Category Archives: Musical Thoughts

Raiders of the Lost Ark – Live at the CSO

Yesterday afternoon I had the pleasure of attending a wonderful performance at Orchestra Hall in downtown Chicago of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra playing the score of Raiders of the Lost Ark live under the direction of Richard Kaufman during the film’s presentation.  For a long time I had thought it would be a great idea to hear a live orchestra accompany a film to give it a kind of “operatic” feel. When I was looking around last winter for any chance screenings of Raiders of the Lost Ark in the Chicagoland area, I was amazed to learn the Chicago Symphony Orchestra would be playing the Raiders score live with the movie this summer.  Large films which contain expansive orchestral soundtracks such as Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET, Star Wars, etc., are the kind of films I have always felt would work especially well when accompanied by a live orchestra.  That is why when I learned of this rare opportunity to hear the CSO accompany a screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark live, I knew this was an event I could not miss, and the presentation I heard and saw yesterday certainly did not disappoint.   

I attended this performance with my two closest friends and my daughter, and we all had a great time watching this fantastic movie as well as the orchestra.  I have seen Raiders more times than I can count, but have never seen a live orchestra playing this wonderful orchestral score, which was in and of itself quite fascinating.  When I first saw this movie with my dad, a friend of his, and my brother when it was released in the summer of 1981, I was eight years old at the time, and thought it was the greatest movie I had ever seen.  It was so much fun, the stunts so spectacular, and the music so incredibly perfect for this movie, my father decided we should stay in the theater and see the movie again. After the second viewing I knew I would be coming back to the theater to see it again and again, which I did throughout that summer and into the next year.

For Christmas, 1981, I received two very special gifts.  The first was a light brown fedora my father gave me with the words “Lost Ark” embossed on the interior sweatband and my initials also stamped on the interior sweatband.  I was so little my dad had to have padding added inside the sweatband so the hat company’s smallest available size could fit my head.  The second gift I received was the original release of the Raiders of the Lost Ark soundtrack given to me as a Christmas gift from my mother’s side of the family.  I listened to this soundtrack over and over, which helped nurture my lifelong love of music, especially orchestral music.  I also eventually received a Well of Souls play set complete with twelve toy snakes I would diligently count each time I put it away to be sure I didn’t lose any, some Indiana Jones action figures and an Indiana Jones doll.  I even wrote to Harrison Ford as a kid to tell him how much I admired his work on Raiders, but didn’t hear back from him.  I even at one point as a ten-year old boy created my own audio version of the movie on an audio cassette recording complete with the original soundtrack recording I played on my record player in the background to accompany the “action” I attempted to realize vocally with dialogue of the characters, sound effects, etc.  For those musical tracks that did not exist on the original soundtrack recording, I tried to sing the musical underscore.

As I sat in Orchestra Hall yesterday afternoon, it was like being eight years old all over again because in a very real sense I was seeing Raiders again for the first time – with live orchestra as I never had before.  When I saw the Paramount logo come up and dissolve into the establishing shot of the South American mountain with the mysterious, perfectly composed music for this scene, I got chills and knew this would be every bit as good as I thought it would be. John Williams’ ingenious score came to life during this performance in a way it never had for me before, as is usually the case when hearing a live performance instead of a recording. I heard instruments I never knew played during the score because sometimes the sound effects of the final mix in a movie tend to overwhelm the music, especially in the famous scene when Indy attempts to outrun an enormous boulder.  While I have listened to the soundtrack several times without the film, the balance of instruments in live performance still revealed new dimensions to the music I had never heard before.  During this performance, I felt the music tended to overwhelm the sound effects on occasion, but never to the point of upsetting the overall balance of the movie as a whole.  In fact, what most impressed me was Richard Kaufman’s ability to keep the musical queues spot on, such as when Marion blows smoke in the face of Toht brilliantly accompanied by a glockenspiel arpeggio. As the film came to more and more critical musical queues, such as the very many which exist in the ingenious music that accompanies the phenomenal opening scene in the jungle and the idol temple, as well as the basket chase scene, I wondered how the orchestra was going to pull them off, and they were virtually perfect on each and every queue.  We sat in the very highest section of the hall center stage with a large railing in front of us like at an amusement park ride to keep us from falling forward.  It was a bit disturbing to be seated on such a steep plane, but one of the benefits of being seated so high was to see how the conductor Richard Kaufman was able to keep the musical queues together with the action on screen.  I noticed there were different colored vertical bars which went from left to right across a screen he had above the music stand which contained the score.  Some bars were green, some were red, some were blue, and still others white.  I am not sure what all the colors signified but I guessed the passing bars were an indication to the conductor of each new musical bar.  Under these musical bars on this monitor was the movie itself so the conductor could see the action on screen.

Musically speaking, I was most impressed with the truck chase music and how the conductor kept the ever-changing meter and tempo changes together throughout what I consider to be the greatest musical-action sequence I have ever seen.  The brass section was outstanding throughout, especially in the truck chase music which calls for them immediately at the start of this piece in 10/8 time. There were occasions in the “Raiders” theme when I did not feel the trumpets were quite as strong in this live performance as the incredible London Symphony Orchestra’s trumpets on the original soundtrack recording, but the performance of this outstanding score was still fantastic overall.  The opening of the ark music was again astounding as was the Map Room music sequence which I feel is the best accompanied “non-action” sequence I have ever seen in any film. While there is no fighting, nothing blowing up, and no chasing in this scene, the music brilliantly builds with ever-increasing tension and suspense as it draws us in with Indiana Jones’ excitement in discovering the location of the Ark of the Covenant. The one orchestral element I found missing was the choral voices in the Map Room music and the opening of the ark music, but the score is so strong the choir’s absence hardly mattered. On the soundtrack however, the effect of the choir is quite powerful and would no doubt have been all the more powerful with a live choir.

I think what live performances of soundtracks accompanying a film can do is help show just how legitimate the art of film scoring is – no less legitimate and no less an art form than opera music accompanying the action on stage.  All one has to do to realize just how important and how necessary a musical score is to a film like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars is to watch these movies with the sound turned down.  It is striking to realize that without the music, the action on screen almost falls apart.  The music is indeed the “glue” which holds scenes together and ties the audience in with an emotional connection to the action on screen in a way no other medium but music can achieve.  The ability to compose music which is formally coherent while at the same time emphasizes key moments to match the action of the film to each precise moment while also being able to stand on its own as concert hall music is an incredible artistic accomplishment.  While film scores can and do play on cliches as John Williams does so unapologetically in the Raiders soundtrack, that in itself is an art – to draw on common elements which trigger emotions, experiences, and archetypes, while using them in a creatively unique way. “Legit” opera composers do this all the time. Williams is a master of creating memorable leitmotifs which rival Wagner to help the audience identify through music who the villains are, who the hero is, and who the heroine is, while ingeniously adapting to his own unique style different techniques and styles of composition from late and early romanticism, impressionism, contemporary music, etc., to perfectly accompany the action on screen.

