Program Notes: Mozart’s Defiance

Program NotesLeave a Comment

Mozart’s stormy, passionate Concerto in C minor, K.491 must have startled his Viennese audience. The dark subtext coursing through this music prompts us to wonder what feelings of despair the composer harbored. Classicist he certainly was, but this concerto pushes the envelope persuasively close to the brink of romanticism. Its central slow movement is a masterpiece of woodwind writing, in exquisite dialogue with the piano. The dramatic finale is a superb set of variations.

Finland’s greatest composer Jean Sibelius was experienced with orchestral music. By the time he issued his First Symphony, he had already written more than a dozen orchestral compositions, including the popular Karelia Suite, Finlandia, and the superb Lemminkäinen Suite, as well as some incidental music for the stage. This symphony thus represents his early maturity. Strongly flavored by Sibelius’s intense Finnish nationalism, the First Symphony was important in establishing his international reputation. The opening clarinet solo is breathtaking in its understatement – and its boldness. Throughout the symphony, Sibelius uses thirds and triads as his musical building blocks, avoiding post-romantic chromaticism and expressionist dissonance.

Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491
Wolfgang Amadè Mozart

Born 27 January, 1756 in Salzburg, Austria
Died 5 December, 1791 in Vienna, Austria

  • Though he only lived to age 35, Mozart was one of classical music’s great geniuses
  • He played fortepiano, harpsichord, organ, violin, and viola
  • His older sister Marianne – called Nannerl by the family – was also an excellent keyboard player
  • Hundreds of letters among the Mozart family have survived and are an invaluable source about their daily lives and interpersonal relationships
  • Mozart met Joseph Haydn in the early 1780s and the two became good friends, despite nearly a generation’s difference in their ages
  • Approximate duration 31 minutes

Instrumentation: flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, solo piano, and strings

Many music-lovers know that the keys of G minor and D minor have special significance in Mozart’s music, calling forth works of epic tragedy that plumb the innermost depths of the composer’s soul.

What common thread unites this series beyond the key in which they are written? H.C. Robbins Landon has suggested that they are manifestations of depression, and that Mozart may have been acutely depressed in spring 1786, when he completed the C minor Piano Concerto. It is a work of epic grandeur and symphonic scale. An expansive orchestral exposition establishes dignity and drama that are sustained throughout the work. Mozart distributes his thematic material with masterly interplay between orchestra and soloist. That stated, one of the performance problems this concerto presents is that the manuscript is one of Mozart’s sketchiest. The soloist must fill in some passages that Mozart indicated in a kind of musical shorthand.

In its pristine simplicity, the E-flat Larghetto is one of the most perfect creations in all Mozart. He shapes a basic A-B-A-C-A form into a sophisticated amalgam of rondo, woodwind serenade, and variation. Woodwinds state the two contrasting episodes, followed by the soloist’s embellished restatement.

With the Allegretto, Mozart produced his last essay in variation form in a concerto. Only this and K.453 in G major conclude with variations, but the structure in K.491 is more complex and lends greater weight to the finale, giving it a sense of importance that rivals that of the first movement. Simply stated, the movement consists of a theme, eight variations and a coda. But variations two through seven are double variations in which the second half of each section introduces a different variation treatment.

Mozart sustains interest by making the first variation almost exclusively a pianistic endeavor; whereas in the last he switches the meter to 6/8 and adds a brilliant coda. Brilliance does not necessarily mean the clouds lift, however. Moz art sustains its tragic mood by concluding in minor mode.

For these performances, Conrad Tao plays his own cadenzas.

Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op.39
Jean Sibelius

Born 8 December, 1865 in Tavastehus, Finland
Died 20 September, 1957 in Järvenpaa, Finland

Instrumentation: two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, bassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, harp and strings

  • Jean Sibelius was a pioneer in Finnish music, spearheading the Nationalist spirit
  • His mother tongue was Swedish, but he learned Finnish in primary school
  • Many of his compositions were inspired by the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic
  • Though Tchaikovsky and Wagner influenced his early works, Sibelius was ultimately an original composer with his own distinct musical language
  • His Second Symphony and Violin Concerto are staples of the orchestral literature

History lesson: stirrings of nationalism

Following the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, the Russian Czar Alexander annexed Finland as a grand duchy, under the terms of the Vienna Congress. By about 1900, after nearly a century of Russian rule, nationalism had become a strong force in Finland. Finnish resentment of Russia was strong. Forced conscription of Finnish youth into the Russian military and censorship of the Finnish press made for a bitter populace. Today, Finland refers to this period in its history as the “years of passive resistance.”

Jean Sibelius is closely associated with Finnish nationalism. His best known composition, the tone poem Finlandia, is the quintessential expression of that movement. Almost everything Sibelius wrote is in some sense a reflection of Finnish culture and history, and of Finland’s developing sense of identity as experienced through the composer’s eyes.

While many of Sibelius’s early works were based on mythical and historical topics, he avoided programmatic associations in his symphonies. In 1934, Sibelius told the English writer Walter Legge:

My symphonies are music that has been conceived and worked out as musical expression without the slightest literary basis. I’m not a literary musician. For me, music begins where the word leaves off. A scene can be expressed in a painting, a drama in words. A symphony should be music first and last.

Countering this avowal of absolutism is the intensely personal character of Sibelius’s symphonies. Most critics have assessed these works as subjective and introspective, with an emphasis on self-examination; inevitably, some writers have perceived them as autobiographical. Everyone agrees that they are the core of his rich musical legacy. As Gerald Abraham has written, “If we wish to understand Sibelius, we must begin by studying his symphonies.”

Like many composers before him — notably Johannes Brahms — Sibelius waited a long while before completing a symphony. By the time the First Symphony was premiered in April 1899, he was a leading cultural figure who had been awarded an annual stipend by the Finnish government.

A natural gift for large-scale composition

Sibelius was thoroughly comfortable in large forms. This first symphony, in four substantial movements, grows firmly out of the romantic tradition. Sibelius was an observant and gifted emulator of his contemporaries. Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony (“Pathétique“) had been performed in Helsinki in 1894 and 1897. Sibelius heard it and wrote to his wife, “There is much in that man that I recognize in myself.” Tchaikovsky’s powerful emotionalism and brilliant orchestration are discernible, particularly in Sibelius’s finale. Similarly, his vigorous, muscular scherzo has an obvious model in those of Anton Bruckner.

At the same time, this work, which his biographer Karl Ekman considers the crowning pinnacle of this early period in Sibelius’s career, displays an individuality that prevents it from being entirely derivative. Another important Sibelius biographer, Erik Tawaststjerna, writes of the opening movement:

Without in any way being revolutionary, the first movement foreshadows the kind of thematic thinking and the organic metamorphosis technique that distinguish the later Sibelius symphonies.

About the music

Sibelius opens his symphony with a slow introduction featuring 28 measures for solo clarinet, supported only by percussion. The melody is long and vaulting, rather like a high diver in slow motion. Situated over an expectant kettledrum pedal point, this introduction is marvelously effective, compelling us to hold our breath in anticipation of the unfolding drama.

Sibelius uses modal scales in conjunction with his home tonality of E minor. The alternation of the two adds a mournful character to his music. He holds his listener’s attention by means of colorful orchestration, powerful dramatic impulse, and a warm lyricism that makes this symphony speak in personal terms to each of us.


Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2021 

Leave a Reply