Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (b. Salzburg, Austria, January 27, 1756; d. Vienna, Austria, December 5, 1791)
Mozart's life as a universally acclaimed touring prodigy came to an end in his mid-teens. For several years he tried miserably to fit into the musical household of his father's employer, the Archduke of Salzburg. Finally, at his father's insistence, Mozart made an extended trip to Paris in 1778 to find employment, with his mother as chaperone. Alas, he found the city that had hailed him as a prodigy 15 years earlier was now unreceptive. Unable to find an acceptable position in spite of the brilliance of his playing and composing, he was caught amid the petty intrigues of a number of envious minor composers.
The fate of the Sinfonia concertante in E-flat Major illustrates his frustrations. On May 1 Mozart wrote excitedly to his "très cher Père" that his friends from Mannheim -- the unusually talented woodwind players of the famed Mannheim orchestra, who happened to be in Paris at the time -- had asked him for a new piece to be performed at the Concert Spirituel in the Loge Olympique, Paris' most distinguished orchestral series. He finished the Sinfonia concertante and turned the score over to the theater director to be copied; but the copying was mysteriously delayed. On the day of the concert, the soloists, ecstatic to work with Mozart, approached him to ask why they were to play another composer's music. Only then did he discover that the theater director had instead programmed the music of an Italian, Cambini, whom Mozart had astonished—and offended—a few days earlier by quoting his music from memory.
From the 1770's and well into the early 18 th century, the "Sinfonia concertante" was a very popular form of composition. It is like a concerto, except that instead of a full orchestra and a single soloist, there are two or more soloists who play together as a group. The intended effect is rather like that of a gold necklace featuring several unmatched gems. The necklace is to be appreciated as a whole; the gems are to be appreciated as a group; and each gem is also to be appreciated for its individual contribution to the whole.
Mozart claimed to have finished a "sinfonie [sic] concertante in the current popular style" for solo flute, oboe, bassoon, and horn, with an orchestra of two oboes, two horns, and strings. But the work supposedly given to the Loge's impresario for copying was set aside by the latter and subsequently lost, in what Mozart considered another Parisian plot against him. Still, in a later letter to Salzburg he assured Papa Leopold that he could recreate the music from memory.
Although the original manuscript disappeared , the composition turned up nearly a century later, in a hand not the composer's, with solo clarinet rather than flute.* The later 20th-century edition performed by Symphony Silicon Valley reflects recent scholarship that has identified the original solo instruments and argued for a return to a solo flute part as in the first performance of the work.
Musicologists argue about how much of this Sinfonia concertante was written by Mozart himself. The consensus is that the orchestration and the basic solo parts are his, but another composer may have embellished the solo parts at a slightly later date. What is beyond dispute is that the Sinfonia does a splendid job of showing off the "gems" it displays. The writing for solo oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon throughout is challenging and idiomatic - that is, it brings out the best in each instrument. Corrupt or not, the best pages are surely too beautiful to be spurious: the work overall has a lovely autumnal character and a treatment of the wind soloists found nowhere else until the sublimeSerenade for winds in B-flat of 1781 (K. 361/370a). Marginally changed Mozart this might be, but Mozart is undeniably primarily responsible for the glorious melodies found in this work.
The first movement is dominated by the solo wind quartet. The orchestra is relegated to the first exposition and then asserts itself only at the junctures of the sonata structure—bridges, the end of the exposition, and the end of the recapitulation. Its secondary role is attributable both to the virtuosic nature of the solo parts and to Mozart's efforts to accommodate the Parisian taste for lighter orchestration.
The opening Allegro has three (rather than two) expositions of the principal and secondary subjects, first by the orchestra's strings, then twice by the solo quartet. This special construction allows the instruments to introduce themselves, both as a wind quartet and as individuals. The development features new thematic material, derived in part from previous fleeting motives admirably recycled. A fabulous cadenza for the four soloists signals the entry into the coda section and leads to a triumphant end to the first movement.
The second movement, also in E-flat, is a serene aria filled with effects typical of the Mannheim school, such as yearning sighs in the strings and delayed resolutions. Obviously this movement is meant to focus on the lyrical capabilities of each instrument and the ensemble. The finale is a set of ten variations—a form dear to the French—which display the soloists' intrepid bravura in the most inventive ways, giving each soloist several more chances to shine. We can hear the influence of Opéra Comique in the pizzicato passages and in the melodic treatment of the variations. The solo and the orchestra parts are melodic and impassioned and are woven together admirably.
