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Mozart & Brahms

Program Notes

Dr. Beth Fleming

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (b. Salzburg, Austria, January 27, 1756; d. Vienna, Austria, December 5, 1791)
  • Adagio and Fugue in C minor K. 546
Mozart was fascinated with the contrapuntal techniques of Bach and Handel. He was actively exploring the works of those two composers in 1783, at the time that he wrote a keyboard duet (K. 426) that contained the original version of the fugue in this set.  Five years later, in 1788, Mozart decided to rearrange the fugue and orchestrate it for string orchestra.  He prefaced the string orchestration with a brief but beautifully profound Adagio and entered it into his thematic catalog. 
No practical motivation for this rejuvenation of the keyboard duet fugue is known, and quite why Mozart chose to return to his earlier work is not entirely clear.  Many scholars speculate that since 1788 was also the year of Mozart's three final masterpieces, Symphonies No. 39, 40, and 41, perhaps this orchestrated Adagio and Fugue are connected to those three monumental works.  Indeed, K. 546 was entered into Mozart's thematic catalog on the same day that he entered Symphony No. 39.  A more likely connection, however, may be with Mozart's final symphonic masterpiece, the Jupiter Symphony.  Considering that the Jupiter's Finale is a magnificent fugue, perhaps we can link the orchestration of this fugue with the composition of one of the greatest of Mozart's contrapuntal essays. Mozart might have used K 546 as a training tool to enable him to try out and perfect his ideas about orchestrating fugal counterpoint.  No one knows quite what the composer had in mind. But whether the Adagio and Fugue in C minor was a training tool or a symphonic miniature meant to stand on its own, it is an exquisite example of Mozart's mature compositional excellence.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (b. Salzburg, Austria, January 27, 1756; d. Vienna, Austria, December 5, 1791)
  • Piano Concerto No. 22 in E flat major K482
Concerto No. 22 was written during one of the most successful periods in Mozart's life.  He was at the height of his popularity in Vienna; a concert review in the Wiener Zeitung said Mozart was "universally valued" and referred to his "deserved fame."  Six wildly successful subscription concerts held in Vienna during the Lenten season of 1785 convinced Mozart to mount another series of three concerts during the Advent season at the end of the year.  One hundred twenty people signed on to the subscription and Mozart composed a new piano concerto to be the highlight of the concert series.  Piano Concerto No. 22 in E flat major was entered into Mozart's thematic catalog on December 16th of that year.  (The work actually premiered as an entr'acte during the Society of Musicians' annual benefit concert for widows and orphans on December 22.)

K 482 illustrates especially well how Mozart expanded on earlier concerto types, particularly in the areas of formal innovation and orchestration.  The E flat major fanfare heard in the first two measures, for example, is very similar to the openings of many of Mozart's works in E flat.  The third measure, however, breaks unceremoniously into a series of harmonic suspensions, where dissonances are followed by resolutions scored for bassoons and horns alone.  This whole gesture is then repeated with the suspensions performed by the clarinets and violins.

The use of two clarinets instead of oboes is particularly noteworthy in this concerto; No. 22 is one of only two concertos in which Mozart chose to use this distinctive woodwind instrument.  The clarinet was a relative newcomer to the orchestral world, and Mozart's prominent use of it helped immensely to promote the instrument.   The work is also orchestrated to include a flute, pairs of bassoons, horns and trumpets, timpani, and strings as well as solo piano.

The heart of the concerto is the second Andante movement in C minor.  It is in an interesting hybrid form that mixes theme and variation elements with aspects of a characteristic rondo form.   Muted violins play an emotional aria-like theme.  The theme is then varied at each repetition, and is played in alternation with episodes in the major key in which the piano is entirely silent and the orchestral woodwinds become the soloists.  The movement ends with a coda written for piano and woodwinds alone, where a melody from the first major-key episode is heard in a magically minor transformation.  This movement was so affecting to the audience at its premiere that Mozart was required to play it over again before being allowed to conclude the work.  In a letter to his father, Mozart later marveled at the novelty of audiences so favoring an interior movement of a concerto.

The final movement is a complex Rondo, but it too has a unique formal innovation incorporated in it.  In the center of this lively Allegro movement, Mozart writes an Andantino cantabile section that is a slow minuet in A-flat major. Eventually the Rondo theme returns like a joyous phoenix rising unharmed from melancholia, and the cheerful mood continues on as if nothing had been interpolated.  The piano's very last phrase returns to the contemplative smiling-through-tears feeling, until finally the orchestra interrupts with a final six measures that seem to say "Enough of that, you sentimental fool; it's time to go!"