It is brilliant how Williams ironically composed the Nazi  music in the late romantic style of Jewish composer Gustav Mahler, and how he also beautifully composed Marion’s music in an impressionistic style with a Debussy-like melodic and muted orchestral texture when Marion comes out in her white dress for Belloq.  The music quickly dissolves to much darker tones to underscore Marion’s intentions when she covers a knife with her original clothing followed immediately by more Stravinsky-like chaotic sonorities when Indy tries to descend into the snake pit at the same time Marion also metaphorically “descends” into the snake pit of attempting to escape from the snake-like Belloq. Creativity is not the invention of truly “new” things, but rearranging old, preexisting elements in a unique way.  In my college days as a music composition and piano performance major, I could sense the prejudice against film music composers as if they were Hollywood sell-outs who did not compose “legitimate art music,” but fodder for the digestion of the moviegoing masses. While this may be true for some film composers, it is important to remember that composers the art music world consider all-time masters such as Mozart wrote precisely to please his audiences so he could make money from his music.  Yet one will almost never hear any criticism of the impeccable artistry of Mozart’s finest compositions, because even though they were created at least in part with a financial goal in mind, Mozart still composed some of the greatest works of musical art while still knowing how to reach his audience at the same time. The two goals are not necessarily mutually exclusive, which is a fact masters such as Mozart understood and is all too often missed by the pretentious snobbery of modern academia. The fact is, Mozart’s operas of the eighteenth century may well have been the film scores of today since his operas, like film scores today were considered eighteenth century “popular music.”

I am excited to learn the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is also scheduled to perform the orchestral score with the film ET as well as It’s a Wonderful Life. I was pleased to see such a large crowd to support this screening of Raiders of the Lost Ark accompanied by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This wonderful idea of marrying film with live orchestral accompaniment is a step in the right direction for orchestras that struggle to survive on playing “museum” pieces without also adapting to the popular culture in which they exist. Besides, film scores are no less a musical art form than any other genre of “traditional” classical music, and by the sheer numbers who come out to experience it, no less appreciated.

My Mozart Top Ten

For a time I have been considering my “top ten” Mozart and Beethoven compositions.  They are lists which were both easy and difficult to create because both masters composed so many brilliant masterpieces.  Below are my top ten Mozart compositions.  While it was not easy to compose this list in order of “greatness,” I have tried to assemble a list which as closely as possible, reflects what I believe to be the ten greatest masterpieces in order of greatness ever composed by Mozart.  In some cases, as in the last three compositions on this list, it was difficult for me to assign a specific order.  In the end, they are all remarkable and amazing works of art.  There are also several other worthy compositions by Mozart which could have easily made this list.  This just so happens to be my personal top ten Mozart masterworks.

1.  Divertimento In E-flat major, K. 563

2.  Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat major, K. 364

3.  Le Nozze di Figaro, K. 492

4.  Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581

5.  String Quartet No. 17 in B-flat major, K. 458

6.  Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466

7.  Piano concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488

8.  Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550

9.  String Quintet No. 6 in E-flat major. K. 614

10.  Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491

All but one of these masterpieces were composed during Mozart’s “Vienna” years between 1781 and 1791.  The “Sinfonia Concertante” K. 364, was composed in Salzburg in 1779, and reflects a new found compositional maturity and overall depth in Mozart’s work after his failed trips to find a suitable post in Mannheim and Paris between 1777-1778, the death of his mother in Paris on July 3, 1778, and the loss of his first love, Aloysia Weber, the sister of the woman who would become his wife – Constanze Weber.

What is so fascinating about Mozart in general is how his music does not necessarily reflect his personal feelings or commentary on the events of his life, as it so often does for Beethoven.  It has sometimes been said of Mozart’s “Piano Sonata in A Minor,” K. 310, composed during the summer of 1778, that it reflects his personal feelings and agitation over the recent events of his mother’s death and his inability to secure a viable post.  The choice of the key of A minor – when minor keys were considered at the time to be generally “unstable,” and the rhythmic intensity of this piece are sometimes said to supposedly reflect his personal agitation and emotional instability at the time he composed this sonata.  While in this remarkably ingenious work there is a very new and almost breathless intensity to the outer movements and a calm serenity and depth in the second movement in F major, with its darker middle “B” section in the minor, this does not necessarily mean these aspects of the music reflect his personal feelings.  His bright colored E-flat major “Symphony No. 39,” K. 543 and the triumphant C Major “Symphony No. 41,” K. 551, the “Jupiter,” were written during a time in which Mozart wrote pitiful begging letters for money to his friend and fellow Freemason Michael Puchberg.  In one of these letters, Mozart spoke of “black thoughts which could only be banished with great difficulty,” yet no sign of this turmoil exists in these works he composed during this time.

While it is true Mozart’s life events almost certainly influenced his creative life, these influences appear to have affected his compositional approach and/or technical preoccupations instead of a personal emotional reaction expressed in a work itself.  The “Sinfonia Concertante” does indeed reflect a new found maturity and depth, but it is a growth in his compositional approach and an expansion of the range of the creative possibilities along with an increased intellectual complexity of his music.  Mozart’s music transcends the personal and reaches us on a deeper and more universal level than music which strives primarily for personal emotional self-expression.

1.  I have already reviewed why I find Mozart’s “Divertimento in E-Flat Major,” K. 563 such a profoundly exceptional Mozart masterpiece.  I give this composition the top placement because I don’t think Mozart ever equaled and certainly never surpassed the transcendent beauty of the second movement of this work.  While all of the movements are masterful and the entire work arguably the greatest string trio ever composed, it is this second movement which is for me, its crowning jewel.

2.  The “Sinfonia Concertante in E-Flat Major,” for violin, viola and orchestra K. 364 is a staggering accomplishment for a 23-year old composer, who composed this work in 1779 and with it made a profound advance from the already exceptional beauty and mastery of his five violin concertos from 1775.  The compositional range is greater, and the tone colors more rich, with Mozart utilizing a divided viola section in the orchestra. Mozart even makes use of the very rarely used technique of scordatura tuning for the viola, tuning it up a half-step, and writing the viola part in the key signature of D major so it would sound in the concert key of E-flat major.  He did this to improve the sound quality of the viola whose timbre does not carry as well as that of the violin.  The lovely duets written for the violin and the viola throughout this work show Mozart’s superb awareness of the capabilities of both instruments, as he could play each of them masterfully. He also exploits the large range of both string instruments beautifully and naturally within the context of the musical line.  The depth of the second movement is the most profound utterance Mozart composed in his life at this time, and would rarely surpass in the future.

