Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K. 183
When listening to any popular piece of music, it is difficult to keep from being lulled into inattention by its sheer familiarity. And while we can never hear a 200-year-old work from the point of view of its original audience, it is useful to pretend, at least, to be hearing it for the first time.
Despite the fact that modern listeners tend to regard the key of a work as irrelevant, musicians of the Baroque and Classical periods regarded certain keys as possessing specific emotive qualities. Minor keys in particular were fraught with emotional significance, and few symphonies in this period were written in minor keys. For Mozart, the key of G minor was the key of extreme pathos and despair. He used it sparingly for some of his most heart-wrenching music: the String Quintet K. 516; the Piano Quartet K. 478; Pamina’s aria “Ah, ich fühl’s” from The Magic Flute; the Symphony No. 40 K550 and, of course, the so-called “Little g minor” Symphony (No. 25) K. 183 written when he was only 17.
Considering the Symphony’s dark mood, it was probably not written on commission but to satisfy the composer’s inner feelings. Mozart composed it in October 1773, just after his return to his hated Salzburg from a less-than-successful trip to Milan, where his opera Lucio Silla, with its Sturm und Drang atmosphere, displeased the audience. Given his general immaturity, one can envision the Symphony as a brilliant, but typically adolescent, outpouring.
For over 200 years the “Little g minor” was rarely heard in concert halls in spite of its beauty and emotional wallop. It took the film Amadeus, where the stormy first movement served as background music for the opening credits and Mozart’s funeral procession, to bring it to public attention. Example 1
The Symphony’s new lease on life must also give great satisfaction to oboe players, who get a couple of the repertory’s great licks in the first and third movements – with repeats! Example 2 The Andante is suitably lyrical and understated to provide relief from the first movement. Example 3 But the Menuetto and Trio return to the somber mood of the opening, much as its later cousin does in Symphony No 40. Example 4 & Example 5 With a lovely duet, the Trio allows the second oboe to share the wealth with its partner. Example 6 Mozart often unified his symphonies and concertos with little internal quotes. In the Finale the rondo alludes to the Menuetto theme, transforming it slightly Example 7 and later in the movement a similar allusion to the opening of the Symphony, especially its syncopated rhythm. Example 8 Mozart was to visit another transformation of the opening theme of this Symphony on another occasion nearly half a lifetime later in the overture and denouement of Don Giovanni. Example 9
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Adagietto from Symphony No. 5
Gustav Mahler, one of the last great figures of the late Romantic Movement, was at the same time one of the harbingers of twentieth-century music. His volatile, complex personality and his display in his music of emotional and physical suffering, were out of sync with the mood in turn-of-the-century Europe, which hid behind a façade of political and emotional stability. The public revered him more as a conductor of the prestigious Vienna Opera, than as a composer. Most of Mahler’s music expresses his ongoing battle with fate and the uncertainty of existence – which may explain how he could have written two of the Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) immediately following the birth of his second daughter. Perhaps it is our uncertainty in the future that has made Mahler’s music so popular since the mid twentieth century.
All of Mahler’s symphonies are expansive, intense dramas, with specific musical references to events in the composer’s life alongside the universal challenge to overcome grief and death. Until the Fifth Symphony, all of his instrumental music contained at least one specific allusion to his previously composed vocal music, mostly his settings of songs from the folk anthology Des Knabens Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn). The Fifth Symphony is the first one with neither singing nor song references; it was the first to which he refused to add a programmatic description, letting the music speak for itself. Yet he still maintained the musical imagery of the human struggle in some of his most evocative music. The tempo markings at the beginning of each movement – especially the first two – transparently substitute for the Symphony's plot.
Mahler completed his Symphony No.5 in the summer of 1902, the final work in a burst of creativity that included the six Rückert Songs. It was the first work following his marriage to the scintillating 22-year-old Alma Schindler, the daughter of a famous Austrian landscape painter, and a talented pianist and composer in her own right. Gustav and Alma had met in Paris in November 1901 and were married four months later. This marriage – which lasted for 10 stormy years until the composer’s death – was the subject of endless gossip. It was definitely considered a social advancement for Mahler, a Jew (although converted to Catholicism) from a small town in Bohemia, the backwater of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It gave him the long-sought introduction to the intellectual elite of Vienna, including theatrical producer Alfred Roller, who became Mahler’s innovative designer at Vienna’s Hofoper.
