw to it that the opera was staged after all.
Süssmayr’s health began to deteriorate around this time, and he was unable to attend rehearsals. He wrote to Braun, saying that his friend Kapellmeister Weigl “would have the kindness to make the arrangements for staging it, without any undue exertion on my part.” At the time of this, Süssmayr thought it was just a passing indisposition. He was even thinking about getting married, as a letter to a friend in Linz shows. No name was ever forthcoming, and fortunately, the marriage did not take place. Süssmayr had tuberculosis, so any relationship he had would have definitely been a short one.
Georg von Pasterwitz died on January 26, 1803. He had resigned from his position as dean of the school and retired to the monastery. A chronicler said he was “calmer and more serene than ever” during his last month. Süssmayr’s younger sister Therese died in Graz on May 10, 1803 at the age of thirty-four, also of tuberculosis.
Süssmayr’s will to live must have been affected by these losses, not to mention that he was confined to his room and that his horizons had dwindled down to more or less surviving until the next day. Süssmayr passed the time by composing, which he continued to do until a week before his death, which occurred in Vienna on September 17, 1803. He was only thirty-seven years old.
Two days after his death, Süssmayr was buried in St. Marx Cemetery, the same place as Mozart, who had died twelve years ago. A Chronicler for the Year 1803 reported: “His death was hardly noted; only one journal dedicated but a line to it.” This caused the writer to ask: “Would this have been possible anywhere but in Austria?” He continued:
“Süssmayr’s music included so much that was thoughtful and pleasant, often providing a beautiful instrumental accompaniment. One is unfavorably impressed by the lack of appreciation shown by his contemporaries, all the more so when one notes how they idolize so much music that does not even come close to his level of inspiration and accomplishment.”
Süssmayr remains well-known just because of his completion of the requiem, yet isn’t it time to see past that?