3.  On May 1, 1786, Mozart’s great comic opera, “Le Nozze di Figaro” received its premiere at the Burgtheater in Vienna.  The overture to this work is among the most brilliant and famous overtures ever written, and the opera is one of several Mozart operas in the core operatic repertory, and is certainly among his most beloved.  The mere nine performances it received during its first run in Vienna had to have been deeply disappointing to Mozart, who put his whole heart and soul into this work about love, forgiveness, humor, the joys and conflicts between men and women, and the struggle for human dignity and happiness amidst an often unfair aristocratic system.  In this opera, DaPonte and Mozart’s characters are real flesh-and-blood people who are realistically human, instead of being archetypical cardboard characters almost always found in opera at the time. On top of this realistic representation of humanity, the subject matter of commoners in conflict with the aristocracy hit a little too close to home at a time very close to the French Revolution, giving the Emperor Joseph II pause before finally agreeing to have it staged after much convincing by Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, and not Mozart himself as was fictionalized in the film “Amadeus.”  The music is of a transcendent beauty and has a flow from one aria and recitative to the next in a seamless whole.  It features some of the most beautiful orchestral and vocal music ever composed, especially for the soprano voice in the parts of Susanna and the Countess.  The tour de force of the finale of the second act with several of the main characters joining the singing one by one in a delightful comedy of errors ending in a fantastic close is an extraordinary compositional and dramatic feat in the greatest finale to any act Mozart ever composed.

4.  The “Clarinet Quintet in A Major,” K. 581 is a favorite of many, and the reasons are not hard to find.  The combination of a string quartet with the clarinet in the endearing key of A major with its graceful, elegant melodies are only some of the reasons for its enduring popularity.  As in his “Clarinet Concerto in A Major,” K. 622, Mozart masterfully exploits the entire range of the clarinet, even going beyond the lowest range of the modern clarinet since this work was actually written for a kind of “basset” clarinet owned by the man for whom this work and the concerto were composed – Anton Stadler.  Since both the quintet and the concerto were composed for an extended range clarinet, and the autograph of both works are missing, there exists very well-done reconstructions of the original clarinet part to include the lower-register passages which appear to be “displaced” in the melodic continuity of both works in their originally published versions.  The quintet features yet another transcendentally beautiful slow movement – this time in D major in which the clarinet is made to sing with the power of the human voice, and was clearly one of Mozart’s favorite instruments.  He exploited the varieties of tone color of the clarinet, its range, and its varied articulation capabilities to create a work of extraordinary depth and beauty.

5.  In his lifetime, Mozart composed 26 string quartets, including the three “quartet divertimenti” I reviewed in my last post.  His “String Quartet No. 17 in B-Flat Major,” K. 458 is the third in a set of six string quartets he dedicated to his friend and mentor Joseph Haydn, who is considered the “father of the string quartet.”  He heard the quartets Mozart dedicated to him in Mozart’s home on January 15 and February 12, 1785.  Mozart’s father Leopold traveled from Salzburg to Vienna to visit his son, arriving on February 10, 1785, and was able to hear the premiere of three of the quartets performed in Mozart’s home on February 12, including K. 458.  After hearing them Haydn said to Leopold, “Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name.  He has taste, and what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.” Haydn understood the value of Mozart’s music, and knew it surpassed all he had heard, including his own outstanding compositions.  It is not surprising after hearing what is regarded the pinnacle of Mozart’s achievements in string quartet writing, as well as the pinnacle of the Classical Era string quartet, Haydn would express such unbounded praise to Mozart’s proud father.  I would concur with Haydn these works demonstrate Mozart’s unparalleled genius, and in this K. 458 quartet, Mozart made what he called a “long and laborious effort” sound effortless as he so often did.  The fun 6/8 time “hunting” rhythm of the first movement, by which this quartet gets it nickname, “the hunt,” the beautiful minuet, the brilliant rondo finale and most of all, the glorious adagio third movement sets it apart in Mozart’s output.  Indeed all six quartets are rare and exceptional masterpieces, but like the “Divertimento,” K. 563, it is the slow movement of K. 458 that puts it in a class by itself.  It is difficult to describe how this miracle of sound achieves its effect.  The warm and rich tone colors in the key of E-flat major, the silent pauses, the yearning of the first violin and the beautifully unexpected harmonic transformations after crescendos in the exposition and again in the recapitulation all combine to make this work a true rarity in Mozart’s output let alone in all of chamber music.

6.  Immediately after Mozart completed the last of his “Haydn” quartets, K. 465 in C major, also known as the “Dissonance,”  he completed what is perhaps his greatest piano concerto, the “Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor,” K. 466.  Mozart’s father Leopold probably could not have picked a better time to visit his son in Vienna than in early 1785.  He arrived on the very day Mozart completed this concerto – February 10, 1785.  During Leopold’s visit he heard the premiere of three of the six “Haydn” quartets, as well as the “Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor,” K. 466 among other new works by Wolfgang.  This may be not only Mozart’s greatest piano concerto, but the greatest piano concerto ever written, as gives this work the top ranking for all piano concertos.  The quiet and syncopated dramatic D minor opening is so original and the entire work so profound in its scope and conception, it must have been shocking to its first audiences.  Leopold called the work a “new and very fine concerto by Wolfgang” in a letter to his daughter Nannerl.  It would be fascinating to hear a more in-depth description of the impact this work had on Mozart’s father, as being an excellent and well traveled musician himself, he must have appreciated the work’s astounding originality, dramatic tension, and virtuosic piano writing,  It is a work which was highly influential on the young Beethoven.  He greatly admired this concerto and kept it in his performance repertoire.  He even composed cadenzas for the first and third movements, which are widely performed today.  The dramatic minor key and sweeping scope of this concerto was a natural favorite of the Romantics of the 19th century, along with Mozart’s other minor key “Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor,” K. 491, also among my “Mozart top ten.”

7.  Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major,” K. 488 is another undisputed masterpiece for piano and orchestra, completed on March 2, 1786 while finishing work on Figaro.  This work, at least in the outer movements, epitomizes the “sunny side” of Mozart’s pianistic genius, and like a carefree summer day from the opening bar of the first movement, inhabits an entirely different sound and dramatic world than the dark K. 466 D minor concerto completed just over a year before.  Evidence from Mozart’s handwriting and the paper types he used in the autograph score of his “Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major,” reveals Mozart began work on this piece in 1784 – the year he would complete no less than six piano concertos for subscription concerts.  It is difficult to reconcile why he would not have completed work on it then, since the melodic material is even more beautiful, inspired, and profound than any of the six he completed in 1784.  Nevertheless, when he picked up his quill two years later to complete the work in 1786, he decided to omit his original scoring for oboes and instead added a pair of clarinets – an ingenious choice Mozart exploits to the fullest in this beautifully composed work of art. Mozart’s orchestration utilizing softer tone colors in this lovely work is most definitely reminiscent of the tone color palette of Figaro, and the second movement written in the key of F sharp minor – the only movement Mozart ever wrote in this key, is essentially a beautiful tragic aria for piano and orchestra.  The affect is of deep dramatic impact, especially after the brilliant and sunny tone colors of the first movement.  The depth and originality of this second movement must have made quite an impression on its first audiences, and was likely appreciated by them as well since the slow movement to Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-Flat Major,” K. 482 – also a deeply moving piece written in a minor key was so wonderfully received it had to be repeated. The last movement is a brilliant and virtuosic rondo finale which restores the sunny tone colors and bright key of A major from the first movement.

