Season Finale: Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Prague Symphony
Mozart, the onetime child prodigy who had dazzled audiences all over Europe, found himself in an unexpected predicament in his early twenties: He was stuck in his hometown of Salzburg. He resigned from the court of the local Archbishop in 1777 and set out with his mother in search of new employment, but his visits to Mannheim and Paris failed to produce any real prospects. At least he came away from his time in Mannheim, home to one of the world’s finest orchestras, with a new arsenal of brilliant ensemble effects.
Mozart returned to Salzburg in 1779 and begrudgingly resumed working for the Archbishop. On the side, he cultivated his own private circle of musicians and patrons, for whom he wrote symphonies, concertos, serenades and other entertaining diversions. We don’t know exactly the circumstances that led to Mozart composing the Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola in 1779, but we can presume that it was some social event in Salzburg. Mozart, a fine violinist and violist, would surely have played one of the solo parts.
The idea of a concerto for multiple soloists had been around for nearly a century (in the form of the Baroque concerto grosso), but the Sinfonia concertante was a trendy new approach flourishing in places like London, Mannheim and Paris—where Mozart actually wrote his first example for a quartet of soloists. In the Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola, Mozart addressed the natural imbalance in projection by calling for the viola to be tuned a half-step higher than normal, increasing the alto instrument’s power. Modern instruments and metal strings have alleviated this need, so today’s soloists often forgo the transposition.
One of the sounds Mozart picked up in Mannheim was a long crescendo that gathers strength over a constant bass note, a device so characteristic of the local composers that it was dubbed the “Mannheim roller.” A terrific example is the final climax of the tutti exposition that precedes the arrival of the soloists.
The central Adagio movement unwinds its haunting main theme in skeins of long, singing phrases that weave between the two solo instruments. As in the first movement, the two soloists share a fully composed cadenza, imparting a chamber-music intimacy to this orchestral score. The finale continues the impressive display of ensemble colors, including prominent passages for the horns and oboes, all in support of quick-witted banter between the soloists.
Aaron Grad ©2017
Mozart entered the massive Piano Concerto in C Major into his catalog of finished works on December 4, 1786, and probably performed it the next night in Vienna. Then, on December 6, he marked another piece as completed, his first symphony in three years. Mozart debuted the new D-major symphony on January 19, 1787 in Prague, where he had traveled to see the successful production of his 1786 opera The Marriage of Figaro. He had wanted to visit London that season, and may have even begun the symphony in anticipation of such a trip, but the journey stalled when Mozart’s father Leopold refused to provide childcare. Fortunately, the less ambitious trip to Prague still proved valuable, with Mozart securing the opera commission that would result in Don Giovanni. At a time when Mozart’s star-power in Vienna was waning, he soaked up the adoration he received in Prague, where he is purported to have said, “Meine Prager verstehen mich” (“My Praguers understand me”).
The Prague Symphony has some unusual features in its form. It is one of only three symphonies in which Mozart used a slow introduction, a feature more typical of Haydn. It also omitted the third-movement minuet, a more recent but by then common addition to the symphonic form. Evidence suggests that Mozart composed the finale last, possibly intended as a replacement for the earlier Paris Symphony in the same key and also in three movements, and only subsequently added the first two movements to create an altogether new symphony.
However Mozart developed it, the Symphony No. 38 is a marvel of his mature symphonic craft, standing with his final group of three symphonies from 1788 among the finest specimens of the Viennese Classical style. The slow introduction heightens the gravitas of the work, especially the brooding D-minor passages that foreshadow like-minded music in the forthcoming Don Giovanni score. When the Allegro body of the movement begins, it has some of the breathless energy of the overture to The Marriage of Figaro, delighting in running sixteenth-notes and dynamic contrasts, while still retaining a patient, chorale-like layer underneath. The brilliant exuberance of this music is expected, a hallmark of Mozart’s music since he was a teenager; it is the subtle shading and layering that sets it apart.
The Andante is meatier than many equivalent slow movements, built in a full-figured sonata form rather than something more streamlined. (The finale likewise uses a sonata form, as opposed to the more casual rondo that typically comes last.) The vertiginous chromatics, introduced in the violins’ arcing melodic line at the beginning, ripple throughout the movement in all manner of passing dissonances and pungent collisions. The Presto conclusion quotes music from The Marriage of Figaro, in which Susanna tries to rush Cherubino out the window. It is a fittingly dramatic sendoff for such an emotionally charged symphony, and it must have delighted those Praguers who gobbled up Figaro and all things Mozart.
Aaron Grad ©2011