Mozart and Friends Program Notes

Ballet Music from Idomeneo, Rè di Creta, K.366

Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart, who began calling himself Wolfgang Amadeo about 1770 and Wolfgang Amadè about 1777, was born in Salzburg, Austria, on January 27, 1756, and died in Vienna on December 5, 1791. He composed his opera seria Idomeneo, Rè di Creta (“Idomeneus, King of Crete”) in late 1780 or early 1781, for performance in Munich. The overture was the last thing to be composed, probably just before the dress rehearsal on January 29, 1781 (the composer’s twenty‑fifth birthday).  Serge Koussevitzky conducted the first Boston Symphony Orchestra performances of the overture on December 1 and 2, 1944. The score calls for flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets in pairs, timpani, and strings. Duration is about 23 minutes.

Between October 1777 and the following March, Mozart, en route to Paris with his mother, made an extended and happy visit to Mannheim, home of the finest orchestra in Europe‑‑“an orchestra of generals,” Mozart called it. The young composer, just twenty‑one and ready to spread his wings, was captivated by the music‑making in Mannheim (and equally captivated by a soprano named Aloysia Weber, but that’s another story). The leading composers of the day had written grand tragic operas for the great theater of Elector Carl Theodor, and when Mozart met the Elector, he confessed that he would like to write an opera for his forces. The particular strengths of the Mannheim forces may well have turned his attention in the direction it was to take when he next composed an opera, for he wrote to his father in February, “I am eager to write [an opera]…but Italian, not German, and seria, not buffa.” Nothing came of his desire at the time, since Leopold was eager for the pair to get on to Paris, where (he was sure) fame and fortune awaited his son. It was not to be; the aristocracy showed no special interest in an ex‑prodigy now grown up, and—most tragic of all—during their stay Mozart’s mother fell seriously ill and died in early July.

In the meantime, the Elector of Mannheim had inherited the Wittelsbach throne, so the court (and the whole extensive musical establishment) moved to Munich. Mozart visited his musical friends there in December, while making his reluctant return home to Salzburg. During the year he had witnessed, both in Mannheim and Paris, the highest quality of operatic production, and he was eager to contribute to it. Nothing came of his desire for nearly two years. As of 1780 Mozart had not produced a full‑scale opera for five years (when he was still in his teens). Finally the Elector in Munich commissioned an opera from the young man, largely at the express wish of the musicians in his court (what enlightened leadership!), specifying that it be a serious opera in Italian. By this time Mozart was familiar with all the standard operatic styles in Europe; he had seen the latest works and the current state of the most established operatic genre, opera seria, the tradition of which extended back to the previous century, with its string of da capo arias alternating with stretches of secco (“dry”) recitative containing the barest musical content, its near‑total lack of choruses or even small ensembles, and its use of male castratos singing in the soprano register as the principal heroes. Mozart thought he could enrich and revivify a form that had enjoyed a long and successful popularity but that was becoming stale and tradition‑ bound.

In order to accomplish this aim, Mozart proposed to his librettist, a Salzburg cleric named Abbé Giambattista Varesco, that the story be cast more in the French manner, with ensembles and choruses to vary the texture. This was all the more easily accomplished in that the libretto was derived from that of an earlier French opera, Idomenée, whose libretto was written by Antoine Danchet for Campra in 1712.

Generally speaking the singer—especially the superstar singer‑‑was monarch of the operatic world; composers wrote arias precisely tailored to the characteristics of an individual voice. But Mozart liked ensembles, in which various characters can express their feelings together. The resulting work is rich in elaborate choruses, and it boasts some superb ensemble numbers as well, including a great climactic quartet. In fact, Idomeneo was the finest opera seria composed in many years‑‑perhaps ever. It is a spacious work of great humanity. The “lieto fine” (happy ending) required by the Metastasian operatic style allowed the leading characters to personify a world of reason and forgiveness, a world of self‑control, where rulers do not descend to bloodshed as easily as they do in ours. If Mozart had continued to work in that vein, the history of opera might have been very different. But as it was, most of his remaining operas were in the genres of the German Singspiel or the Italian opera buffa, both of which had quite different traditions and requirements from the opera seria.

