When it comes to the issue of Mozart’s Requiem, his widow, Constanze, is certainly not one of the most reliable sources. So many things had been mixed up; there are some things we will never know the true facts about. But when it comes to the topic of Georg Nikolaus Nissen’s biography of Mozart, we will see that Constanze’s actions (and deceptions) are nearly parallel to what she had done with the requiem.
Constanze and her second husband, Georg Nikolaus Nissen, arrived in Salzburg in the summer of 1821, and they took up residence there permanently. Nissen had been a government official, and by then he had retired from service. Meanwhile, Constanze thought it would be a good idea to publish a substantial biography of Mozart.
Previously, only one real biography of Mozart had appeared: Franz Xaver Niemetschek had written the first in 1798. Much of the information was inaccurate, since most of it was supplied by Constanze. Niemetschek later began to feel distrustful of her and published a second edition in 1808, but it was still inadequate in many ways.
Because of this, we might think that Nissen had merely become Constanze’s mouthpiece, writing whatever she wanted. However, the opposite appears to be the case; Nissen was independent and worked on the biography without Constanze’s “help,” and made sure everything was accurate, even if the facts were against Constanze’s interests. He was determined to provide a reliable and accurate account.
Nissen proved himself to be a thorough researcher, assembling all source materials he could find and obtaining information from different individuals who had more information. These people included Maximilian Keller, an organist in Altötting, who had written many musical journals that Nissen did not have, and Anton Jähndl, choirmaster in a convent in Salzburg. Jähndl was very knowledgeable about Mozart’s church music, saying he knew about it “intimately and completely.” However, Jähndl said Nissen’s work took up too much of his time, and that “there are others, such as [Maximilian] Stadler, that were of no help at all.”
It is not surprising that Stadler was unable to cooperate. His earlier statements during the great requiem controversy had entangled him in contradictions and had made him seem unreliable (much of his information, particularly concerning the requiem, had come from the deceptive Constanze). Besides, Stadler was too busy writing a “History of the Art of Music in Austria” to help Nissen anyway.
Nissen lived up to his claim that he would be reliable and accurate. For example, it was very well-known that Constanze and her father-in-law Leopold Mozart had a shaky relationship. Later on, Constanze and Mozart’s sister Nannerl became rivals. However, while Nissen was working on the Mozart biography, he treated Leopold with a degree of fairness, against Constanze’s wishes. In his preface, which would remain incomplete, Nissen wrote:
“Almost all of Father Leopold’s letters are valuable; they deserve to be widely known. Leopold was important in his own right, but for us he emerges as the father who educated and generally formed W. A. Mozart. There is no better way of getting to know him than through these many statements, many made in confidence, even those dealing with seemingly trivial matters, remarks he had not intended to become public knowledge. … Clearly the father greatly furthered his son’s education. The way he expresses himself, to be sure, is old-fashioned, … but he was learned, intelligent, clever, and circumspect – a good observer…. Wherever they traveled he would visit the chief attractions; he would call on men of talent in all fields, learned men and artists. He was proud of his son and took him along everywhere, instilling in him an appreciation of beauty in all its manifestations.”
This is a great deal of praise for Leopold that Constanze certainly would not have approved of. However, Nissen was less laudatory about Mozart himself as a writer of letters. His honesty prevented him from covering up certain things that Constanze would not want revealed. Nissen wrote about Mozart on a human level, writing, “he had faults, weaknesses, [but] the truth in these matters should not detract from his fame and from our high regard for his music.”
Against Constanze’s wishes, he also wrote:
“Mozart’s letters, even those written after he had reached the age of twenty-two, contain childish and coarse jokes. Many reveal his frivolity and his fondness for excessive merriment. He could go to great lengths in this, especially in the postscripts to many letters…. This puerile fondness for jokes and pranks lasted until his death…. He seldom wrote to his wife, for they were almost always together. The few existing letters do not convey a coherent impression; they are evidence of his perpetual financial difficulties, and they reveal his excessive boisterousness, but also his tender love for his wife.”
(In spite of his honesty, Nissen did make a mistake here: Mozart actually wrote to Constanze quite frequently in his last two year’s, especially when she was at Baden. However, Constanze’s letters to Mozart do not seem to exist anymore.)
Nissen’s preface ends here. He died on March 24, 1826, a few days after writing this. The biography remained incomplete. His work had been thorough, but all he left were twelve pages of a preface and a collection of letters, articles, and extracts from books, with some commentary from himself.
Constanze, sixty-four years old and twice widowed, took charge of the biography’s completion the same way as she had done with the requiem: she had someone else complete it.
Jähndl wrote to Keller on March 27: “Join me in mourning – our good Nissen has left us! He had been ill for only three days when sudden paralysis of the lungs quickly put an end to his life. He was buried yesterday, at five in the afternoon.”
The organist replied: “I, too, deeply regret the sudden passing of Herr von Nissen. The loss would be even greater if as a result the new Mozart biography should not be completed.”