Alma wrote out much of the orchestration of the Symphony at Gustav’s direction, and he considered it “their” music. Both retained manuscripts of this movement in their personal files. As in all his previous symphonies, Mahler used a gigantic orchestra, although often interlaced with the subtle, chamber-music effects of small ensembles. However, the original orchestration was so percussion-heavy that, after a test run with the Vienna Philharmonic, Alma wrote, “…I could not hear [the themes] at all! Mahler had over-scored the percussion instruments and kettledrums so madly and persistently that little beyond the rhythm could be recognized.” Mahler himself was aware of his musical blunder and immediately red-penciled much of the offending percussion and timpani parts before he premiered it in Cologne in 1904. But he was still dissatisfied with the orchestration and continued to make revisions at least until 1909. According to Alma, the symphony was re-orchestrated for nearly every performance he conducted.
In the midst of the typical emotional maelstrom of a Mahler symphony emerges the Adagietto, one of his most gentle and sublime utterances, supplying the Symphony’s requirement for a slow cantabile movement. Scored for strings and harp alone, Mahler spins out its expansive melody in a set of free variations. Example 1 It redefines the emotional meaning of the preceding Scherzo as a desperate fling, an attempt to divert the grief. Only this movement can fulfill the need to address the sadness and prepare a way to acceptance of pain and loss, before moving on.
Silvestre Revueltas (1899-1940)
La noche de los Mayas
Mexican composer, conductor and violinist Silvestre Revueltas was mostly self-taught, using the modern Mexican street music as his model. In his early works he incorporated traditional Indian music and popular folk tunes into loosely structured, highly rhythmic compositions, giving him a reputation as a “Mexican Charles Ives.” Later he adopted a more dissonant style, experimenting with serialism and tone clusters. His works are mostly concise, with an intense rhythmic drive.
Revueltas began his musical career as a violinist and conductor in Texas and Alabama. In 1929 he became assistant to famed Mexican composer and conductor Carlos Chávez, the conductor of the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Mexico. In 1937 Revueltas traveled to Spain, assisting and advising the loyalists and composing some marches and fanfares for their cause. He returned to Mexico City and died there of alcoholism and pneumonia at age 40.
In 1939 Revueltas composed the music for the film La noche de los Mayas, filmed on location amidst the jungles of Yucatan and the ancient Mayan ruins of Mexico. The plot concerns a contemporary white man, who stumbles upon a tribe of people living exactly in the manner of their Mayan ancestors. He witnesses, a fascinating romantic drama in which a huntsman Uz, falls in love with Lol by means of the intervention of "apprentice witch" Zeb. The community holds the lovers responsible for the local drought, Zeb is burned at the stake and a tragic denouement also awaits Uz and Lol. Revueltas created a fantastic sound world that reflected his vision of the Maya world.
In 1960, composer and conductor José Yves Limantour arranged a four-movement suite from the film score:
- La noche de los Mayas (Night of the Mayas): This movement introduces a majestic, but somewhat threatening theme generally associated with the Mayan community that recurs in the final movement. Example 1 Written in ABA form, it also contains a contrasting second section for solo flute and upper strings, associated with the lovers. Example 2 & Example 3
- La noche de jaranas (Night of Revelry): In a sharp change of pace, Revueltas turns to the popular dance rhythms of Mexico. Example 4 The melody goes through subtle changes, while always retaining the basic underlying rhythmic pattern, beginning softly, gradually adding instruments and increasing in dynamics, only to return to the original theme for a quiet ending.
- La noche de Yucatàn (Yucatan Night): This movement interlude opens with a subdued version of the Mayan motive, followed by a broad stereotypoical romantic "movie theme." Example 5 It continues, featuring a duet for the clarinets Example 6 and another popular melody for the upper strings. Example 7
- La noche de encantamiento (Night of Enchantment): After a mysterious opening, Example 8 this, the longest movement of the Suite, builds to a frenzy of rhythm with fiery section solos for the percussion. Example 9 The movement closes with a return to the Maya motive.