For this event Mozart was given an extraordinary ensemble—the finest orchestra in Europe (the Mannheim orchestra, which had recently been moved to Munich) with twice the usual number of strings and a full wind complement including, for the first time in Mozart’s experience, clarinets. How he made use of that wonderful orchestra!  One of the most “French” elements of Idomeneo in its original Munich production (though one that has not been included in many performances since) is the extended ballet at the very end of the opera, after all the singing has ended.  This wonderful ballet music, symbolizing the harmonious resolution of the dramatic situation, shows us a Mozart reveling in the quality of the finest orchestra he had yet had at his disposal.

Serenade in C for Strings, Opus 48

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in Kamsko-Votkinsk, Vyatka province, Russia, on May 7, 1840, and died in St. Petersburg on November 6, 1893. He composed the Serenade for Strings between September 21 and November 4, 1880. Its first performance took place in St. Petersburg on October 30, 1881. The composer noted on the score that he preferred to have as large an ensemble of orchestral strings as possible for performances of the work. Duration is about 28 minutes.

Tchaikovsky spent most of the year 1880 in the country, part of the time installed at Simaki, a small house on one of the estates of his patroness, Nadezhda von Meck, where, as always, he carefully avoided personal contact with the woman whom he addressed as “Dearest Friend” in a long and intensely personal series of letters covering the years of her support. He was supposed to write a piece of music for the twenty-fifth anniversary of Tsar Alexander II’s accession to the throne, since the government hoped to generate a little enthusiasm for the ruler, who had recently been the subject of some assassination attempts. The original plan was to have a series of staged tableaux accompanied by music, each scene to be set by a different composer, chosen by lot. Tchaikovsky, to his chagrin, drew the subject, “Montenegrin villagers receiving news of Russia’s declaration of war on Turkey.”

It is not surprising that he felt unable to do anything with such a topic; his creative inertia took the form of a variety of activities to help him avoid composing: revising earlier works, proofreading scores, and renewing his study of English in the hopes of eventually being able to read his favorite English authors, Dickens, Thackeray, and Shakespeare.

Finally, though, while living at Kamenka, the home of his sister and her family (and long one of Tchaikovsky’s favorite retreats), he began work on a composition for the Silver Jubilee Exposition. It was an overture dealing with Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, and would call for actual cannons in performance. At the same time, purely for his own satisfaction, he wrote a serenade for string orchestra, a late-nineteenth-century equivalent of the Classical divertimento. He completed the serenade on November 4, the overture two weeks later. Tchaikovsky summed up his own feelings about the autumn’s musical harvest thus:

The Overture will be very loud, noisy, but I wrote it without any warm feelings of love and so it will probably be of no artistic worth. But the serenade, on the contrary, I wrote from inner compulsion. This is a piece from the heart and so, I venture to say, it does not lack artistic worth.

Both works have long been among the popular favorites of Tchaikovsky’s output—the 1812 overture with all its glorious bombast, and the Serenade for strings with its freshness and charm, its brilliant string writing, its graceful waltz of a character that Tchaikovsky made entirely his own, its richly expressive elegy, and its lively finale based on one of those Russian folk tunes that reiterates over and over a simple melodic gesture, allowing the composer to deploy his substantial skills as an arranger to ring the changes on the obstinate little fragment of tune that grows ever livelier.

CLAUDE DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun

Achille-Claude Debussy was born at St. Germain-en-Laye, Department of Seine-et-Oise, France, on August 22, 1862, and died in Paris on March 25, 1918. He began composing the Prélude à l’Après-midi d’un faune in 1892 and completed the full score on October 23, 1894. The work was performed with great success by the Société Nationale de la Musique on December 22 and 23 that year under the direction of the Swiss conductor Gustave Doret. The score calls for three flutes, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, crotales, two harps, and strings. Duration is about 10 minutes.

