Prague, Paris, and Cologne

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Symphony No. 38 in D major, K. 504, “Prague”

One of the prevailing myths about Mozart, reinforced by the movie Amadeus, is that his musical compositions sprang fully formed from his head – usually at the last minute. But the highly specialized study of the paper of old manuscripts yields proof that Mozart, too, sometimes needed time for his inspirations to gel. A case in point is the history of the Symphony No. 38.

Mozart finished this symphony in December 1786 in Vienna, just before traveling to Prague where he was to attend the performance of his new opera, Le nozze di Figaro. Because Figaro was such an enormous success in Prague and the composer more celebrated there than in Vienna, Mozart had thought to capitalize on his popularity by arranging for concerts of his other current works. On January 19, 1787, between two performances of the opera, he gave a concert of his recent compositions, in which his new symphony was premiered, again to great public enthusiasm.

Studies of the manuscript paper, however, show that the Presto Finale of the symphony was written first, early in 1786, in the midst of the composition of Figaro, without any reference to a new symphony. Mozart scholars have suggested that this movement was originally intended as the last movement for another D major symphony, perhaps the much earlier “Paris” Symphony, No. 31, which has only three. The first two movements of No. 38 exist in manuscript dated December by the composer. In addition, extensive sketches for the first movement, as well as for a discarded Adagio, have survived.

With only three movements, Symphony No. 38 is unusual for late Mozart. But three-movement symphonies that omitted the traditional minuet/trio were popular with Prague audiences and composers at the time; also unusual is that all three movements are in sonata form. Like his older contemporary Haydn, Mozart opens the Symphony with a dramatic slow introduction that shifts between D major Example 1 and D minor, Example 2 breaking into the true key with the Allegro. Example 3 The Allegro section itself is quite complex, containing no less than six separate thematic elements, Example 4 Example 5 Example 6 two of which are combined into a double fugue. Example 7 It is the longest of all Mozart’s symphonic movements.

In the lyrical Andante, Mozart uses the sonata form structure, rather than the ternary ABA form customary for slow movements. And once again he uses several short motives or phrases to create a composite theme as in the first movement. Look for three principal subjects that explore contrasts between chromatic (using any of the 12 semitones of the octave, regardless of key) and diatonic (using primarily the notes of one key), as well as legato and staccato motifs. Example 8 Example 9 Example 10 Example 11

In the final Presto, Mozart’s audience may well have been able to discern in the opening syncopated theme snippets of the humorous duet between Susanna and Cherubino from Act II of Figaro, where she urges him to escape being found by the Count in the Countess’ boudoire. Example 13 Example 14 There are also references to the prelude to Don Giovanni, with its crashing D minor chords, the opera Mozart was working on during this period in his life. Note how the two major themes in this movement are concise and simple compared to those of the weightier earlier movements.

Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959)
Concerto for Oboe and Small Orchestra, H. 353

Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů was born and spent his childhood in relative isolation in a tiny room at the top of the church tower in a small Moravian town. His father, a cobbler, served also as fire-watch, bell ringer and tower keeper. Until he started school, the boy seldom descended the 193 steps to street level. He remarked that his whole aesthetic was influenced by his early bird’s eye view of the world, "…not the small interests of people, the cares, the hurts, or the joys but space, which I always have in front of me."

Although his musical talent manifested itself early in his childhood, he was expelled from the Prague Conservatory for “incorrigible negligence.” In 1923, despite his strong nationalistic feelings, Martinů left Prague and newly independent Czechoslovakia for Paris in order, as he said, “To escape the cult of Smetana and the pervasive influence of German music with its full metaphysical apparatus.” He had intended to stay in Paris for only a few months to study with Albert Roussel but ended up settling there for 17 years until forced to escape after the fall of France in 1940. Like many of Europe’s displaced intelligentsia, he reached the United States via Lisbon in 1941. His stay here turned into an extremely creative period with commissions and compositions, many written for his friends and colleagues, including the Five Madrigal Stanzas for violin and piano, written for violinist Albert Einstein and his friend, the pianist Robert Casadesus.

Martinů composed the Oboe Concerto in 1955 at the request of a fellow Czech refugee, the clarinetist Jiři Tancibudek, who immigrated to Australia. It was commissioned by The Sydney Daily Telegraph in honor of the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne.

An unusual feature of the Oboe Concerto is the prominent role for an obbligato piano that serves as the oboe’s principal support. It is largely through composed avoiding the old-fashioned dictates of classical form. Instead, Martinů adopts a rather meandering style with few repeats, that includes the alternation of long, lyrical melodies and filler sections that serve as a lead into the next melody, as well as sections of virtuosic passagework for the soloist.

The first movement represents a case in point. The opening theme for orchestra resembles a fanfare. Example 1 Only when the oboe enters does the style become more lyrical, reminiscent of the traditional “second theme” of sonata form. Example 2 Instead of a development section, the composer gives the soloist two more melodies, Example 3 the second of which exemplifies the spinning out of a single short motive. Example 4

The slow movement is a formal dialogue between soloist and orchestra, the increased chromaticism darkening the mood. Like the first movement, the phrases are long and meandering, setting up increasing tension. Example 5 The soloist’s entry is crafted so that it progresses from long, poignant phrases, ramping up to become a cadenza of almost nervous intensity. Example 6 The next solo is even more frenetic, although it can also be understood within the context of the birdsong so beloved of Czech composers. Example 7 With the third long solo passage, the oboe breaks into true melody, and one comes to understand in retrospect that preceding dialogue was actually part of a emotional interchange that finally resolves back into the musical language of Smetana and Dvorák. Example 8

The piano opens the highly eclectic finale, suggesting everything from the opening of Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 (the so-called “Little G minor”) and finishing up as a Slavonic dance, with a touch of Stravinsky. Example 9 Example 10 As a rondo, it is the only movement that employs full repeats, and, in fact, is virtually symmetrical in structure. Martinu cycles through more stylistic hairpin turns for both oboe and orchestra. But the focus of the movement is the two central cadenzas. Example 11 Example 12

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Overture to Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute), K. 620

Public taste is fickle.