8.  In the summer of 1788, over an extraordinary six-week period, Mozart composed his last and three greatest symphonies. They are all staples of the orchestral repertoire, and perhaps the most famous of the three is the “Symphony No. 40 in G Minor,” K. 550.  While the tone of this work is darker than that of any of the other two symphonies in the trio, it could not be said to be necessarily “tragic,” but urgent and intense.  What makes the opening of the first movement in particular so remarkable is how it begins as if “in the middle of something” – very unusual for Mozart. There is not an emphatic chord to start the work as found in so many symphonies, but a restless eighth-note figure in the violas under the main driving theme in the violins in octaves which begins immediately during the first bar.  Throughout this work, there is a kind of restlessness and urgency rarely heard in Mozart’s music which is part of what makes it so unique.  We only have a chance to catch our breaths in the lovely second movement, but even there, the persistent thirty-second note motif which pervades the entire movement – sometimes dark, and sometimes light, gives the piece a driving motion amidst an otherwise lilting, calm, and serene background. It may be said Mozart was always writing opera, even when not technically working on one. His sense of drama and color, contrast and texture are most evident in this lovely second movement, and the relentless intensity carries through in the minuet and then the rondo finale, in which Mozart utilizes an ascending “rocket motif” Beethoven would later use to begin his “Piano Sonata No. 1 in F Minor” Op. 2, No. 1.  In this last movement, Mozart even looks ahead to 120 years or so in the future by starting the development section with a startlingly original melodic progression in unison which is essentially a 12-tone row as utilized by Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg in the 20th century.

9.  The “String Quintet No. 6 in E-Flat Major,” K. 614 is the last masterpiece Mozart composed for the string quintet genre.  It is in the string quintet, and not the string quartet where Mozart can be said to have reached his pinnacle in chamber music writing.  All six are undisputed masterpieces of exceptional craftsmanship.  The addition of a second viola, Mozart’s favorite string instrument, enriches the texture and the sonorous possibilities of the ensemble – one which Mozart was masterful in exploiting in all of his string quintets.  Mozart completed K. 614 on April 12, 1791, just eight months shy of his death.  It is a jovial work, with a cheerful 6/8 “hunting” theme in the first movement, and a dancelike theme and variations in the second movement, followed by a light and rhythmically diverse minuet, and an exceptional rondo finale – the crowning jewel of this work. In the development section of the finale, Mozart launches into a truly amazing contrapuntal section equal to Bach in its seamless and effortless execution with each instrument joining in imitation of the instrument before it, with harmonic turns all working together with a feeling of inevitable rightness so characteristic of Mozart’s music. Even when writing the most complex music with extreme demands of formal balance, the use of multiple motifs in contrapuntal imitation, and harmonic coherency, Mozart manages to make everything sound inevitable and obvious, as if it could not possibly be any other way than how it is.

10.  Of his 21 original concertos for one piano and orchestra, Mozart used clarinets in only three of them – K. 482, K. 488, and K. 491 – bearing witness to the fact clarinets were not yet in everyday use in Mozart’s time for all ensembles, unlike during the time of Beethoven, just one generation later in which clarinets were a staple of virtually every orchestra.  Of those three concertos, Mozart only wrote one with both oboes and clarinets in the orchestra – the “Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor,” K. 491.  It can be said Mozart never went further in his exploration of the possibilities of the piano concerto after this work, with his last three piano concertos more or less representing different versions of techniques and textures he already explored in the concertos before them.  In this work, another favorite of Beethoven, which was the model for his own “Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Minor,” Op. 37, Mozart returns again to the minor – the only other minor key piano concerto he composed.  Outside of the vast symphonic scope of this work and the brilliant and ingeniously virtuosic pianistic writing, the woodwind writing in this work is the most intricate and complex he ever wrote for a piano concerto.  While much thematic material is given to the woodwinds in K. 482, Mozart in this work goes beyond his previous effort, especially in the second movement of this work in which the woodwinds carry almost all of the thematic material. The use of woodwinds to carry much of the thematic material in a piano concerto is an innovation Mozart began as early as 1784 with his “Piano Concerto No. 15 in B-Flat Major,” K. 450 in which the opening of the first movement begins with the main theme in oboes and bassoons.  It is the huge scope of K. 491, the dramatic power, the large orchestra, and the rhythmic intensity of this concerto which so impressed the Romantics, and especially Beethoven who after hearing this work remarked excitedly to a friend, “We will never write anything like that!”  Like the “Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor,” K. 466, this piece in its sheer power and innovation must have been a shock to its first audiences.

Mozart’s top ten compositions is only the tip of the iceberg of what is an almost superhuman body of ingenious work by the greatest musical genius of all time.  The fact this list represents eight separate genres bear witness to the scope of Mozart’s diverse genius.  He was an unparalleled master of all forms, all genres, and all techniques.  And while we may sometimes feel we have in a sense been “robbed” of even more masterpieces due to his very short life of only 35 years, what he accomplished in that time is more than double what many have produced in twice the time. It was for Beethoven to receive “the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn” to continue the legacy of the Viennese Classical tradition into the stormy Romantic period of the 19th century.





Mozart’s Early Masterpieces

I recently read an article which said that Felix Mendelssohn was an even greater compositional child prodigy than Mozart, and George Grove, the founding editor of “Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians” has called Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” overture, Op. 21 “the greatest marvel of early maturity that the world has ever seen in music.” This work was completed by Mendelssohn on August 6, 1826 when Mendelssohn was 17 years and 6 months old. While it is true Mendelssohn was a remarkable and most gifted compositional child prodigy, producing mature masterpieces in his teen years, it is not quite accurate in my estimation to say he was a greater compositional child prodigy than Mozart, who also produced several mature masterpieces in his teen years. Given the weight, scope, and influence of Mozart’s mature compositional output, it may seem easy to ignore or overlook his early masterpieces, but there are several early works he created which give no hint of his chronological age, and are composed with an assuredness, mastery, and quality which often equal and occasionally surpass works Mozart composed during his mature Vienna years.

1) The three string “Quartet Divertimenti,” K. 136, 137, and 138, composed in Salzburg in 1772, when Mozart was 16 years old have always impressed me as works of exceptionally rare beauty and Classical-style elegance. Whether performed by a string quartet, as they apparently were intended, or by a full string ensemble, which also comes off with beautiful effect, they are remarkable works, which show Mozart in full command of the Classical style, and the depth of the slow movements of these works are especially profound. The autograph manuscripts of these works resemble fair copies with clear handwriting and few corrections, reflecting the perfect and carefree nature of this music, while not being shallow. There is truly no difference between the mastery and maturity of these slow movements especially, and almost anything Mozart wrote during his mature Vienna years. While these three divertimenti are much different than the Divertimento in E-Flat Major,” K. 563 for string trio Mozart composed in 1788, this music is still beyond mere “light entertainment” Mozart often composed during his Salzburg years as a teenager.