In 1865 the poet Stéphane Mallarmé produced a “Monologue d’un faune,” with which he hoped to obtain a performance at the Comédie Française. Having been told that his work would be of no interest as a theatrical piece, he put it aside for a decade. In 1875, Mallarmé tried to get his work published as “Improvisation du faune” in a literary anthology, again without success. Finally, the following year, he brought out his first book, which contained the text of the eclogue entitled “L’Après-midi d’un faune.” Mallarmé continued to hope for a theatrical performance; as late as 1891 he promised in print to produce a new version for the theater. Throughout his life, he was also interested in music; he had even written an essay on Wagner for the “Revue wagnerienne” in 1885. His own poetry, he said, was inspired by “music proper, which we must raid and paraphrase, if our own music [poetry], is struck dumb, is insufficient.”

Debussy had already set a Mallarmé text as early as 1884. We can be sure that poet and composer were personally acquainted by 1892, when they both attended a performance of Maeterlinck’s drama Pelléas et Mélisande, and it is certainly likely that they discussed the musical possibilities of Mallarmé’s “Faune.” Debussy began composition of the Prelude that year, along with most of the other compositions that were to occupy him for the next decade: his String Quartet, the opera Pelléas et Mélisande, the Nocturnes for orchestra, and a number of songs. Years later he recalled that when Mallarmé heard the music for the first time (apparently the composer’s own performance at the piano in his apartment), he commented, “I was not expecting anything of this kind! This music prolongs the emotion of my poem, and sets its scene more vividly than color.” The first performance of the Prelude made Debussy famous overnight; the striking character of this music, which everyone experienced as something quite new, established his personality even in the eyes of those critics who expressed a wish for “an art more neat, more robust, more masculine.”

The freshness comes in part from the delicacy of the instrumentation, which is filled with wonderfully new effects, of which the brilliant splash of the harp glissando over a dissonant chord at the end of the first flute phrase is only the most obvious. The careful bridging of sections, so that nothing ever quite comes to a full close without suggesting continuation, effectively blurs what is, after all, a fairly straightforward ABA form. Debussy’s success in obtaining this fluid, pastel effect can be measured by the fact that musicians still argue about where the various sections begin and end. Most listeners, though, have been content to wallow in this exquisitely wrought play of color, harmony, and misty melody without bothering to consider how much of the future was already implicit in this brief score.

Symphony No. 39 in E‑flat major, K.543

Joannes Chrisostomus Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart, who began to call himself Wolfgango Amadeo about 1770 and Wolfgang Amadè in 1777, was born in Salzburg, Austria, on January 27, 1756 and died in Vienna on December 5, 1791. His last three symphonies, K. 543, 550, and 551, were all composed during the summer of 1788, probably for a series of subscription concerts that seem not to have taken place. The dates of the first performances are unknown. Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major, K.543, was completed on June 26, 1788. The score calls for flute, two each of clarinets, bassoons, horns, and trumpets, plus timpani and strings. Duration is about 29 minutes.

One of the greatest miracles in the history of music is Mozart’s achievement in the summer of 1788, composing his last three symphonies all in the space of six weeks. The sheer speed is daunting. Even more impressive is the striking variety between the three works, each of which has a character and mood all its own. The first of the three, in E-flat major, was completed on June 26; we have no record that any of these symphonies was ever performed in Mozart’s lifetime, though he is unlikely to have composed something as elaborate as a symphony (much less three of them) purely “on spec,” and he must have anticipated some concert series on which they would be heard.

By June 1788 Mozart’s fortunes had entered on the long, steady decline that culminated in his death, at age thirty-five, three-and-a-half years later. Gone were the heady days of 1784, when he music was in constant demand in Vienna (during one hectic eleven-day period, he gave ten concerts!) and he was writing a sheaf of piano concertos and other works. Mozart seems to have been the sort of openhanded type who could never stop spending money faster than he earned it, and when the Viennese public found other novelties for amusement, Mozart’s star began to fall.

