Swindlers, mountebanks and Mozart’s Requiem

Keeping up with the news lately has been a grim undertaking. It’s hard to be entirely objective about this, but it does seem to me that the customary gloom and doom of headlines has been ratcheted up a few notches. By way of intentional contrast then, allow me to highlight one recent news bite that I found heartwarming: those phone scammers pretending to be from the Canada Revenue Agency and threatening to send many of us to jail were busted this week!


They just don’t make swindlers and mountebanks like they used to. What ever happened to the likes of Gregor MacGregor, the 19th century Scottish soldier who convinced several hundred people, for a reasonable sum of money, to relocate to the fictional Central American island nation he called Poyais? Are the days gone forever of superlative flimflammers like Victor Lustig, the man who successfully sold the Eiffel Tower, not once but twice?


Then there’s the singular case of the fraudster who was responsible for the creation of one of the greatest masterpieces of Western art music. Enter one Count Franz von Walsegg, Lord of Stuppach Castle, located on the outskirts of Gloggnitz. (You are forgiven if you need to consult Google Maps for this one.) Count von Walsegg was a locally famous amateur yet passionate musician who had a bit of an unscrupulous habit of commissioning works and then passing them off as his own. When his young wife Anna died, the Count asked none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to write a Mass for the Dead in her memory. He had every intention of having posterity call it not the Mozart Requiem, but the Walsegg Requiem.


As it turns out, Walsegg met his hustler match, not in Mozart, but in Mozart’s wife, Constanze. As it turns out, this Requiem was to be the last notes that Mozart would write. He died tragically early at the age of 35, leaving the work only half-finished. Mrs. Mozart knew that the Count may ask for his money back if she couldn’t deliver a completed Requiem, so she quietly asked around for someone who could finish the piece on the sly. It’s a well documented fact now that one of Mozart’s students, Franz Süssmayr, picked up where Mozart was forced to leave off, but poor old Count von Walsegg was none the wiser. Believing he had in his possession one full Requiem completed by the hand of Mozart himself, Walsegg paid the Mozart family in full. Keen-eyed Constanze also realized the potential of future income from the work, so she paid the purloining count a reasonable sum to publicly attach Mozart’s name to the work.


Created under clouds of intrigue and shrouded in mystery, Mozart’s Requiem has always had aspects of the sensational attached to it. Mozart himself confessed to his wife that he believed this work would end up being a mass for his own death, and rumours swirled that he was poisoned by jealous usurpers. Regardless of its murky provenance, the Requiem remains one of the great masterpieces of Western civilization. Like many of Mozart’s works, it seems to be both divinely inspired and movingly human.


Though it’s entirely too soon to say whether any great works of art will be born out of the CRA impostors’ scam, the story of Mozart’s Requiem forces me to consider giving the perpetrators the benefit of the doubt. I just prefer that they call someone else.