2) The “String Quintet in B-Flat Major, K. 174, composed in 1773 at the age of 17, was a watershed in string ensemble writing for Mozart, especially when compared to the set of six “Viennese” string quartets he completed immediately before this work. This set of six “Viennese” string quartets, drawing at least in part from the influence of Haydn’s Op. 20 set, with fugal finales in the first and the sixth quartet,  and the addition of minuets, are a definite advance from Mozart’s earlier six “Milanese” string quartets, which featured three movements in the “Italian” style. Still, Mozart’s finales in these “Viennese” quartets tend to be quite short, and while I myself consider all of them masterpieces except for the second of the set in A major, they are still fairly “lightweight” in content and are still some distance away from the maturity and mastery found in his six string quartets dedicated to his friend and mentor, Joseph Haydn.  Nevertheless they are still quite lovely, elegant, and gracefully epitomizing the Classical style.   In the “Haydn” quartets, Mozart achieved the pinnacle of his string quartet writing, composed between 1782 and 1785 when Mozart had settled in Vienna, and after he had been exposed to Haydn’s latest and highly influential Op. 33 set of six string quartets of 1781. What is most striking about the “String Quintet in B-Flat Major,” K. 174 is the overall scope of the work in comparison to the “Viennese” quartets. As if literally overnight, Mozart jumped to full maturity in his string writing, with this work lasting nearly twice as long – almost 30 minutes compared to the last of the “Viennese” quartets, K. 173 in D minor, which lasts some 15 minutes with a short 3-minute fugal finale. In the “String Quintet” K. 174, Mozart wrote a long and fully developed sonata-form first movement replete with amazing contrapuntal execution in the development section, followed by a moving and transcendentally beautiful adagio. The minuet has an energy and a vitality beyond that of some of the minuets found in the “Viennese” quartets, and Mozart even composed a very interesting and lovely second trio of this minuet he discarded from the final version. But the crowning jewel of this work which really makes it stand out above all of his string writing to date is the finale. Mozart must have placed great value on this work, trying to make it more and more perfect, as evidenced by the composition of the second trio in the minuet, and even going so far as to compose an entire second finale for it. Both finales last approximately five and a half minutes – almost twice as long as the K. 173 string quartet finale written immediately before this work. Mozart decided on the version which utilizes the main motific eighth-note theme to start the movement, instead of the other discarded version which begins with the running sixteenth-note figure. The two finales reveal an insightful look into Mozart’s compositional process, how he would rework themes and motifs, and rearrange them to achieve what he considered the best version of those combined ideas. It is fascinating in both finales, how Mozart handled the same musical ideas in very different ways in two equally perfect finales. It is one of many testaments to his amazingly ingenious compositional ability. The finales of this quintet are extended rondos which display a staggering contrapuntal mastery and complexity in conception which was unprecedented for Mozart’s string writing at the time, and is at least the equal in skill and execution of any finale Mozart wrote for the “Haydn” quartets several years later, not to mention in his late string quintets of 1787, and 1790-91.

3) “Symphonies No. 25 in G Minor, K. 183, and No. 29 in A Major,” K. 201. Mozart wrote literally dozens of symphonies in his youth, starting with his first at the age of eight. However, while some are more interesting and convincing than others, none can compare to the maturity and mastery of these two symphonies, epitomizing the elegance, balance, and contrast of the Classical style – one reflecting the dark side, and in the other, the light. Once again, we have a watershed moment in Mozart’s development as a composer at the age of 17 when on October 5, 1773 he completed the “Symphony No. 25 in G Minor,” K. 183, the “little G-minor,” and at the age of 18, in 1774, when he composed the “Symphony No. 29 in A Major,” K. 201. Both are undisputed masterpieces lasting almost a half hour in duration, and featuring four movements which include minuets and trios, brilliant rondo-finales, and a seriousness and maturity in their conception unequalled in all of his symphonies preceding them.

4) The five violin concertos by Mozart, K. 207, 211, 216, 218, and 219 are said to have been composed within a span of just eight months – between April and December of 1775 – an amazing achievement by any composer of any age, let alone a young composer coming into his own at 19 years old while working on other compositions at the same time. While some research has revealed the first of these concertos in B-flat major, K. 207 may have been written as early as 1773 at age 17, it is still remarkable to hear the maturity and progressive growth revealed in these five violin concertos over such a short period of time, even if we assume Mozart composed only numbers 2-5 during that eight month time frame in 1775. While not all of these works may be considered masterpieces by everyone, at least the third, in G Major, K. 216 and the fifth in A Major, K. 219, also known as the “Turkish” for its exotic “Turkish” style in the fast section of the rondo finale, are undisputed masterpieces. The slow movements of all of these works are extremely beautiful arias for violin and orchestra. They demonstrate Mozart’s inexhaustible and ingenious melodic gift, and in these concertos in general, his gift for subtle yet perfect contrasting harmonic and tonal color. It is remarkable in the last movements of the “Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major,” K. 219, and the “Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major,” K. 216, how much contrast he achieves with tone color and orchestral texture with such a small orchestra featuring only pairs of oboes and horns, strings, and solo violin, and in the K. 219 “Turkish” concerto, he uses none of the traditional “Turkish” instruments of bass drum, cymbal, piccolo, and triangle to achieve this “Turkish” atmosphere. In both concertos, the last movements feature lots of interesting contrast achieved from the use of pizzicato in the string section, tempo changes, contrasting articulations, and masterful melodic exploitation of the high and low registers of the solo violin.

5) The “Piano Concerto No. 5 in D Major,” K. 175 was also another remarkable advance for Mozart, who wrote his first original piano concerto at the age of 17, in December of 1773. His four previous numbered piano concertos were written as arrangements of works by other composers such as Raupach, Honauer, and Schobert, and his next three unnumbered piano concertos, K. 107 were arrangements of works by Johann Christian Bach, so for all intents and purposes, this is Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 1. However, his mastery of the concerto form already at the age of 17 shows little signs of a novice learning his way, but a mature composer in full command of the virtuosic and melodic effects he wanted to achieve in the concerto form on the instrument for which he would write the vast majority of his concertos – the pianoforte. What’s more, this work was only the beginning of what was to come in his great Viennese piano concertos he composed for subscription concerts in the 1780s – arguably Mozart’s most impressive body of work. Mozart himself thought highly of it, taking it with him on his tours to Munich in 1774, and to Mannheim and Paris in 1777-1778, and adding a new finale for it, the “Rondo in D Major,” K. 382, in 1782 while preparing it for performance just after arriving in Vienna the year before. This piano concerto is a work I was late to discover in my Mozart studies, having purchased only a couple years ago, a box set of all the piano concertos on period instruments, performed by Malcolm Bilson and the English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. My personal feeling is Mozart should have left the original finale as it was – a brilliant and virtuosic rondo, and not changed it because stylistically, the new rondo does not fit the first two movements, and was likely written to suit Viennese taste at the time. While Mozart said the new rondo was quite enthusiastically received by its first audiences, its content and execution is not as inspired or as masterful as that of the original rondo, and serves as an example of Mozart’s earlier Salzburg work surpassing a work from his mature Vienna years. The original rondo is a perfect finale to an amazing composition.

