Thursday, September 22, 2011

Music of the Great Composers – Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Here is a previous posting concerning Mozart.

He was not unique for being a child prodigy, though probably more than anyone else in history, Mozart established a kind of tradition among musicians which has its merits and its dangers. In Mozart's case, he was paraded around Europe as a child basically for the fruits of whatever gold ducats might be proffered and no doubt these tours were financially successful, so much so that the Mozarts, Wolfie, his sister and their father, were a kind of business model that quite a few musicians tried to emulate.

But could they? This is a child who picked up the violin after watching others play it for a while and instantly played it, likewise the keyboard. This was a child who from before the age of five understood music notation perfectly well and was able to write it down, in most cases that have come down to us without any mistakes, as if he was just taking dictation.

In his early twenties Mozart was witnessed doing such amazing things as writing a letter to his dad with his right hand while working on a score for an opera with his left, pausing once in a while for a gulp of white wine, working both arms independently, stunning and frightening many onlookers. He is known to have known Italian and French as well as his native German. He was very fond of traditional billiards and had a table in his house.

But in spite of his obvious talents, Mozart could not manage practical matters; in particular his living expenses during his brief life, which he lived lavishly enough for a few years, certainly got out of hand. And Mozart was not alone in living above his means, as around 1789 and 1790 events in Europe were beginning to topple the old order, Then of course there was a worldwide economic downturn, some failed harvests, inflation, a pandemic, an economic collapse, the death of the Emperor and of Mozart himself at the age of 35. He might even deservedly be considered a prototypical case of a rapid rise and fall of a great musician, many cases of which are strewn through modern history. But atypically, we usually don't ascribe any negative influences affecting Mozart's early death, mostly because during those days the average life expectancy was less than 35.

However there are persistent rumours that someone had it in for him, because let's face it folks, this Mozart fellow was very good at what he did. He made lots of aspiring musicians very jealous. Mozart knew that much of what he was writing would be immortal because as far as he was concerned it came directly from an immortal place. That's the unmistakeable message one gets from seeing any of his scores too, beautifully laid out right from the start, everything written quickly but accurately as if he was just taking it down from the beyond. In order to do what he did he would have had to have seen the construction of the score as a totality in his mind's eye before even setting a stroke to paper. There will really never be another Mozart.

Just as the Symphony was the predominant occupation of Haydn, so the Piano Concerto might be said to have been Mozart's concentration. There were piano concertos, a few, written before Mozart, but all that followed surely owe much to the 27 of them Mozart wrote, a record. And of course, as an outstanding Opera composer, Mozart was for far longer than most others engaged in it, and his greatest operas are all in the repertoire.

But besides all this, and Mozart was certainly prolific, he was writing music constantly, every day of the last ten years of his life, he wrote at least 41 symphonies (second only to Haydn) and one of his last is featured, the Symphony #40 in G minor, K. 550 written in July of 1788 when he was 32 years old. Together with the Symphonies #39 and #41, these are Mozart's last words on what a Symphony would be. Evidence exists that this particular symphony was performed during Mozart's lifetime, greatly substantiated by the existence of a second authentic manuscript including the clarinet parts which Mozart would never have bothered adding unless the work was being performed and he sought reasons to improve it. The proportions aren't much different from a Haydn Symphony. But listen particularly for the uses of chromaticism and a greater range of emotions, in places writing as if for an Opera with the various instruments as singers, and all accomplished with surprisingly limited resources; 1 flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings, no more than 35 people in all. The movements are as follows:

I have known this symphony a long time, and have many associations with all these movements. The finale is what one of my teachers described as, “the influences of too many bad Hungarian violinists.” Oh well. The first was always my favourite because it represented a very tight sonata allegro form with an impassioned development section. The second movement has some odd discontinuous pulsed phrases in it unlike anything anywhere else that I know of. The third movement is a minuet all right but in a minor key taking full advantage of all the possible harmonies. The florid canonical writing near the end of the first theme is contrasted with the restrained more open flavour of the trio.

As for the performance standards for this symphony, they have varied over the years from the over-massed performances of the big symphony orchestras of the 30's, 40's and 50's through the reversion to “original instruments” and practices and thence to an accepted light texture for all this period music. For one thing, the fewer players on string parts, the more one hears the internal voices. So here we have a “traditional” performance of this “classic” piece, by the Vienna Philharmonic under the late great Karl Böhm (1894-1981), The scale of the orchestra is still small, Böhm concentrates on getting all the notes out as it were rather than phrase succeeding a phrase. You will encounter many more youthful versions of this music as it is a widely performed work.


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