The first known performance of the Sinfonia concertante in America did not take place until well into the twentieth-century. It received its Carnegie Hall premiere on November 28, 1923, with the New York Philharmonic conducted by Willem van Hoogstraten. The uncredited soloists were probably the section leaders. Symphony Silicon Valley highlights the exceptional skill of our own section leaders in this exquisite yet little-known work by one of America's most favored classical composers.
*A Sinfonia concertante in
E-flat for Oboe, Clarinet, Bassoon, and Horn was published in the
complete edition of Mozart's works in 1886. The English critic Arnold
Tovey first raised the question of its authenticity because of what he
considered its "spurious" orchestration. Recent scholarship speculates
that the Sinfonia was in fact arranged from existing parts around 1820
with an attempt to provide an accompaniment in a style current in the
This is the only one of Tchaikovsky's four fine orchestral suites that was not conceived originally as a projected symphony. It is also the only one with just four movements. For Tchaikovsky, Mozart was a "musical Christ," a composer whose formal clarity and perfection accentuated his own acute sense of deficiency. It is not surprising that he should wish to pay tribute to his idol and transform, with idiosyncratic skill, a most enterprising and unusual selection of Mozart's piano pieces.
Tchaikovsky started thinking about the music in 1884, but did not actually turn to its composition until 1887. "Mozartiana" was composed at a time in his life when the composer felt the need to relax from more strenuous creativity and offer "older things in a new presentation."
The four movements are based on a number of lesser-known pieces by Mozart, strikingly recomposed to be wholly consistent with Tchaikovsky's own style and temperament. The first movement, "Gigue," is based on Mozart's Gigue in C, K. 574; the second, "Minuet," on the Minuet in D, K. 355. These are brief, straightforward arrangements, lightly scored, and retain more of the quality of their originals than do the remaining two movements. The third movement, "Preghiera," ("Prayer") is an orchestration of Liszt's piano transcription of Mozart 's motet Ave verum corpus . K. 618. It is sonorous and regal, notable for its remarkably effective harp part.
The final part, "Theme & Variations," is notably longer than the other three movements combined. It is based on Mozart's Theme and Variations, K. 455, on a theme (Unser dummer Poble meint) from Gluck 's opera The Pilgrimage to Mecca. The orchestration is again brilliant, with its own dramatic progression established by the distinct orchestral sound chosen for each of the ten variations. There are some notably exotic touches in the Variations, with percussion and flourishes or cadenzas for a variety of soloists that provide a distinctly personal and Russian flavor.
Mozartiana has such grace and elegance that it has often been choreographed, perhaps most famously by Balanchine. Some 25 years after Tchaikovsky's death, his countryman Igor Stravinsky performed a similar exercise with Tchaikovsky's music to produce the ballet The Fairy's Kiss, transforming the sound of the older composer's scores into his own idiomatic style. Although some have accused Tchaikovsky of a "cavalier" treatment of Mozart's works, Tchaikovsky's affection as well as his playful ingenuity in this artful homage to his idol are never in doubt.
Imagine the scene: a ducal court in a city in northern Europe in 1764. You are there to see and hear for yourself whether the astonishing rumors about 8-year-old Wolfgang Mozart are true. When the boy enters the room, you can see that he's tiny for his age, a blonde pixie with large shining brown eyes. The court's Music Director hands Wolfgang a difficult piece of music the boy has never seen before. He begins to play. It's not just that he is good; he's better than any harpsichord player you have ever heard. Notes and expression are letter-perfect, and everything is effortless. "It's incomprehensible," says the Music Director. "I heard Johann Sebastian Bach. Nobody could touch him. But this little boy plays as well as old Bach did."
Franz Josef Haydn once told Leopold Mozart, "Before God and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name." At 25, Mozart finally found his niche as a freelance composer and performer in Vienna. He married, fathered children, lived luxuriously, and for a period in the early 1780's, was a huge success. Then in the mid 1780's it all unraveled. On May 1, 1786, Mozart's new opera Le nozze di Figaro received its first performance at the Burgtheater in Vienna. Enthusiastically received by connoisseurs, the long and complex opera puzzled many of the general public and it received only eight performances.
As Vienna began to lose interest in Mozart, however, Prague adopted him. Early in December, Figaro was staged at the National Theater, today known as the Tyl Theater, in Prague, where it became such a magnificent success that Mozart was persuaded by the Prague musical community to visit the Bohemian capital to see the production and conduct some of the performances. When he and his wife Constanze arrived on January 11, 1787 they were amazed and touched by the universal Figaro mania. He reported to his father, "everyone was writing about it, talking about it, humming it, whistling it, and dancing it."