It is easy to underestimate Mozart at any age, because his work sounds so inevitable, so easy, and so perfect, we tend to take it for granted. Even so, it is clear when Mozart wrote music primarily to satisfy his listeners, and when he was truly stepping out into worlds and sounds never before heard, yet still within the elegance and style of the Classical era. Even in his teens, Mozart stepped out and went beyond the conventions of his time far more often than he is usually given credit for. There are other works I could include in this category of early masterpieces, such as the lovely motet, “Exsultate Jubilate,” K. 165, written just shy of Mozart’s 17th birthday, and the “Divertimento in D Major,” K. 131, written in Salzburg during the summer of 1772 when Mozart was 16 years old, in which Mozart displays ingenious writing for four horns and imaginative concertante writing for woodwinds throughout this work, which essentially amounts to an ambitious, six-movement serenade in everything but name. The second movement is an exquisitely beautiful adagio for strings alone, which again is as masterful and moving as almost any slow movement Mozart composed during his mature Vienna years.

While it is true much of Mozart’s early music falls into the category of “pleasant light entertainment,” there are many early Mozart masterpieces, some more or less known, which definitely deserve to be heard and appreciated for the mature and beautiful masterpieces they are.

Mozart’s Violin Sonata in A Major, K. 526

On August 24, 1787, just fourteen days after completing what is perhaps Mozart’s most famous composition, “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” K. 525, Mozart entered a new composition into his personal catalog of works which has come be be known as his “Violin Sonata in A Major,” K. 526.  This piece was completed just before the completion of his opera “Don Giovanni,” K. 527.  Like the “Divertimento” in E-flat major, K. 563, it might seem easy to dismiss a mere violin sonata as only a “trivial” work, but also like the “Divertimento,” this is a true little-known masterpiece.  It was completed in between two much more famous masterpieces by Mozart, and therefore receives little attention, yet the treasures which lie within this remarkable work are well worth discovering for all who care to listen.

I have never heard anyone refer to any of Mozart’s violin sonatas as a truly “great” Mozart work in the same way we consider the great “Kreutzer” Sonata, Op. 47  of Beethoven.  This is understandable to a point because of all of the great operas, symphonies, and concertos of Mozart which tend to outshine so many of his “smaller” works.  I do however feel it is too easy to dismiss or take for granted what Mozart accomplished in this A major sonata.  It is true this sonata does not have the same emotional turmoil as Beethoven’s sonata, but Mozart’s music never does since it is never about emotion, even if able to evoke emotion.  Mozart’s sonata also does not make the degree of technical demands Beethoven’s does, and Mozart’s music in general does not always “grab” us the way Beethoven’s music tends to, but draws us in with its unparalleled perfection of structural beauty, melody, and elegance.

The opening movement is written in sonata form in 6/8 time.  It begins with an immediate duet in harmony between the violin and piano, and alerts us from the very beginning this is a sonata for the equally important violin and the piano.  There is a true integration of the instruments in this work , and is not merely a piano sonata with violin accompaniment, although that is the way Mozart entitled his violin sonatas – as sonatas for piano with violin.  The violin and piano are given equal melodic and motific, virtuosic treatment, trading melodies and eighth-note, sixteenth-note figurations in a playful dance of assured mastery.  Since Mozart was a master performer on both instruments, he was able in this work to perfectly exploit the strengths of both the piano and violin.

In the second movement, Mozart again turns to the sonata form, opening with the piano in an unaccompanied melody in octaves which will later be picked up by the violin.  There is continual interplay and trading of melody and accompaniment between the piano and violin, and beyond the notes there is a depth in this movement which touches on the dark side as well as the light, but is never personal as in Beethoven’s work.  If emotion is evoked in Mozart, it is on the deepest levels of those extremely rare “ah-ha” moments we have when we can see the oneness and beauty of the universe in all things – the good as well as the bad – the darkness as well as the light.  It reflects both sides while itself transcending duality.  It is more than any other music, the sound of now… the present moment.

The final movement has to be one of the most remarkable rondos Mozart even composed. It is difficult to know exactly where we are rhythmically as the piece opens breathlessly with rapid eighth notes in the piano running underneath the violin melody which is playfully syncopated and fun. It is a tour de force for both the piano and violin, making great technical demands on both players in a way quite different than Beethoven makes in his “Kreutzer Sonata.” There is a beautiful melody marking the “B” section of the rondo, first played by the piano and later picked up by the violin to slow down the perpetual motion just a bit to allow us to catch our breath, but then it is off again to the races as Mozart returns to the “A” theme of the rondo.  He continues to return to the “A” theme throughout the movement each time after visiting “new” colors of sound – sometimes in the minor, sometimes in the major, eventually ending with a breathless coda, in a joyous and triumphant ending in the spirit somewhat reminiscent of the “Rondo Alla Turka” movement of Mozart’s “Piano Sonata in A Major,” K. 331.

It is so easy – perhaps too easy to take Mozart for granted.  His music sounds so inevitable, so “easy,” so perfect, we cannot imagine it any differently than it is.  That is why it is often difficult to appreciate the incredible skill and hard work Mozart had to put in to his creations.  Perhaps that is one reason why some would call Mozart “less serious” and “less deep” than other composers like Beethoven, where the compositional struggle tends to more readily be heard in the music itself, and often bears itself out in Beethoven’s working manuscripts which frequently do not resemble fair copies, but elaborately worked-out and almost illegible sketches.  While it is true Mozart’s music lacks the element of personal emotional reflection in the way of the romantics, Mozart’s approach to composition and his dedication to the perfection and integrity of his craft are no less serious and committed than any other composer in history.  However, unlike many composers, Mozart did not take life or himself quite as seriously, leaving us with a strange sense of wonder at how he was able to accomplish the miraculous seemingly as easily and as naturally as taking a breath… That ease, purity, and inevitability is Mozart.

Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, Op. 56

Yesterday afternoon, I went to a concert with my best friend to hear the Chicago Symphony Orchestra play a wonderful program which included Beethoven’s “Triple Concerto” in C major for piano, violin, and cello, Op. 56.  The piece itself, while not among the greatest of Beethoven’s works, nevertheless has some truly wonderful and beautiful moments, and the cello part is written with a real understanding of the lyrical qualities of the instrument.  Beethoven is sometimes criticized for being a less-than-inspired melodist, and he was indeed not the most gifted melodist, but was certainly capable of writing beautiful melodies, and most especially for the cello, as he did in is his cello sonatas, and in this work.