Johannes Brahms (b. Hamburg, Germany, May 7, 1833; d. Vienna, Austria, April 3, 1897)
  • Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Opus 68
Mozart, the precocious wunderkind, did it when he was 9.  Felix Mendelssohn was 15 when he did it.  Franz Schubert was 16 when he did it.  Franz Joseph Haydn was 25 when he did it.  Ludwig van Beethoven was 30 and Robert Schumann had reached the ripe old age of 31 before they tried it. Johannes Brahms famously did not even begin to attempt writing his first symphony until he was 22, laboring industriously over it for years and allowing it to be performed only when he was 43.  Mozart, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Haydn, even Beethoven, did not write first symphonies that immediately entered the mainstream of the symphonic repertory, but Brahms waited until he knew he had a quality product before he released his masterpiece. 

Part of the reason Brahms was so reluctant to write a first symphony had to do with performance anxiety.  He was over-awed by the works of Ludwig van Beethoven, and he did not want to compose in a genre he felt Beethoven had brought to its zenith with his 9th Symphony.  Brahms felt burdened by this legacy: "You have no idea how it feels to hear behind you the tramp of a giant like Beethoven," he grumbled. In addition, during these years Brahms was preoccupied with assisting Clara Schumann and her seven children while her husband Robert, terminally mad, wasted away in an asylum.  Brahms had developed a deep affection and respect for Clara and she became, particularly after the death of her husband, his best, most beloved music critic and friend.  His entanglement with the Schumann family and their troubles undoubtedly delayed his work on his first symphony still further.

Brahms was supremely careful and methodical when he wrote music. He began actually writing the first movement of the Symphony in 1856, and returned to it over the course of the decade.  His deliberate approach to the craft of orchestral writing definitely paid off.  The German Requiem of 1868 shows a high level of competence, while Variations on a Theme of Haydn, written in 1873, continues to reflect Brahms' growing mastery of the form.  The enthusiastic response met by both these works bolstered Brahms' confidence.  He finally unveiled his Symphony No. 1 in C minor on November 4, 1876 at the court of Karlsruhe, under the direction of Otto Dessoff.

"Seldom, if ever, has the entire musical world awaited a composer's first symphony with such tense anticipation" said Eduard Hanslick, Brahms' friend and one of the most renowned music critics of the nineteenth century.  After the first concert, Hanslick's candid review summed up "The new symphony is so earnest and complex, so utterly unconcerned with common effects, that it hardly lends itself to quick understanding…even the layman will immediately recognize it as one of the most distinctive and magnificent works of the symphonic literature."

Hanslick's reference to the symphony's complexity was a polite way of saying that it was too dense and serious to appeal to the average listener.  Brahms was certainly not concerned with wooing the public with pretty sounds.  He explained, "My symphony is long and not exactly loveable" and called it his "most personal" statement. Brahms is often most closely associated with 'absolute music' in the Romantic era (that is, music that depends purely on its structure rather than on non-musical associations for appreciation).  But this symphony in particular, resulting from a long labor of love, he felt was an extension of himself.

Symphony No. 1 in C minor is scored for two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani and strings.  The first movement opens with a slow introduction, a tormented cry in the strings accompanied by the inexorable heartbeat pounding of the timpani.  The tense, darkly shifting soundscape is riveting in its intensity and provides a focus that carries on through the rest of the opening movement.  After the slow introduction a restless Allegro pulses with driving rhythms and dense harmonies.  What strikes the listener most forcibly is the paring down of textures to absolute essentials.  The work is fiercely single-minded in its drive for unity.

Two thematic lines are superimposed in the very beginning, one that climbs in arduous chromatic steps, the other descending in a similar fashion. From these practically everything in the first movement and even to the end of the entire work is derived.  Brahms shortened the two middle movements just before the rehearsals for the first performance began, because he wanted the clear focus of the entire work to be on the finale.  Following Beethoven's example, Brahms wanted to shift the principal emphasis of the symphonic argument away from the first movement to the last.

The second movement, Andante sostenuto, offers gentle relief from the highly focused dark power of the first movement.  The strings and winds carry on an extended dialogue, before a tempestuous minor interlude recalls the opening movement.  Eventually the gentle mood of the opening returns, and a gorgeous lyrical duet between the violin and horn concludes the movement.  The third movement has a light, lilting melody that is traded playfully between the strings and the woodwinds. 

The finale features a majestic theme that closely resembles Beethoven's Ode to Joy.  When a listener remarked on this resemblance to Brahms, the composer snapped "Any ass could see that."  Like Beethoven's great masterpiece, this work culminates in a triumphant blaze of sound.  More important than any echoes of earlier composers is the dramatic strength, lyrical power and thematic cohesion that make this arguably one of the greatest first symphonies ever written.  Perhaps the way to write a first symphony that does not sound like a beginner's work is to wait, as Brahms did, until you are no beginner, but a very experienced composer indeed.



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