Mozart brought with him to Prague a new symphony that he had completed early in December—it was entered in Mozart's thematic catalog on December 6. The symphony was included in the concert Mozart gave eight days after his arrival -- the first performance of a work which became irrevocably associated with the city where the composer witnessed his greatest triumph in later years. On the same January 19 concert, which he called a "Grand Musical Academy," Mozart also debuted his newest piano concerto, the magnificent C major, K 503. As an encore he improvised at the piano one dozen variations on"Non piú andrai" from Figaro after he had extemporized at the keyboard for over half and hour on other musical subjects. When he returned to Vienna it was with a commission for a new opera. Don Giovanni was first staged in Prague the following October.
A decade after the concert, the Prague schoolmaster Franz Niemetschek, who educated Mozart's son Carl after the composer's death in 1791, testified to the symphony's enduring popularity: "The symphonies he composed for this occasion are real masterpieces of instrumental composition...This applied particularly to the grand Symphony in D, which is always a favorite in Prague, although it has no doubt been heard a hundred times."
Although Mozart's biographers have generally assumed that the Prague symphony was composed specifically for his visit there, this cannot be the case — Mozart composed the work before he received the invitation to visit the city. Indeed, a letter of his father's from November 17, 1786 shows that at the time of composition Mozart was planning a visit to England, although it never took place because Leopold refused to look after the composer's two young children. Mozart may well have composed the work with the projected London visit in mind — in which case it might have become Mozart's London symphony. After the fact, Mozart seemed pleased that it received its premiere in Prague. He wrote to the musicians who had invited him, "My orchestra is in Prague and the people of Prague understand me."
This symphony is one of three Mozart symphonies to begin with a slow introduction, the others being the Linz Symphony of 1783 and No. 39 of 1788. An unusual feature of the symphony is that it is in only three movements; it is the only major symphonic work from the Classical period to lack the usual minuet and trio or scherzo movement. But there is nothing small-scale about the work; it amply justifies Niemetschek's epithet "grand."
The opening movement, a broad, imposing Adagio introduction followed by a hugely powerful Allegro, is one of the most impressive of all Classical symphonic movements, with dramatic qualities that foreshadow Don Giovanni and a mastery of counterpoint hitherto restricted to Mozart's chamber works. This slow section is a beginning that strikingly sets off the festive trumpet-and–drum music to come. When a new theme arrives, it is one of ideal freshness and charm. Yet neither the drama of the opening Adagio nor the urgent elegance of the Allegro prepares us for the coming together of learning and fire that produces the densely polyphonic, irresistibly energetic development. The development section of this movement is one of the few passages of music that Mozart ever left elaborate sketches for showing his compositional process.
If we pay only casual attention to how the Andante second movement begins, we could take it to be simply another instance of exquisite Mozartian grace. But the central Andante utterly transcends the easygoing implication of such a heading; it is a movement of profound, songful depth and contrapuntal skill. Listen to the specific coloration and unyielding bass which never bows to the poignant chromatic embellishment when the first phrase is repeated. and you quickly get the idea that nothing is going to be ordinary in this movement. Strange shadows on the harmonies, the quiet force behind the contrapuntal imitations, and the sighs in the closing melody all demonstrate a philosophical deepening of the concept of what an Andante movement was meant to be.
The final Presto also shares some of the demonic power of Don Giovanni , the opera Mozart would shortly compose for Prague. At the same time it inhabits a world in which, even with all the bright major-mode music, tragedy never seems too far away. This movement has strength without heaviness, a crackling energy of rhythm. It requires a virtuosity that challenges the most extraordinary of orchestras, all amidst Mozart's constant and characteristic grace.Everything Mozart wrote from his mid-teens on has a unique, almost-unworldly beauty, from the dreamlike slow movements of his later piano concerti, to the towering, unfinished Requiem Mass, to the contrapuntal magnificence of this remarkable symphony. Even when he is masterfully portraying horror, as in the last scene of the opera Don Giovanni , or rage, as in the Queen of the Night's revenge aria in The Magic Flute, Mozart's music retains its balance, purity and emotional restraint. More than 200 years later, many would still agree with Haydn's judgment. Mozart's music has never been equaled for elegance, clarity, and accessibility.