Keller’s fears were unfounded; since Jähndl also lived in Salzburg, Constanze immediately asked him to edit and finish the biography. As it was with the requiem, Constanze created some puzzles by excusing Jähndl from work and asking a professor and doctor named Johann Heinrich Feuerstein to complete Nissen’s biography of Mozart.
Feuerstein not only completed the biography but also made arrangements with the Breitkopf & Härtel for eventual publication. Constanze wrote an invitation for subscriptions and claimed that Nissen had completed the writing before his death. This sounds strangely like her lie about the requiem, that Mozart had completed it. She wrote:
“…many questions could not be answered, and that much remained that needed to be discussed, completed, and explained. This called for someone who was able to undertake this work, sparing no effort and devoting ample time to the task, making use of the most reliable sources.”
Constanze concluded with an outright lie:
“It is the widow’s earnest desire, prompted by many requests, to publish this biography, which Nissen had completed before his death.”
More than 600 people responded to the invitation, expecting a once-in-a-century achievement. Constanze’s statements had led them to think that the educated and reliable Nissen had written a complete and accurate biography of Mozart. However, what the subscribers actually received was a collection of miscellaneous letters and an essay, “Mozart as an Artist and Human Being,” probably written by Feuerstein. Clearly, Constanze tried to cover up certain things and gave Feuerstein incomplete and incorrect information.
There was a supplement to all this, and Constanze, with her business acumen, decided to charge extra money for it. It contains a catalogue of Mozart’s compositions and has observations on “Mozart and the Characteristics of His Works,” written by either Jähndl or Feuerstein, but definitely not by Nissen. The two volumes still added up to an impressive 922 pages with pictures, monuments, portraits, and poems.
To attract attention from readers, Constanze had written that they author was “Georg Nikolaus von Nissen, even though his signature just says “G. N. Nissen.” Constanze tried to imply nobility with the “von.”
As for the requiem, what Constanze had asked Feuerstein to write is unbelievable. She did not hesitate to reprint, word for word, the incorrect information from Niemetschek’s biography of Mozart, written in 1798! The editor says very little:
“In the last four months of his life Mozart already was ill but undertook two journeys. During this period he composed…the Requiem, along with many smaller works which are little if at all known.”
In the Appendix there is a statement quoting the music critic Friedrich Rochlitz:
“Mozart’s Requiem demonstrates that he, like many other great men, never found the position for which he was best suited. He would have been the one to raise sacred music, which had sunk so low, to its proper place: exalted above all other music. In this branch of music he would have become the world’s best. This, his last work, can be considered the most perfect of all works of its kind; all connoisseurs agree on this, even those who do not admire his other creations.”
So the biography was full of inaccurate facts and even just mere opinions. It is no wonder that the subscribers felt deceived. And nor is it free of contradictions; sometimes it says Mozart stopped writing the requiem before the beginning of the Sanctus, other times it says he completed the requiem. The requiem’s music was described, the Sanctus, which fills the soul with reverence for Him who alone is holy. The Benedictus is described as a “true Benedictus,” and for the Agnus Dei, it was written that “the childlike piety of the Agnus Dei touches one’s soul.”
And not a word in all this about Franz Xaver Süssmayr, the composer who finished the requiem after Mozart’s death! It was he, not Mozart, who had written the Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei, but there is not a word about this at all.
There were no new facts about the requiem here for the readers. They had to be satisfied with the same old tales and with the flowery language that concluded the chapter:
“Mozart, his tender heart overflowing with love – praying, despairing, hoping, entreating. We see him in a beautiful open Greek temple, looking down a gentle slope, to fertile valleys in the bloom of spring.”
Who is to blame here? It cannot be Feuerstein, who was just another person Constanze had purposely kept in the dark concerning the requiem. It is unlikely that he was satisfied with the biography. Once a highly respected physician, he died twenty years later in a Dresden poorhouse.
Constanze, on the other hand, must have been pleased. The money just kept coming to her, as her diary shows. And it appears that all she cared about was money (she later even bought lottery tickets to try to increase her wealth); money was the reason why she purposely deceived everyone about the requiem and the biography.
However, word about the biography’s flaws began to spread, and sales became sluggish. 936 copies had been sold by subscription, but even after the price was reduced, 885 copies were left unsold. Plans for a second printing were not made until twenty years later.
Constanze’s claim that Nissen had completed the biography had nearly ruined her second husband’s reputation. Many articles about Nissen discuss Mozart’s biography, and blame him for the inaccuracies. We cannot blame him because he never finished the biography; he was actually an honest and thorough researcher. Jähndl cannot be blamed, since he only worked on the biography for a short time. It certainly wasn’t Feuerstein’s fault either, since Constanze had deceived him.
The only person to blame is Constanze herself. Although one can blame her for her dishonesty, one must respect her skill in business (how in the world did she manage to pay off all of Mozart’s debts after his death?). Constanze herself didn’t really do anything; offers kept coming to her door, and she was smart enough to take advantage of this. However, respect for her is compromised when one considers her lies and deceit, and her desire and greed for money and material benefits. However, thanks to her, the Mozart-Süssmayr Requiem has been saved from disappearing forever.