Nickel for Your Thoughts: Mozart and Beethoven

Program Spotlight, Tony Nickle

In his own words, Artistic Director Tony Nickle shares what he believes to be the high points of the program, but with a little edge and humor for good measure.

Welcome to our opening Masterworks subscription weekend. I absolutely love this program because each of the three pieces is a personal twist on a classic style. Here are some of my most notable highlights:

The program opens with some of the ballet music from Mozart’s opera, Idomeneo, written in the early 1780s. This was more or less the opera that first gained Mozart widespread acclaim in the genre of opera, at the ripe old age of 25. It is an opera seria (serious opera) as opposed to opera buffa (comic opera). Opera seria was a style of writing opera left over from the Baroque era, and had very structured compositional conventions. One of the conventions of the time was to include a full ballet scene in the opera; you may remember from Amadeus that this eventually became a point of political contention a few years later with Emperor Joseph. Side note: don’t assume that means Amadeus is an unimpeachable source of accurate historical information. This weekend we play two dances from this ballet music, both of which are structured after French Baroque (and even Renaissance) dances. Despite all of this historic influence, the voice of Mozart is unmistakable in the music.

Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony is a truly remarkable piece for so many reasons. A clear prodigy, he studied in St. Petersburg in the early 1900s and by the early 1910s had become known as an eccentric and a musical rebel because of his Modern compositional language. Then World War I happened and impacted absolutely everything, including the aesthetic sensibilities across all of the arts. Gone or greatly reduced were the prevailing Romantic, idealistic notions of the noble and heroic individual leftover from the 19th century. The horror and scale of violence from the war brought a reaction toward the opposite; one of simplicity, irony, and even satire. This, along with a desire to push his own compositional boundaries, inspired Prokofiev to write a symphony that imagined what it would sound like if Franz Joseph Haydn were still alive and writing in the early 20th century. For those of you who actually read my blurbs and notes, you’ll remember that Haydn was basically the composer who codified the “rules” of what made a symphony a symphony in the latter 18th century: number of movements, structure of each movement, etc. Just like the Mozart ballet music that opens the program, this is a spectacular example of a composer looking back at an older convention for the broad parameters of the piece, but still imparts his distinct voice into the music. The energetic rhythmic engine in the fast movements, the phrase structure, and overall construct are a bullseye for Haydn’s rules, but harmonic dissonances and funny melodic leaps are Prokofiev’s spices to Haydn’s pasta sauce.

Rounding out the program is Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony. With the exception of his Pastoral Symphony (No. 6), all of Beethoven’s really famous symphonies are odd numbers. In the Eighth, Beethoven does not blow the doors open on the conventions established by his predecessors like he does in Nos. 3, 5, or even 7, but rather embraces the styles and conventions of Haydn and Mozart. That said, Beethoven’s fingerprints are all over this piece, as he is incapable of not saying something new in a profoundly interesting way. The Finale is probably the most notably unique of the four movements for a couple of reasons:

  • Up to this point, the first movement was typically the weightiest and most structurally involved movement of the piece; here it is the Finale.
  • The Fifth Symphony uses that famous opening musical idea (motive) over and over to create structural unity, rather than reusing full themes/melodies. Well Beethoven does that in this movement, too. Take a look and a listen here. The figure in those first two measures are everywhere as you let this play and watch the score go by.

So, break out your Dior or Lagerfeld-inspired attire this weekend for the concert, then go home and make yourself a Manhattan or Sazerac. Then make four more.

By Tony Nickle, Director of Artistic Administration