Program Notes: Mozart, Vivaldi & Handel

Program Notes

Program Notes: Mozart, Vivaldi & Handel

George Frideric Handel’s Zadok the Priest (Coronation Anthem No. 1):

World Premiere October 11, 1727; London, England (6 minutes)

  • George Frideric Handel’s principal instrument was organ, but he also played violin and harpsichord.
  • In the early 1700s, Handel mastered Italian opera, working in several Italian cities.
  • Beginning in the 1730s, he focused on English language oratorios, including Messiah.

Under George I, Handel had been “Composer of Musick for the Chapel Royal” for four years when the first Hanover king died in 1727. Handel then composed his four Coronation Anthems when George II ascended the British throne in 1727. He seized the opportunity to curry favor with the new king. In just four weeks, he produced four anthems of large proportions. These anthems have been sung at every British coronation since. At six minutes, Zadok the Priest is the shortest of the four and the most frequently performed. It is sung during the anointing, the last portion of the ceremony prior to the actual crowning. The sunburst choral entrance is one of the most thrilling moments in choral literature.

George Frideric Handel’s Selections from Royal Fireworks Music:

World Premiere April 27, 1749; London, England (12 minutes) 

In autumn 1748, the War of the Austrian Succession ended after eight years. King George II ordered a major celebration several months later. George Frideric Handel was asked for a new work to accompany fireworks in London. He originally wrote for double wind instruments, whose sound carries the best outdoors. He added the string parts later with a note that they should double the oboe and bassoon parts. Even with strings, the instrumentation stresses the pomp and ceremony of military sound. The music is a Baroque Suite, dominated by its impressive Overture in D major. An introduction (Overture) precedes several dance movements. The two titled Bourrée and Réjouissance (Rejoicing) are obvious references to the Treaty. Handel’s Overture, at about nine minutes, runs nearly as long as all the other movements combined. It consists of two large sections, the first slower and the second marked Allegro with its own contrasting middle section in B minor. Grandeur and dignity set the tone in the first segment; the stately Allegro makes maximum use of the colorful scoring with fanfare-like melodies that maintain the majestic atmosphere. Two minuets round out the suite. While the 1748 fireworks of the title were fraught with mishaps and malfunctions, Handel’s music was a great success and has remained popular ever since. 

Antonio Vivaldi’s (arr. Jeannette Sorrell) La folia (Madness):

World Premiere 1705; Likely Venice, Italy (10 minutes)

  • Antonio Vivaldi was known as “the red priest” because of his red hair.
  • A brilliant and original violinist, he composed hundreds of concertos for his instrument.
  • He spent much of his career working as music master in a girls’ orphanage-conservatory in Venice, Italy.
  • Vivaldi composed at least 50 operas.

La folia has inspired many composers of different eras. Its roots extend back to the 15th century. The term is related to the Latin word for “fool” or “madness” and likely originated as a court “fool’s dance.” The folia melody was well known by the late 17th century, but Arcangelo Corelli’s version was the most famous. Antonio Vivaldi modeled his Opus I trio sonatas on Corelli’s Opus V. Jeannette Sorrell, who shows that Vivaldi’s La folia is the finest of all variations on the ancient progression, has expanded it as a concerto grosso. Vivaldi’s music displays great ingenuity. Over the course of his 20 variations, he plays a dazzling array of musical games, including contrary motion, conversational exchanges, reversals of melody and accompaniment, canonic and imitative interaction. Several variations slow to Adagio or Larghetto. Others speed up to brisk and busy Allegros. The meter remains in triple time, but sometimes switches to 9/8 or 12/8 (as a siciliana), adding to the rhythmic drive. La folia continues to attract composers in every area of music, including jazz, pop and film music as well as classical. 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Overture from Don Giovanni, K. 527:

World Premiere October 29, 1787; Prague, Czechia (7 minutes)

  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was one of the greatest musical geniuses of all time.
  • A child prodigy, he was lauded by monarchs and nobles throughout his childhood.
  • His greatest music includes his mature piano concertos and operas from his last decade.

Anyone who has attended a performance of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni knows the shivering impact of the overture’s opening D minor chords with their ominous foreboding of the drama to follow. Mozart soon switches gears, however, as the overture shifts to D major in a lively allegro tempo. We move from music of revenge to music reflecting the manic gaiety that dominates much of the opera’s action. The overture’s concert version is like an 18th-century first movement: a slow introduction followed by a sonata-allegro. Mozart captures the spirit of the opera without quoting from its famous arias and duets. Its new themes are a brilliant character portrait of Don Giovanni’s devil-may-care bravado. 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Mass in C major, K. 317, “Coronation Mass:” 

World Premiere April 4, 1779; Salzburg, Austria (24 minutes) 