For me, the biggest surprise of the afternoon was the performance of the cellist, Kenneth Olsen, the CSO’s Assistant Principle Cello, simply because I had never heard him perform before, nor had I heard any reviews of his playing.  From the very first notes of the solo cello part in the first movement, I knew his playing would be something special.  His tone was impeccable, and I especially appreciated how both he and the CSO’s Associate Concertmaster, violinist Stephanie Jeong musically handled their transition with a slight hesitation just before and into the piano’s opening entrance after a lovely duet at the beginning of the piece, which again returned later in the recapitulation of the first movement.  Jonathan Biss’ performance on the piano was outstanding – energetic, beautiful in tone, and powerful when called for. As a pianist myself, I especially appreciate his obvious love of playing not only in the tone he produces from the piano, but also in his body language, which shows he is truly at one with the music.  I was once criticized by a piano teacher for involving too much of my body while playing, being told it is “wasted energy” – that all of my energy needed to be in my fingers, with the rest of my body relaxed.  I felt a little vindicated yesterday as I watched Jonathan Biss’ perfect performance, with plenty of body language – none of which detracted from his perfect execution of the music.

One aspect of the performance I found curious was the setup itself.  Even before the soloists came out, I was puzzled by the placing of the piano in the center, with the podium for the cello directly to the left of the piano, effectively to the back of the pianist, and the violinist’s music stand directly to the left of the cello podium, behind the cellist.  In normal piano trio setups, the three musicians can see each other, in a kind of triangle formation, and I found the setup in which the musicians could not see each other detracted from the integrity of the trio ensemble as a unit.  Jonathan Biss had to lean back on occassion to ensure he and the cellist Kenneth Olsen were together.

Beethoven’s “Triple Concerto” as it has come to be known, was composed between 1803-1804, and was one of the fourteen compositions Beethoven dedicated to his patron, friend, and student, Archduke Rodolph, who studied both piano and composition with Beethoven.  While himself not a great composer, Rudolph was a respectable enough pianist to handle the solo piano part of the “Triple Concerto,” which he apparently played at the first performance of the work in 1808.  Like some of Beethoven’s compositions, even including some of his most famous ones like his fifth and ninth symphonies, this work is not a perfect work, but has many beautiful moments.  With Beethoven, it is my feeling he sometimes loses sight of the whole, while perfecting many parts of that whole in his compositions. This does not make these works “bad” pieces, as even Beethoven at less than perfect is still better than most every other composer.  There were times I feel he could have had the entire piano trio play as a unit alone more often and treat the trio ensemble more as a unit in general, throughout the piece, rather than treating them as three individual soloists in which a theme is stated with the cello and the violin together, then in the piano alone, doubling the dimensions of the piece, and making the first movement feel like an entire concerto in and of itself.  In fact, the first movement was so long, and the end of the movement so grand, much of the audience applauded, not realizing perhaps there were still two-thirds of the piece to go.

The technical problem with composing a concerto for three instruments so unlike each other is the composer has to strike a balance between the three and they must be perfectly integrated as a whole within the musical context of the work, which Beethoven sometimes succeeds in doing, and other times, not so much.  What the work essentially sounds like is a cello concerto, since the cello almost always takes the lead, with obbligato piano and violin.  So, there sometimes feels like a lack of homogeneity in the work, in which there is an imbalance between the three instruments, which I do not hear in perhaps the two other most famous concertos for more than one instrument – Mozart’s “Sinfonia Concertante,” in E-flat major for violin and viola, K. 364, and Bach’s “Double Violin Concerto in D minor,” BWV 1043.  Of course, with these two concerti, the instruments are more easily integrated since in Bach’s concerto, he is writing for two violins, and in the Mozart “Sinfonia Concertante,” he is writing for violin and  viola, which are more like each other than the violin and the cello.

One of the most impressive qualities of Beethoven, is how he is able to succeed even when he does not entirely succeed.  The overall power and message of his work, as found in the “Triple Concerto,” and his fifth and ninth symphonies, overshadow any technical or formal flaws in the works themselves.  For a lesser composer these flaws would be fatal.  For Beethoven, he transcends any flaws by sheer determination and supreme mastery throughout the majority of the work in which there are no flaws. This is what Beethoven did best – he could take a weakness and still come out victorious, whether it was in composition or in dealing with what would have been a career-ending disability for virtually any other composer.  He could take a compositional flaw and still manage to succeed in the overall power of his message, just as he managed despite his deafness to emerge victorious, instead of letting it defeat him.


Beethoven’s Royal Patrons

It is remarkably ironic how Beethoven, no respector of persons, nor status, nor aristocratic ideals, managed to be befriended by so many aristocratic patrons who were perhaps drawn to him by his audacity in not conforming to either authority or tradition. Beethoven knew he needed the patronage of the aristocracy, even while criticising their old-world, non-democratic ruling structure, “enlightened despots” or no.  One of Beethoven’s most important aristocratic patrons – perhaps the most important was Archduke Rudolph (pictured above), the youngest son of Emperor Leopold II.  Rudolph began to study piano and composition with Beethoven in 1804, and Beethoven dedicated 14 compositions to him, including the famous “Piano Trio in B-flat major,” Op. 97, also known as the “Archduke Trio,” and the “Missa Solemnis,” Op. 123.  Rudolph returned the favor by dedicating one of his own compositions to Beethoven.  Count Andreas Razumovsky was also a patron of Beethoven, who commissioned the Op. 59, Nos. 1-3 “Razumovsky Quartets,”  as I discussed in my last post.

In the fall of 1808, the year of Beethoven’s famous grand concert on December 22nd, he received an offer from Napoleon’s brother Jerome Bonaparte, who was then the king of Westphalia, for a position as Kapellmeister at the court in Cassel. Beethoven initially accepted the offer to the surprise of at least three of his patrons.  In a move unprecedented in the history of music, these three aristocratic patrons persuaded Beethoven to remain in Vienna at a pension of 4,000 florins per year, equal to about 2,240 US dollars. While that sum may seem small by today’s standards, we have to remember this was 1808.  For some perspective, Mozart averaged about 2,500 florins per year, and that was from working – opera commissions, fees from publications, piano and composition students, etc. – not simply staying in Vienna.  Mozart’s income in 1989 dollars from data provided by Moore (1989, p. 21) amounted a real wage equivalent of about $120,000 – a handsome sum even in today’s dollars.

The three patrons who agreed to pay Beethoven were the Archduke Rudolph, Prince Kinsky, and Prince Lobkowitz, who had commissioned Beethoven’s Op. 18 string quartets, and to whom Beethoven dedicated his third, fifth, and sixth symphonies.  Only Archduke Rudolph paid his share of the pension, while Kinsky died soon afterwards after falling from his horse, and Lobkowitz stopped paying in September of 1811, leaving Beethoven to rely on publishing his compositions along with his small remaining pension to make ends meet.

