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This Is What The Basset Horn Symbolized To Mozart In His Masonic Funeral Music and Requiem

Scott Rodgerson/Unsplash
Mozart used Masonic symbols in his Masonic Funeral Music and Requiem.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died in 1791 at age 35, before he finished his Requiem mass. But it wasn't the only funeral music he composed. WRTI's Susan Lewis has more on an earlier work that provides context for his musical journey. 

Mozart joined the Freemasons when he was 28. His Masonic Funeral Music, composed for the memorial service of two fellow lodge members, is among a number of works he wrote for the Masons. But this piece, says conductor Bernard Labadie, "is the most famous. It's also certainly the deepest and most complex."

It also provides insight into later works, including his Requiem in D minor. "We know the Requiem has a lot of masonic symbols," he says, pointing to the use of basset horns as one example. You can hear them in the beginning of the work.

The basset horn is actually a lower register woodwind in the clarinet family. Mozart wrote for the instrument in both the Masonic Funeral Music and other works, including The Magic Flute and the Requiem. 

"This is an instrument for Mozart that was really associated with his friends who were members of the same lodge."

In Masonic Funeral Music, Mozart also quotes a beautiful Gregorian 'cantus firmus,' a chant-like melody around which other music is woven. "The text comes from the Book of Lamentations, and it's a cantus firmus that was widely used by composers back then."

"This is really what the Masonic music by Mozart is all about. It's this beautiful aching melody in the music, which is framed by a grand introduction and conclusion."

The Freemasons, dating from 15th-century trade associations of stone masons, were, by Mozart's time, fraternal organizations that embraced optimism and humanism in art, philosophy, and music.

On Thursday, May 21st at 7 PM on WRTI HD-2, and on Friday, May 22nd at 1 PM on WRTI 90.1, Bernard Labadie leads The Philadelphia Orchestra in an all-Mozart concert featuring his Masonic Funeral Music, Symphony No. 25, and the Requiem. Both broadcasts will also be streamed at wrti.org. 

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.