Masterworks 5 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756-1791

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466

Mozart composed a total of 28 solo keyboard concertos, most of them for his own use in subscription concerts in Vienna. Consequently, the timing of their composition was influenced by the artistic fashions and the economic wellbeing of the city. For five years after Mozart moved to Vienna in 1781, he was a hot commodity both as composer and virtuoso performer. Commissions were coming in like a flood, and he was able to live quite high off the hog. Thus, in the short period between 1782 and 1786, with a booming economy creating a heyday for musical life in Vienna, Mozart composed 17 of these concertos, including this one in D minor. During those years aristocratic families vied with one another to underwrite and sponsor concerts of the latest in musical fashion. “Concertos,” Mozart wrote his father, “are a happy medium between what is too hard and too easy...pleasing to the ear...without being vapid.”

But occasionally darker moods prevailed. This Concerto is one of only two he wrote in a minor key. It is full of stormy outbursts and is probably the most emotionally charged of all of Mozart's concerti. Not surprisingly, the young Beethoven was particularly taken with this Concerto, wrote two cadenzas for it, and performed it as the intermission feature in a performance of Mozart's opera La clemenza di Tito at a concert organized by Mozart's widow, Constanza, on March 31, 1795.

The composition and part copying of the concerto were not completed until the afternoon of the premiere on February 11, 1785, and thus performed without a complete rehearsal and, at place, at sight! According to a letter of Leopold Mozart, the composer's father, the orchestra nevertheless played splendidly.

Right from the growling syncopated opening measures we know we’re in for a wild ride. Example 1 The orchestra then introduces the obligatory second theme in the major Example 2 but returns to the minor with a motive that will recur throughout the movement. Example 3 After the orchestra’s exposition, Mozart has the piano enter on a completely new theme instead of having the soloist slavishly repeat the exposition. Example 4 The piano also introduces a new secondary theme, this time clearly establishing the major mode. Example 5 It is this new theme that shifts the entire emotional tone of the movement into a brighter more optimistic vein that includes taking up the initial themes in the major, suggesting something of a battle for modal supremacy between orchestra and soloist. Rapid variations in orchestral dynamics suggest a Haydn symphony, and the movement has many of the erratic and stormy characteristics that Mozart was later to use in the Overture to Don Giovanni. To intensify the mood, Mozart makes an uncharacteristically abundant use of the timpani (another characteristic more likely to be found in Haydn).

In the second movement, entitle “Romance,” the emotional temperature has suddenly dropped far below the level Mozart normally invests in the slow movements of his concerti. Example 6 A second section introduces a new theme with a return to the opening. Example 7 Only the middle section, now back in G minor, his chosen key for pathos and tragedy, recalls the mood of the opening movement, including the same use of syncopation as in the opening bars of the Concerto. Example 8 Of course, the ABA song form so common in slow movements requires the return to the mood of the opening.

The rondo finale with its almost shrieking theme from the piano takes up where the first left off. Example 9 Mozart was often given to creating thematic unity in his works by repeating small motives or even intervals in the different movements of a work. In the D minor Concerto, he both recalls the syncopations of the opening and recalls the opening piano theme of the first movement, this time in a different rhythm. Example 10 Mozart again plays with numerous swings between minor and major. In the end, he both obeys and thumbs his nose at the convention against ending large works in the minor mode. Although he concludes the coda in a triumphant fanfare in D major, he inserts an ominous timpani roll into the final bars. Example 11

Hector Berlioz 1805-1869Hector Berlioz (1805-1869)
Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14

Being a rebel without independent means makes life difficult for an artist. Hector Berlioz, the son of a physician, was sent by his family to Paris to study medicine, but at 21 gave it up to become a musician. To make ends meet as a composer, he became a prolific writer on music, musicians, conducting and orchestration, as well as a sharp-tongued music critic for Paris newspapers.

Berlioz was a master of orchestration. He freed the brass, making it the equal of the other orchestral sections. He experimented with new instruments, including the bass clarinet and valve trumpet, and pioneered the use of the English horn as one of the orchestra’s most expressive solo instruments. He paid only lip service to conventional musical form and was the foremost advocate of program music. Every one of his compositions is narrative, related in some way to a story or literary text. This approach to art was the natural outcome of his belief in the inseparability of music and ideas. For Berlioz, music and literature were inextricably connected as the quintessential expression of human imagination and emotion.

As if Romantic literature didn’t present enough Sturm ind Drang, Berlioz’s personal life added a subsequent entanglement. Around 1827, he attended productions in Paris of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, performed by the great British actor, David Garrick, and the apparently somewhat less talented actress, Harriet Smithson. Despite the fact that the young composer didn’t know English, he fell madly in love with Smithson, developed an obsessive fixation on her that inspired the Symphonie fantastique, and married her six years later, ultimately making both of them miserable.

The Symphonie fantastique is the first example of a narrative symphony. Berlioz composed it in 1830 as a musical testament to his infatuation. The symphony is united by an Idée fixe, a theme meant to depict the obsession with the beloved, which is introduced in the first movement Example 1 and recurs in all the others. The accompaniment on the strings of this first appearance of the Idée fixe gives the effect of a gradually increasing, and even irregular, heartbeat. The movement describes a young musician seeing his ideal woman for the first time. His fervor is so great that by the end of the movement the theme turns religious. Example 2

In the second movement, a lilting waltz, the artist attends a ball, where his beloved is dancing and frolicking. Example 3 Amidst the hubbub, he becomes conscious of her presence, with the sudden reappearance of the Idée fixe in a completely incongruous key. Example 4

In the third movement the artist goes for an outing in the pastoral countryside, in the midst of which he suddenly remembers his beloved. There is a violent storm, with the thunder symbolizing and foreshadowing the disastrous denouement of the affair. Is it an inner or real storm? This movement provides the first orchestral solo opportunity for the English horn, an instrument that Berlioz championed and which, through his direct and indirect influence, became the quintessential expression of languid melancholy. In this passage, the English horn is echoed by its sister double reed, the oboe. Example 5

By the fourth movement the artist's desperation grows, as does his irrationality. In an opium fantasy, he kills his beloved and is condemned to the guillotine, whence he is quick-marched in a parody of the solemnity of the occasion. Example 6 Before the knife falls, the Idée fixe is imprinted on his memory. Example 7

The finale describes an after-death experience, the Witches’ Sabbath, the spirits portayed by the upper woodwinds. The Idée fixe comes in grotesquely, the beloved becoming an object of scorn. Example 8 At this point the Dies irae, the Catholic chant for the dead, makes its appearance in the low brass. Example 9 Following a fugue on the witches' theme Example 10 – at one point in which the string players beat the wood of their bows above the bridge of their instruments – Berlioz's lets loose with one of his favorite contrapuntal tricks, the outcome of his literal combination of music with program or text. He called it “The reunion of two themes,” where two themes are heard first separately and then combined, no matter how musically incompatible they may be. Example 11 In the last movement the witches’ dance is combined with the Dies irae and the work ends in a wild orchestral extravaganza.

Program notes copyright by:
Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn