Mozart and Beethoven
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Ballet Music from Idomeneo, K. 367: Chaconne and Pas Seul
  • Mozart composed Idomeneo for the Elector of Bavaria’s court in Munich  
  • French opera was popular, and a ballet sequence was mandatory
  • Mozart used a theme by Gluck for his first movement 
  • Rhythmic consistency and gorgeous melodies make this music perfect for dancing

During the mid-18th century, the German city of Mannheim boasted one of the finest orchestras in Europe. The Mannheim style was a significant influence on many composers, including Mozart. In 1778, Mannheim’s Elector Palatine Karl Theodor succeeded his cousin Maximilian as Elector of Bavaria. He moved his court and his orchestra to Munich, the Bavarian capital.  

Sometime in mid-1780, the Munich Theater Intendant, Count Joseph Anton von Seeau, contacted Mozart in Salzburg to commission an opera for the 1781 carnival season. Mozart responded with Idomeneo, rè di Creta. He wrote in the synthesized style of so-called reform operas, which combined French customs, such as an obligatory ballet, with Italian arias, orchestrated recitatives, and vocal ensembles.  

The plot is similar to the biblical tale of Jephtha, whose rash vow forced him to sacrifice his daughter. In Idomeneo [pronounced ee-doe-meh-NAY-oh], the title character is caught in a ferocious storm. He negotiates with Neptune, who agrees to calm the storm in exchange for the sacrifice of the first person Idomeneo encounters upon safe landing on shore. That person, alas, is his son Idamante.  

The other principal plot thread is a love triangle. Two women are enamored of Idamante. One is the Trojan princess Ilia, King Priam’s daughter; the other is Electra, daughter of the murdered Agamemnon. The opera resolves these various conflicts with the deus ex machina of a slain monster, a beneficent god, an abdication, and other developments that could only occur in opera.   

Mozart’s ballet music derives from French opera. His letters during the weeks before the première reflect a keen interest in maximizing theatrical timing. Maddeningly, they tell us little about the dance movements apart from the fact that he found them annoying. On 18 January, 1781, Mozart wrote to his father: “I have not been able to write until now, as my time as been taken up with those confounded dances. Laus Deo – I have got rid of them at last!”   

One would never know from hearing this attractive music. For the dignified opening Chaconne, Mozart repurposed a theme from Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide. The movement has psychological weight, reinforced by its reprise after each ensuing episode, rather like a large-scale rondo. The recurring passage, in the bright tonality of D major lends the Chaconne a festive character. The ensuing Pas seul was an individual variations [solos] for a specific dancer in the troupe. Mozart had absorbed Gluck’s style admirably, while retaining his own compositional mastery. For Mozart lovers, these ballet movements are a marvelous discovery.  

The score calls for woodwinds, horns, and trumpets in pairs, timpani, continuo and strings. 

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953)
Symphony No. 1, Op. 25, "Classical"
  • Early on, Prokofiev was regarded as a ‘bad boy’ of Russian music 
  • With this First Symphony, he reversed course, saluting his classical heritage 
  • Using Haydn as a model, the ‘Classical’ Symphony adopts traditional forms
  • Prokofiev’s melodic gift, lyric sense, and humor emerge in this delightful work

In February 1917, Russian peasantry revolted against the Tsarist regime, overthrowing a centuries-old monarchy in favor of a provisional government. Eight months later the Bolsheviks replaced the provisional government, establishing Soviet rule in Russia and changing the face of world politicsDuring this tumultuous period, Serge Prokofiev composed his First Symphony, a work miraculously free of any reference to the chaotic events transpiring at the time.  

The "Classical" Symphony is justifiably associated with Haydn; Prokofiev himself acknowledged his idea of writing a symphony such as Haydn might have composed had he lived until the 20th centuryBut the real challenge for him in this work was to write without the pianoHe intentionally removed himself from the piano, believing that melodies conceived without its aid were simply better melodies  

Prokofiev also harbored the hope thatin dubbing the work "Classical," he might encourage it actually becoming a classic. In fact that is exactly what happened, and with good reasonThe work is a masterful achievement in economy of meansWith small performing forces, miniature scale of movements, and effective understatement, Prokofiev did indeed create a timeless masterpieceHis transparent clarity pays homage to the elegant eighteenth-century style of Haydn and Mozart; his ironic sense of humor and inventive modulations tie the work to the present century.  

