Zacharias Plays Mozart
- October 16, 2014
The artistic life of Joseph Haydn embodies the breadth of the Viennese Classical era. When he was born in 1732, the Baroque period had reached its apogee. And over the course of Haydn’s life—indeed, largely by his own hand—what has since become known as the Classical style would grow to maturity. By the time of Haydn’s death in 1809, his student Ludwig van Beethoven was boldly extending the Classical idiom with his own brand of fiery individualism, and within five years, the precocious Viennese teenager Franz Schubert would pen his first significant works.
Haydn’s excellence in every prevalent musical genre of the day rendered him the most celebrated composer of his generation, and his seminal role in cultivating the signature innovations of that period have earned him historical standing as the father of the Classical style. Noting Haydn’s foundational contributions to the symphony and string quartet—two of Western music’s quintessential media since the eighteenth century—scholar James Webster writes that “no other composer approaches his combination of productivity, quality and historical importance in these genres.” Haydn’s catalogue of 104 symphonies—which includes myriad revelatory works, but even the “worst” of which are very fine indeed—positions him as the father of the modern symphony. (Indeed, beyond the most immediately familiar of Haydn’s symphonies—primarily those made famous by such nicknames as “Surprise,” “Farewell,” etc.—the excellence of such unjustly obscure works—quick: how does Symphony no. 51 go? no. 80?—only further testifies to Haydn’s mastery.) Over the course of this remarkable output, we hear the steady crystallization of the symphonic form, so that by the time of his last twelve, the celebrated “London” symphonies, a sterling model is in place for the inheritance of Beethoven and the Romantic generation. Of Haydn, Webster continues, “In the 20th century he was understood primarily as an ‘absolute’ musician… but earnestness, depth of feeling and referential tendencies are equally important to his art.”
In the context of the span of Haydn’s creative career, the middle-period symphonies are particularly interesting. It is in these, along the way to the “Paris” (nos. 82–87) and especially the “London” Symphonies (nos. 93–104), that Haydn experiments with form, perfecting the blueprint that will serve those later masterworks (which, instead, demonstrate a completely new approach to orchestral color and nuance).
Haydn’s Symphony no. 40 in F Major, composed in 1763, reflects this vital stage in the development of the genre—the symphony’s dynamic adolescence, en route to the self-awareness of adulthood. It is a work of irresistible freshness and exuberance; its character is asserted right away by its piquant orchestration of oboes, horns, and strings. As the Symphony begins, a long, eloquent theme unfurls, launched by a soaring opening gesture of an ascending sixth in the first violins. Throughout this sweeping opening statement, the bass remains firmly rooted on the tonic. As the harmony moves into the dominant—the point at which, in the mature sonata form of Haydn’s later symphonies, a contrasting second theme will be introduced—here, there is no true second theme; rather than give the first theme a sparring partner, Haydn instead expands on it, mining the depth of one musical thought. With the equally compact development section and recapitulation, we further hear what will, post facto, be known as sonata form metamorphosing in its cocoon.
Neither does the Symphony contain a true slow movement. In its place, Haydn writes a happy-go-lucky second movement, set for strings only, whose winsome charm is matched by the third movement Menuet. This seemingly light, carefree symphony concludes in the learned style with a tightly wound, and exhilarating, fugue (simultaneously the work’s shortest and most sophisticated movement).
Patrick Castillo ©2014
The piano concerto arguably represents Mozart’s signature medium. From his childhood, he revered the form, as captured in an anecdote later shared by one Johann Andreas Schachtner with Wolfgang’s sister, Nannerl Mozart:
I once went back to the house with your honoured father [the composer Leopold Mozart], … when we came upon the four-year-old Wolfgang busy with his pen. Papa: What are you writing? Wolfgang: A clavier concerto, the first movement is nearly finished. Papa: Let me see. Wolfgang: It’s not ready yet. Papa: Let me see: it must be quite something. His father took it away and showed me a smear of notes, most of them written over rubbed-out inkblots. (NB: not knowing any better, little Wolfgangerl had dipped the pen to the bottom of the inkwell each time, so when he put it to the paper a drop of ink was bound to fall off, but he could deal with this by drawing the palm of his hand across it, wiping it away, and then writing straight on.) We began to laugh at this obvious gallimaufry, but then your father began to give attention to the chief question, the notes and their composition and, after looking at the sheet for some time, he began to shed tears, tears of wonderment and joy. Have a look, Herr Schachtner, he said, see how correctly and properly it is written, but it is really no use as it is so extraordinarily difficult that no-one could play it. Then Wolfgangerl said: That’s why it’s a concerto, you must practice for a long time to get it right, you see, that’s how it goes. He played, and managed to get just enough out of it for us to know what he wanted. He had the idea at that time that to play a concerto and work a miracle were one and the same thing.
The piano concerto would serve as Mozart’s calling card at the height of his fame in Vienna. Mozart composed twelve of his twenty-seven piano concerti (from K. 449 to K. 503) for a series of self-presented concerts between 1784 and 1786. Expressly designed to showcase himself as both composer and virtuoso, these works crystallized the piano concerto medium: the piano writing is in equal measures logically expressive and brilliantly virtuosic; the dynamic between soloist and orchestra is pitch-perfect. Writing for The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Cliff Eisen and Stanley Sadie identify the concerti written in these three years as “unquestionably the most important works of their kind.”