Few listeners know any of Mozart’s choral music beyond his Requiem. In fact, he composed a great deal of sacred choral music, including 18 complete masses, several independent mass movements and about 60 other sacred motets, litanies, cantatas and antiphons. When Mozart returned from the trip to Mannheim and Paris in January 1779, Salzburg’s Archbishop Colloredo appointed him court and cathedral organist. In this capacity, he was expected to compose as well as perform a considerable amount of music for church services and other ceremonial occasions. Most of his choral music is from his Salzburg years, and some 15 complete masses survive from this time, plus a few miscellaneous mass movements. The so-called “Coronation” Mass dates from March 1779 and was almost certainly composed for Easter services a couple of weeks later. Its subtitle is a 19th-century label arising from the fact that this Mass was likely performed at the coronation of Emperor Leopold II in summer 1791. This work is considered to be his finest Mass. 

Zadok the Priest (Coronation Anthem No. 1) 

George Frideric Handel 

Born February 23, 1685, in Halle, Germany | Died April 14, 1759, in London 

As their collective name suggests, the four Coronation Anthems were composed on the occasion of a British monarch ascending the throne. George I’s heir, George II, had strained relations at best with his father. Conventional wisdom suggested that he would dispense with many of the deceased monarch’s political and artistic favorites. 

Handel was a survivor, and this was one of many occasions upon which he demonstrated his innate gift for propitious timing and sheer luck. He was granted the assignment to compose music for the coronation, disdainfully refusing textual guidance from the archbishops of Canterbury and York with the proud remark, “I have read my Bible very well and shall choose for myself.” 

In fact, despite his German birth and Italian training, Handel was quite familiar with the English anthem tradition, having studied the music of Henry Purcell and thoroughly acclimated himself to English custom. 

Zadok the Priest, at about six minutes, is the shortest of the four Coronation Anthems and has entrenched itself most firmly in public favor and in the British coronation ceremony itself. While all four anthems are considered to represent Handel’s polyphonic choral style at its finest, “Zadok” is the most frequently performed and has been a part of every coronation subsequent to George II’s in 1727. It is sung during the anointing, which is the last portion of the ceremony immediately prior to the crowning proper. As such, its opening line, “Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king,” is decidedly appropriate. Emerging jubilant and triumphant on the heels of Handel’s dramatic, arpeggiated introduction, the sunburst choral entrance alone constitutes one of the most thrilling moments in the entire choral literature. 

Never one to let good ideas go underused, Handel extracted maximum utility from the music “Zadok.” It recycles a portion of the conclusion to his “Laudate Pueri,” a piece of sacred church music composed either in Hamburg or Rome in 1706 or 1707. A few years after George II’s coronation, Handel incorporated music from “Zadok” into the 1732 revised version of his oratorio Esther. No lover of choral music will fail to note the characteristic melismas so familiar from Messiah 

 Instrumentation: two oboes, two bassoons, three trumpets, timpani, mixed chorus (SSAATBB), strings and basso continuo. 

Selections from Royal Fireworks Music

George Frideric Handel  

Historic Treaty  

During the autumn of 1748, the War of the Austrian Succession ended after eight years of conflict. Under the terms of a treaty signed in 1731, England had supported Austria’s Maria Theresia. While the war had strengthened England’s navy, it had taken a toll on her economy. The country was eager to be at peace once again, and there was great relief when the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle was signed in October 1748. King George II ordered a major celebration to take place a few months later. A large Palladian structure was erected for the occasion in London’s Green Park. Early in 1749, Handel was asked for a new composition to accompany fireworks adjacent to the Green Park structure’s massive triumphal arch. At first, the King resisted the idea of music, but he came around, if there would be as many military instruments as possible. He is also said to have expressed a wish that “there would be no fidles [sic].”     

 Music for Outdoor Performance 

Martial music is almost always performed in the open air. Strings don’t carry well outdoors. Military bands, marching bands and drum and bugle corps consist of brasses, winds and percussion. The Music for the Royal Fireworks was originally scored only for double winds, both in deference to the king’s wishes and as a practical matter because it was intended for outdoor performance. Handel’s autograph score specifies an astonishing wind band of 24 oboes, 12 bassoons, nine trumpets, nine horns and three pairs of kettledrums.  

 Instrumentation: three oboes, two bassoons, three horns, timpani, strings and continuo. 


La folia (Madness) 

(arr. Jeannette Sorrell) 

Antonio Vivaldi

Born March 4, 1678, in Venice, Italy | Died July 27 or 28, 1741, in Vienna, Austria 

In 1700, Arcangelo Corelli was arguably the most famous musician in Italy and an influential violinist throughout Europe. Between 1681 and 1700, he published four collections of sonatas and one collection of concertos that set the standard for the next two generations of composers. The trio sonata became the genre par excellence to establish a composer’s skill. In the first decades of the 18th century, it became customary to announce one’s arrival as a professional with a dozen trio sonatas.  