The "Classical" Symphony is scored for flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, trumpets and horns in pairs; timpani and strings. 

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 8 in F major, Op. 93
  • Beethoven’s Eighth takes an affectionate bow tohis18th-century predecessors 
  • Intimate in scale, the Eighth is shorter than his other symphonies  
  • There is no real slow movement - both inner movements are in moderate tempo 
  • The third movement is an old-fashioned minuet rather than a scherzo 
  • Beethoven’s finale throws in a generous dose of humor for good measure 

      In early June 1815, Beethoven wrote to the impresario Johann Peter Salomon in London, requesting Salomon’s assistance in getting some works published in England. He mentioned ‘a Grand Symphony in A major (one of my best) and a small Symphony in F.” We know those two works as the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies.   

      What did Beethoven mean by “small”? Certainly the Eighth is shorter than the A-major work, which is a grand symphony in the heroic manner, clocking in at nearly 40 minutes. By contrast, the Eighth is almost a miniature: four delightful movements that elapse in less than half an hour. The orchestra size is identical for the two symphonies, so “small” doesn’t necessarily refer to the number of instruments.   

      That leaves us with an assessment of character. The Eighth Symphony is intimate: the way a dinner party with six people allows for more in-depth conversation than a large buffet reception with 50 guests.   

      We know that Beethoven had a soft spot for this symphonyHe seems to have composed it with comparative ease. Ordinarily he labored long and hard, with extensive sketches for his major compositions, yet this one flowed relatively easily from his pen. When friends told Beethoven that the Viennese public did not like the Eighth Symphony so much as the Seventh, he snapped, “That’s because it’s so much better.”  

      The Eighth Symphony shows us Beethoven at his most ingratiating. His music is tuneful and appealing, often boasting a rich sense of humor, and always demonstrating Beethoven’s superb mastery of the orchestra. The great German conductor Felix Weingartner wrote: 

      As this symphony is one of Beethoven’s most mature masterpieces, the instrumentation has reached a wonderful degree of perfection. As far as the sound is concerned, the score leaves hardly anything to be desired. 

      From its sunny first theme in the violins, this work is self-assured without being aggressive or overbearing. Many Beethovenian traits are present: strong gestures, sudden changes of dynamics, unusual accents where we don’t expect them. What’s different is the relative absence of heroism. That doesn’t mean the music isn’t strong; to the contrary, it breathes health and vigorRather, we don’t have a sense that the burdens of the world are weighing heavily on Beethoven’s shoulders. There is drama, but not tragedy. The very fact that the first movement ends quietly, with a pianissimo phrase exactly the same notes as the gesture that opened, suggests that Beethoven is at peace in this work.  

      Another surprising aspect is the lack of a true slow movement. Beethoven introduces his perky Allegretto scherzando with a piping woodwind chorus. We have a sense of the outdoors, perhaps a village fair on a Sunday afternoon. The occasional outbursts of repeated notes in the strings interrupt like bursts of laughter at an especially funny joke.  

      The Tempo di Menuettolike the first movement, fuses melodic charm with grandeur and the grace of triple meter. By 1812, the year Beethoven composed this symphony, it was unusual to use the eighteenth-century minuet and trio instead of the livelier scherzo/trio. His fond salute to the older dance reinforces the idea that there’s no hurry or stress on his musical horizon. Yet those misplaced accents keep us on our toes.   

      The finale returns to the larger scale and decisive gestures of the opening movement. Here again, Beethoven’s sense of humor is front and center, what Sir George Grove called “Beethoven at his most unbuttoned.” The comedy is sometimes gentle, elsewhere uproarious, but every line sails forth with perfect timing.   

      Beethoven scored his Eighth Symphony for woodwinds, horns, and trumpets in pairs, timpani and strings. 

      © Laurie Shulman, 2020