He had hoped to obtain financial stability through the performances of his operas, but The Marriage of Figaro achieved only nine performances during its season in the repertory (1786), partly, at least, because other, more influentially placed, composers had their own fish to fry and were not interested in supporting Mozart. Then came Don Giovanni, composed for the citizens of Prague who had taken Figaro completely to their hearts. Although it was a sensation in Prague in the fall of 1787, the first Vienna performances the following spring did not attract enough attention; the piece was simply too serious to suit the taste of the court.

Neither opera, then, had much improved the Mozart family exchequer, and by early June 1788, only weeks after the Vienna premiere of Don Giovanni, Mozart was forced to write to his friend and fellow Mason, Michael Puchberg, requesting the loan of 100 gulden. Again on June 17 he needed money to pay his landlord and asked Puchberg for a few hundred gulden “until tomorrow.” Yet again on the 27th he wrote to thank Puchberg for the money so freely lent him, but also to report that he needed still more and did not know where to turn for it.

It is clear from these letters that Mozart was in serious financial difficulty (a situation that was only just beginning to change at the time of his death). How astonishing, then, to realize that between the last two letters cited he composed the Symphony No. 39! This, the most lyrical of the final three symphonies, gives no hint of the composer’s distraught condition (thus eloquently disproving the old romantic fallacy that a composer’s music was little more than a reflection of his state of mind).

Mozart’s attempt to improve his family’s situation during this difficult summer is clearly apparent in the “minor” works he was composing along with the three symphonies. They are all either educational pieces, which could serve students well, or small and easy compositions that might be expected to have a good sale when published. But it is hardly likely that Mozart would have composed three whole symphonies at a time when he was in desperate financial straits if he didn’t have some hope of using them in a practical way to support his family. His first letter to Puchberg referred to “concerts in the Casino,” from which he hoped to obtain subscription money in order to repay his debts. Probably he wrote all three of the symphonies with the aim of introducing them at his own concerts. But, as far as we know, the concerts never took place. We can only be grateful that the symphonies were composed in any case.

Clarinets were relatively new in the symphony orchestra (although long since a standard component of Mozart’s opera orchestra), and it was by no means a foregone conclusion that they would be included. Mozart’s choice of clarinets instead of oboes produces a gentler woodwind sonority especially appropriate to the autumnal lyricism of Symphony No. 39.

The first movement opens with a stately slow introduction with dotted rhythms providing a nervous background for scale figures (which recur in the body of the movement), culminating in a grindingly dissonant appoggiatura. Just as we seem about to settle onto the dominant, ready to begin the Allegro, the activity decelerates and we are confronted with a stark, hushed chromatic figure recalling some of the “uncanny” moments in Don Giovanni. The melodic line of the introduction only comes to a close in the opening phrase of the smiling allegro theme in the violins (with echoes in horns and bassoons), a calm pastoral scene following the tension of the preceding passage. The development section is one of the shortest in any Mozart symphony, never moving far afield harmonically. Following a passage on the nearby key of A‑flat, a vigorous modulation seems to be leading to C minor, but at the last moment a wonderful woodwind extension brings it around to the home key and ushers in the recapitulation.

The slow movement, in A‑flat, opens with deceptive simplicity; it is, in fact, a richly detailed movement, with progressive elaborations of the material throughout. Among these delicious moments are the woodwind additions to the main theme in the strings at the recapitulation. The main theme ends with a momentary turn to the minor just before the cadence; at the corresponding point in the recapitulation, this generates a surprising but completely logical passage in C‑flat minor (written, however, as B minor) before the imitative woodwind theme returns in the tonic. The hearty minuet provides a strong contrast to the delicacies of the Andante; its Trio features a clarinet solo with little echoes from the flute.

The finale is often called the most Haydnesque movement Mozart ever wrote, largely because it is nearly monothematic. The principal theme, beginning with a group of scurrying sixteenth‑notes followed by a hiccup, produces a series of motives that carry the bulk of the discourse. The scurrying turn appears alone or in combinations, turning to unexpected keys after a sudden silence; the “hiccup” often comes as a separate response from the woodwinds to the rushing figure in the strings.

© Steven Ledbetter (