The most influential of Corelli’s sonatas was the set published as Opus V in 1700, which concluded with a single movement sonata consisting of variations on the famous La Folia. A number of Corelli’s younger contemporaries composed their own variations on Folia, emulating the older master. Vivaldi’s Opus I, a group of 12 trio sonatas issued by the Venetian publisher Giuseppe Sala ca. 1703-05, was clearly modeled on Corelli. These trio sonatas are the earliest of his compositions to have survived. At least two of Vivaldi’s other sonatas in Opus I make overt reference to musical material in Corelli’s Opus V. Vivaldi’s placement of the one-movement Trio Sonata on Folia as the last in a set of twelve also corresponds to Corelli’s original. 

The term “trio sonata” is confusing because such works generally entailed four players: two melody instruments plus continuo, comprising keyboard and a bass instrument (bass viol, gamba, cello or bassoon). Vivaldi specified violone (predecessor of the modern double bass) or cembalo but would surely not have objected to both. Sorrell, who believes that Vivaldi’s La folia is the finest of all the variations on the ancient progression, has expanded it as a concerto grosso. 

The bass role is active, sometimes leading melodically, relegating the upper voices to a supportive role. It is easy enough to hear pre-echoes of the bold figuration in Vivaldi’s mature concerti.  


Vivaldi’s La folia has both an Iberian flair and a strong connection to the music of the past. Folia is one of those tunes, like Paganini’s 24th Caprice, that has inspired many composers writing in different eras and certainly different musical styles. In the case of folia, the roots extend back to the late 15th century. The term folia, which is of Portuguese origin, is related to the Latin root for “fool” or “madness” and refers to a dance that was likely a court “fool’s dance.” The music that has inspired composers from the Baroque Era to the modern day is a harmonic pattern related to two additional dances: the passamezzo antico and the romanesca 

The tune was already well known by the end of the 17th century. Alessandro Scarlatti, Marin Marais, Bernardo Pasquini, Tomaso Antonio Vitali and Johann Sebastian Bach were among the dozens of Baroque composers who took this harmonic pattern as the basis for variations. The most famous of them all was by Corelli. His La Folia, a sonata for violin and continuo, was published with 11 other trio sonatas as Op. 5. The collection appeared in Rome in 1700.  

La folia remained popular in the Pre-Classical and Classical Eras when André Grétry and Luigi Cherubini adapted it. Franz Liszt followed in the Romantic Era with his Rapsodie espagnole. Twentieth-century iterations include Carl Nielsen’s opera Maskarade and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Variations on a Theme by Corelli, Op. 42. More recent Folia-based works include pieces by Mauricio Kagel, Menachem Wiesenberg, Xavier Montsalvatge and Roberto Sierra.  

Mass in C major, K. 317, “Coronation Mass” 

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 

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

The so-called “Coronation Mass” dates from March 1779 and was almost certainly composed for Easter services a couple of weeks later. Its subtitle is a 19th-century label arising from the fact that this Mass was likely performed at the coronation of Emperor Leopold II in late summer 1791.  

In a famous letter to the Italian pedagogue Padre Martini in 1776, Mozart described the Salzburg custom. Masses were to last no longer than three-quarters of an hour. This meant a shorter musical component with little or no repetition of text. The truncated approach has come to be known as a Missa brevis or “short mass.” 

The Coronation is something of a hybrid, a bit longer than most of Mozart’s other masses, calling for a fairly large orchestra and with some text repetition, but it is still concise at well under a half hour. The music of the opening Andante maestoso recurs at the end, a unifier that occurs in Bach’s Magnificat and other sacred pieces.  

The most interesting aspect of this Mass, however, is its arias, which clearly foreshadow the direction Mozart would take in his vocal writing during the operas of the 1780s. Many writers have noted similarities between the Agnus dei theme and the Countess’ aria, “Dove sono” in The Marriage of Figaro. Opera buffs who know Così fan tutte will also detect a thematic relationship between the Mass’ Kyrie theme and Fiordiligi’s Act I aria, “Come scoglio.” Even those who are not fans of opera will take pleasure in Mozart’s elegant writing for chorus and orchestra as well as the soloists. It is easy to understand why K. 317 is considered to be his finest mass. 

 Instrumentation: two oboes, two horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, a quartet of vocal soloists, soprano, mixed chorus, organ and strings. The string complement consists of first and second violins and basso, which would mean celli and basses – but no violas; the absence of violas was also in keeping with Salzburg tradition. The Salzburg orchestra might have reinforced the bass with bassoon.  


Program Notes by Laurie Shulman ©2024