The Concerto no. 17 in G Major, K. 453, exemplifies Mozart’s deeply personal approach to the medium. Not only a vehicle for soloistic virtuosity, it serves too as an outlet for Mozart’s most idealized musical expression. Witness the resemblance to operatic recitative of the opening Allegro’s second theme, with its pleading, single-note repetition: but Mozart refines this melody’s declamatory quality, setting it to a pleasing lilt in place of the parlando of recitative. Elsewhere, Mozart writes cantabile passages in the piano, spreading the melodic contour, legato, over the instrument’s highest and lowest register—as if fashioning the kind of arioso line that the limits of the human voice preclude him from writing in his operas.
Indeed, the Concerto on the whole might be heard as an idealized view of the cosmos. Its character is gentle and idyllic; its minor-key moments (the aforementioned second theme, for instance) lack the gravitas of, say, Brahms (or even of Don Giovanni); any hint of darkness here is more the cooling shade of a grove than the ominous shadows of storm clouds.
The second movement is an Andante of impossible beauty (its dreamy, four-measure introduction, an inspired reimagination of the first movement’s recitative-like second theme). In addition to the expressive qualities of the opening Allegro being heightened to piercing intensity, the wind textures conjured here are especially marvelous.
The Allegretto finale is light and carefree. A charming anecdote has come down to us that Mozart taught his pet starling to sing this movement’s opening melody (but that the bird consistently sang one note incorrectly, replacing the G-natural in the second measure with a G-sharp). Despite the enduring abundance of Mozart myths, this one is eminently believable. Not only do we have testament in Mozart’s personal ledger, from when he purchased the pet (“starling bird. 34 kreutzer”—followed by a sketch of the theme, with the G-sharp—“Das war schön!”); the Allegretto’s tunefulness alone suggests that it must be true. With this Concerto that sees nothing in the world around it but beauty and wonder, Mozart has captured the imagination even of Mother Nature.
Patrick Castillo ©2014
The music of British composer John Woolrich draws from visual and literary as well as musical sources. Such works as The Ghost in the Machine and The Barber’s Timepiece moreover demonstrate compositional procedures based on mechanical processes rather than organic thematic development. Finally, Woolrich takes inspiration from music of the past. Describing the idea of pure artistic originality as “unreal,” Woolrich has surmised in an interview, “If another value, other than making yourself distinct from other people, is finding relationships with other people … why not make relationships with the people who have been around, whom you’ve listened to, the composers you’ve learned about yourself through? It’s what every great composer has done. It’s why there are all these variations on a theme. It’s why people transcribe other people’s music. It’s what Liszt is doing with Beethoven.”
Mozart and Monteverdi figure importantly in this way in Woolrich’s music—the latter in his Ulysses Awakes for solo viola and strings. “Ulysses Awakes is a transcription of me listening to Monteverdi,” the composer has said. “It’s the stuff I like most in Monteverdi. So I take out the stuff that doesn’t interest me so much and intensify the dissonances and so on.”
Woolrich casts the viola soloist in the role of Ulysses, setting the aria “Dormo ancora o son desto?” from Act I of Monteverdi’s opera Il ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria. The aria is sung as Ulysses awakes on the shore of Ithaca after a ten-year journey at sea that has followed the ten-year Trojan War. Woolrich continues: “The Ulysses story is about never getting there. When you get it, it’s not what you wanted in the first place. When you get home after twenty years of war and being kept away at sea, and you meet your wife, she’s twenty years older, and you’re twenty years older, and only the dog actually recognizes you. And then you get itchy feet after a bit. You get the crew back together and sail off and, in Dante, you go off and sail over the edge of the world. So the idea of Ulysses Awakes is that it’s a moment when Ulysses wakes up on the beach not knowing where he is, and not knowing what the end of the story is. But the assumption is there will be an end to the story. He will be happy at home. … [But] when you get there, you don’t want it. So what I did… was to take out the resolutions of cadences. The music is always leading, and it never gets there. It’s about anticipation, but not arrival.”
Patrick Castillo ©2014
Thanks to bootlegged manuscripts that circulated around Europe, Joseph Haydn (1732–1809) was already famous in Paris by the time he negotiated a new contract in 1779 with his longtime employers, Austria’s Esterhazy family, granting him new leeway to compose and publish works for his own profit. One foreign admirer who took advantage was a young French count, Claude-Francois-Marie Rigolet; he promised Haydn the handsome sum of 25 louis d’or each, plus additional fees for publication, for the works that became the six “Paris” symphonies, Nos. 82–87, composed in 1785 and 1786. (By comparison, Mozart earned only 5 louis d’or for his “Paris” symphony from 1778.) The huge sound of Haydn’s Symphony No. 87 in A, tailored to the large orchestra that he knew would be used in Paris, is a world away from the fledgling symphonies created nearly thirty years earlier for the Esterhazy’s tiny private ensemble, but in both contexts the aptly nicknamed “Father of the Symphony” knew how to maximize the collective and individual contributions from an orchestra.
Aaron Grad ©2019
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