By the late 1780s, Mozart’s star in Vienna was dimming rapidly. The change in popular musical taste, general economic decline and his own inability to manage his finances, combined to make him emotionally frantic and scrambling for commissions.

Since there was no more demand for Mozart’s Akademien (self-promoting subscription concerts) and his most successful librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, had left Vienna, he turned for a joint operatic venture to one of the most colorful (and successful) dramatists and theater directors of the era, Emanuel Schikaneder. Mozart and Schikaneder knew each other both professionally and as fellow Freemasons. Schikaneder’s libretto for Die Zauberflöte contains many elements of the Freemason philosophy and ritual in its emphasis on human enlightenment. It promotes its high-minded ideology through a fairytale plot and characters, in addition to moments of incredible silliness.

Die Zauberflöte is a dramatization of the battle between the forces of good (light) and evil (darkness), symbolized by the high priest of Isis, Sarastro, and the Queen of the Night. In order to win the hand of the Queen’s daughter, Pamina, whom Sarastro has abducted and detained “for her own good,” Prince Tamino must undergo trials by fire and water. He succeeds with the aid of a magic flute, while his companion, the comic bird-catcher Papageno, bungles through lower-level trials to win himself a wife, Papagena.

Most operatic overtures of this period contain no themes from the operas themselves. The important exception here is the three solemn chords that open the overture. Example 1 These chords reappear later as the fanfare before Tamino’s trial and purification by fire and water to gain the hand of Pamina. The slow, dignified opening is followed by a sprightly fugal allegro whose initial rapid repeated notes have a pecking quality. Example 2

Robert Schumann (1810-1858)
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 97, Rhenish

In September 1850 Robert Schumann moved to Düsseldorf to take up his new position as the city’s municipal music director. It was the first time he had lived near the Rhine, the cradle of German legend and poetry. In the turmoil created by the move, his creative frenzy – the manic half of his bipolar personality – bore considerable fruit, and before the end of the year he had composed the Cello Concerto and the Third Symphony, written between November 2 and December 9.

The Third is by far the most programmatic of Schumann’s symphonies. Delighted by the potential of his new position and the outgoing nature of the people, he wrote the symphony in homage to his new home. He took two side-trips to Cologne where he visited its famous cathedral, at that time still unfinished after 620 years of intermittent construction. He was awed by the majesty of the building, a Gothic masterpiece. Although not a Catholic, he added an extra movement (the fourth) to the Symphony to celebrate the installation of a new cardinal, originally designating it “In the character of a procession for a solemn ceremony.” (He later removed the subtitle.)

The Symphony is extremely accessible, with clear-cut singable melodies. Schumann, one of the most prominent and outspoken aestheticians of the Romantic era, deliberately focused on striking a balance between giving this work popular appeal without sacrificing the dictates of high art.

The Third Symphony is the only one of Schumann’s symphonies without a slow introduction. Instead, it opens with a lively, sweeping theme. Example 1 The second theme, while different in mood is also long. Example 2 The exuberant mood reflects the composer’s pleasure at his new surroundings. This theme, imitating the flow of the river may, in fact, have influenced Wagner, whose Leitmotif representing the Rhine in The Ring is in the same expansive mood and 6/8 meter. Example 3

The easy-going Scherzo opens with the cellos in the rhythm of the Ländler, the peasant forerunner of the waltz; Example 4 it was originally subtitled “Morning on the Rhine.” The Trio features the horns. Example 5

The third movement is really the "extra" one for a structure that usually at this time comprised four movements only. It is a charming intermezzo. Example 6 After the main theme, Schumann goes on to state another one, which he develops more fully and whose first notes are a recurring rhythmic pattern. Example 7 This movement represents one of the places where Schumann straddles the fence between popular and high art, using subtle shifting rhythms within accessible tunes. The following movement, however, leaves the masses behind, substituting awe with artistic popularism.

The scoring of the Symphony includes three trombones, but these are silent for the first three movements. They then burst upon the scene suddenly in the fourth movement to maximum effect, introducing the majestic theme in, as Schumann called it, the so-called “cathedral” movement, referring both to the composer's visit to the Cologne Cathedral and to the solemn contrapuntal style of the sixteenth century. Schumann introduces the principal theme as a fugue for the trombones and horns, the pianissimo pizzicato basses beating time in the slow "processional." Example 8 Schumann develops the theme with all the contrapuntal flourishes, as in this example where the theme is presented in diminution (short note values) against the theme in its original form – most certainly a nod to one of his idols, J. S. Bach. Example 9

In the fifth movement, we are back outside in the sunny Rhineland. Schumann unleashes a volley of short tunes. Example 0 & Example 11 & Example 12 Before the end, he take one more crack at the theme of the fourth movement, here transformed into the major mode, speeded up – but still contrapuntal. Example 13

Program notes copyright by:
Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn