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The Mozart Scandal at Expo 58

The shocking act of vandalism at Expo 58 or why Mozart fans will always look at Brussels askance.

In 1958, all eyes were on Brussels for the World Expo. The economy was booming, the Fifties were an era of optimism and rumours even abounded that Hollywood’s most desirable bombshell had caught the eye of Baudouin, Belgium’s bachelor king.

Expo 58 featured the most cutting-edge technology, with the Russians presenting their Sputnik until the people of Brussels discovered the very first automatic doors, which had been designed by the Americans. But the World Expo was not just a showcase for the latest technological developments.

Masterpieces from the past were dragged to the world expo to illustrate human genius through the centuries. The Austrian government decided to dispatch a manuscript of the greatest musical genius of all time to Brussels, i.e., Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s legendary requiem. A decision they would come to deeply regret.

And much of this, of course, is related to Mozart’s untimely death while he was composing it. The unfinished Mass for the dead symbolises the composer’s ‘unfinished’ life and career. At the same time, the mysterious identity of the man who commissioned the work fuelled plenty of conspiracy theories, as well as inspired other artists like Peter Shaffer (who retold the story in his play Amadeus, which was subsequently turned into a hit movie by Milos Forman).

Requiem Dictation Scene from Amadeus (behind the scenes insight)

In all probability, the autograph manuscript is also the most closely studied document in music history, giving rise to impassioned discussions about who actually composed which parts (Mozart’s assistant and friend Franz Süssmayr completed it). The most popular question that musicologists and historians focused on is “what were the last words that the dying composer wrote?”.

Many have posited that it is the indication ‘quam Olim d: C’ in the bottom right-hand corner at the end of the Hostias. And one of them undoubtedly was the man or woman who visited the Expo at the Heysel, who was able to pry open the display case with the manuscript unseen, and who proceeded to tear off this specific corner of this particular page…

The perpetrator was never identified. And the section of manuscript never resurfaced. The damaged score was sent back to Austria, minus the corner, only adding to the mystery of Mozart’s Requiem Mass. Nowadays, the autograph is (securely) preserved in the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek in Vienna. And Mozart experts commonly refer to the vandalism as the ‘Brussels desecration’.

Claudio Abbado - Mozart Requiem - Lacrimosa

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