Mozart & Tchaikovsky
To Music (1994)
Franz Schubert was twenty years of age when, in 1817, he set his song An die Musik (D547) to a simple verse by his friend Franz von Schober. The actor, poet and playwright, who was older than the composer by one year, provided the libretto for Schubert’s opera Alfonso und Estrella, and several poems the composer turned into Lieder. None has proved as irresistible as this ‘ode’ to music itself.
Corigliano, son of a former New York Philharmonic concertmaster, wrote his own six-minute tribute to Schubert in 1994, and offers this concise description of it:
It is a short, lyrical, and introspective piece, involving the orchestra and some offstage players. The onstage orchestra plays a long choral-like passage, answered by short fanfare elements. Later the offstage players take up these fanfare elements, and the ensemble builds to a peak before resolving into a gentle setting of Schubert’s masterly song An die Musik (hence the title of the work), from which all the earlier fanfare elements were taken.
Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola in E flat, K364 (1779)
Despite voluminous historic evidence that instrumental music sprang from the rhythms of dance, an appetite for expressing emotion through instruments must likewise trace back to when a flute or shawm first played a purely instrumental imitation of a familiar folksong. In the Baroque era, instrumentalists were continually drawn to memorable melodies, as for example tunes Bach and Handel recycled from vocal originals to instruments. In turn, the transitional Baroque violinist/composer Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770) believed the violin was, or should be, as capable of expressing emotion as the singing voice and, in the slow movements of his concertos, set himself the task of proving it.
In the slow middle movement his Sinfonia Concertante, K364, Mozart went even further, creating what well may have been a template for La ci darem la mano, the famous duet from Don Giovanni, in which the ever-ready lothario seeks to seduce Zerlina. With uncommon psychological insight, the 23-year-old composer sets up a remarkable scene, in which she (the violin) expresses almost tearful sadness�"the movement opens in C Minor�"while he (the viola) offers comfort. ‘He’ does something many men fail to do, by acknowledging (quoting) ‘her’ before ‘he’ seeks to cheer ‘her’ up. Immediately, the key changes from minor to major, as ‘he’ lifts ‘her’ spirits. But soon ‘his’ cheering up reveals ‘his’ true intentions and the movement expands into a love duet with both partners equally engaged. Mozart sets up the scene in two and a half minutes of unmistakable instrumental seduction. (With all respect to numerous great examples, before and after, this writer knows of no precise parallel.)
Sinfonia concertante literally means ‘little symphony with cameo solos.’ The form evolved from the Baroque concerto grosso. Unlike the concerto grosso, however, the solo ‘group’ plays with much more independence from one another. As a form, sinfonia concertante enjoyed far fewer success stories than their large numbers would suggest. (Mozart wrote an earlier example, for a quartet of winds with orchestra that, in spite of numerous performances and recordings, has been dogged by questions of authenticity. In 1792, the year following Mozart’s death, Haydn wrote a popular example for violin, cello, oboe, bassoon and orchestra.)
Mozart’s K364 is widely regarded as his greatest string concerto. (The viola part is intentionally mistuned high�"scordatura�"to give it greater brilliance.) Soon after the outset of the first movement, Mozart offers a stunning example of the Mannheim orchestra’s slickest trick, the “Mannheim Rocket,” where a rising scale/arpeggio and simultaneous crescendo thrilled 18th century music lovers, as it still does today. Mozart was so dazzled by the Mannheimers that he employed their effect in his horn concertos as well. The jaunty finale is in rondo form, a holdover from the Baroque ritornello that is still alive and well among composers of our time.
Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky
Symphony No. 5 in E Minor (1888)
Three of Tchaikovsky’s seven symphonies make conspicuous use of the thematic recycling so famously employed by Beethoven in his ‘fateful’ Fifth Symphony. For this reason, a comment in the Russian composer’s correspondence, and the public’s love of nicknames, the Fourth and Fifth Symphonies both have been unofficially labeled “Fate.” (The intervening Manfred Symphony, a programmatic piece in the style of Liszt, cycles its signature theme through all four movement, as does the Fifth Symphony.)
The theme, heard at the outset of the first movement, was appropriated from “Turn not into sorrow,” a scene in Mikhail Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar. Though he took pains to downplay programmatic implications from his last three numbered symphonies, Tchaikovsky gave epistolary evidence that he lived under a dark star, that, within the thrall of his homosexuality, he was helpless against the ‘fates.’ This descriptive comment was found among his notebooks:
Introduction. Complete resignation before Fate, or, which is the same, before the inscrutable predestination of Providence. Allegro (1) Murmurs, doubts, plaints against XXX. (2) Shall I throw myself into the embrace of faith???
As complement to the dark Glinka theme, two more appear, one in quick time, the second broadly breathed, while the appearance of D Major lends harmonic stability. The second and third themes, additional melodies, fresh turns and noisy climaxes expand the canvas and carry it forward toward a development of taut invention and complex texture. The recapitulation, announced by a solo bassoon, recalls the first entry of the second theme that expands anew, followed by the third, now probing even deeper, extracting more treasure, before a slow march tread brings the movement to a quiet conclusion in the depths of the orchestra.
The second movement emerges from that darkness into a sudden glowing horn melody, an inspiration that has seduced audiences since its premiere and frustrated countless composing imitators. When played by the strings, other melodies are woven in as the orchestra swells into a sweeping ‘love’ scene that might have originated in one of the composer’s operas. As the orchestra grows more turbulent, the first of two mighty outbursts recalls the fate theme. Between them the love music returns, now enriched in a contrapuntal texture and lifted to a soaring climax.
The third movement is the symphony’s ballet, a waltz with a tune Tchaikovsky is said to have heard in Italy. A skittering middle section exhibits no awareness that fate is waiting in the wings. Indeed, when at last the Glinka tune does appear, in the low winds, it does so with no particular menace. The fate theme broadly opens the final movement, but now sounds a note of sturdy optimism. Suddenly, a new exposition erupts with volcanic force and sets off a furiously driven development and recapitulation. When that energy finally spends itself, the fate theme once again takes over in a lengthy coda, but now changed from minor to major in a march of blazing triumph.
Tchaikovsky composed the Fifth Symphony in the summer of 1888, and conducted its premiere at St. Petersburg that November. Subsequent performances did little to dispel the composer’s doubts about the work. However, a successful performance in Hamburg early the following year lifted both his anxieties and his spirits. It should not be difficult to understand the composer’s self-doubts. All his symphonies are daringly original and impulsive, with formal procedures seemingly made up on the fly. They leave little in the way of safe harbors for the fainthearted. Yet despite their occasional heavy-handedness and blatant bombast, they offer equal measures of exultation and exhilaration.