The fact three royal patrons would have agreed to pay Beethoven a pension on the sole condition he simply stay in Vienna speaks volumes to what a powerful figure Beethoven was.  The aristocracy did not generally “serve” the people they ruled over, and most certainly not in the extraordinary way they assisted Beethoven, who truly lived out this role reversal of the aristocracy requesting something so remarkable of a commoner, whom they clearly believed was not just an “ordinary commoner.” Indeed he was not.

Mozart never found this kind of support from royal patrons that Beethoven did, although he was commissioned by Emperor Joseph II to compose the singspiel opera, “Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail,” K. 384.  He was also commissioned to compose the opera, “La Clemenza di Tito,” K. 621 for the coronation of Joseph’s brother Leopold II in 1791.  He composed his three “Prussian Quartets,” K. 575, K. 589, K. 590, for the cellist King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II, as well as a piano sonata (K. 576) for the king’s daughter Princess Friederike.  Mozart had intended to compose six string quartets for the king, but only completed three, and only one of what was supposed to be a set of six piano sonatas for the princess. He was paid for the sonata, but received no more of his promised fees, which is probably why he stopped work on the project.  In the end, in a letter to Michael Puchberg, he said he had to sell his quartets to a publisher – those “difficult works for a mere song” as he put it, to meet his financial circumstances.

In a letter dated September 30, 1786, Mozart tried to offer exclusive works for Prince Joseph Maria Benedikt of Furstenberg, who published three of Mozart’s symphonies, K. 319, K. 338, and K. 425, and the piano concertos K. 451, K. 459, and K. 488.  Mozart had also proposed to compose exclusive works for the prince on a regular basis for a fee, but on this offer, Mozart was turned down.  An incomplete letter dated May of 1790 reveals that Mozart was at least contemplating a petition to the Archduke Franz of Austria for the post of second Kapellmeister.  Interestingly, Mozart in this letter states he is more qualified for the position than Salieri as stated in his letter, “…especially as Salieri, although very well qualified as a Kapellmeister, has never devoted himself to church music, whereas I have made this style entirely my own from my youth onwards.” In the end, even if Mozart did petition the Archduke eventually or Leopold II himself, it did not come to fruition.

It may have been Mozart was simply too early in the historical timeline for the kind of support Beethoven would later enjoy from aristocratic patrons as a freelance composer.  It may be Mozart was simply ahead of his time in trying to do what Beethoven was eventually able to do.  Haydn beautifully and poetically expressed his feelings on Mozart’s value in being patronized as Beethoven was with the following words.. “If only I could impress Mozart’s inimitable works on the soul of every friend of music, and the soul of high personages in particular, as deeply, with the same musical understanding and with the same deep feeling, as I understand and feel them, the nations would vie with each other to possess such a jewel.”  Had Mozart lived just a little longer, he would have become the next paid Kapellmeister at St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and may well have enjoyed a similar kind of patronage Beethoven enjoyed, but it was not to be.  The elderly Leopold Hoffman, the then current Kapellmeister of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, was quite ill at the time Mozart was taken on as an unpaid assistant at St. Stephen’s, but Hoffman ended up outliving Mozart by two years.

It is also possible Mozart may not have been as good at marketing himself as was Beethoven.  For whatever reason, Mozart never made the kind of lasting connections he needed for sustained financial success, and even Beethoven eventually had his pension cut due to recession and war with the French.  Such is the life of a freelance composer – their income is up one day and down the next. While Mozart made large sums, he also had times he was very short on cash, as his numerous begging letters to his fellow Freemason friend Michael Puchberg bear witness to.  As a freelance musician, there is no steady stream of consistent income. It is as true today as much as it was true in Beethoven and Mozart’s time, although composers are much better protected today by copyright laws and paid royalties for the performance, sale, and recordings of their works.  Had Beethoven and Mozart had these kinds of financial opportunities, combined with their incredible production, especially Mozart with his operatic production, they may well have been if not rich men, extremely well off.  While Haydn did well financially, he worked almost his entire lifetime as a court musician for the wealthy Esterhazy family – an entirely different situation than being a freelance musician seeking royal patronage from the outside as Mozart and Beethoven did.

The time was perfect for Beethoven, who found a way to obtain sustained patronage from the aristocracy throughout his career.  His overpowering personality, defiance of authority, and his undeniable compositional genius and pianistic ability combined with the spirit of liberty, fraternity, and equality of the French Revolution which swept through European society at the time in which Beethoven was coming into his own, just after Mozart died, created a perfect storm for Beethoven to take the musical world, and indeed the entire social structure – by storm.



Razumovsky’s Priceless Commission

I must confess when I first heard the “Third Razumovsky Quartet in C Major,” Op. 59, No. 3 by Beethoven, I was not exactly sure what to think.  In this work I heard some wonderful moments, but did not know what to make of this “strange music” – a sentiment shared by some of its first listeners, who also found these quartets “difficult.”  It is a sentiment which was reflected by the Leipzig Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung’s Vienna correspondent on February 27, 1807 with the following words…

“Three new, very long and difficult Beethoven violin quartets dedicated to the Russian ambassador, Count Razumovsky, are attracting the attention of all connoisseurs.  They are profound in conception and admirably written, but not generally comprehensible – with perhaps the exception of the third in C major, which through its individuality, melody and harmonic strength cannot fail to win the favor of every cultured music lover.” 

For me, it was only after repeated hearings of all three of these quartets that I came to appreciate not only their formal coherency, but this amazingly new and beautiful style of string quartet composition that truly changed the way string quartets were written.

What is most striking about these three “Razumovsky Quartets” is a great “symphonic” seriousness Beethoven brings to these remarkable works.  Gone are the days of the string quartet composed simply as light background music for social gatherings.  These works truly sound like symphonies for string quartet. They are grand in conception, and about ten to fifteen minutes longer than the Op. 18 string quartets, lasting about forty minutes to perform each quartet.  They are serious works with amazingly original and beautiful musical ideas, incredibly varied and rich tone color, and a deep and penetrating sadness in the slow movements.  While Beethoven’s late quartets are often lauded as some of the greatest and most exalted music ever written, I would have to put the three “Razumovsky Quartets” at least as their equal if not their superior, with the exception of the astounding “String Quartet in C-Sharp Minor,” Op. 131.  I feel the “Razumovsky Quartets” have better balance and formal coherency overall than some of Beethoven’s late quartets.  While the Op. 130 quartet has some wonderfully transcendent moments and individual movements, as in the “Cavatina” slow movement, I do not feel the piece as a whole works as well as any of the “Razumovsky Quartets,” or the Op. 135 in F Major – the last string quartet Beethoven completed and the last complete work he composed in his life.

Shortly after Beethoven had completed his groundbreaking Symphony No. 3,” Op. 55, the “Eroica” or “Heroic” Symphony as Beethoven later entitled it after rescinding his “Bonaparte” dedication, he was commissioned by Count Andrey Razumovsky (pictured above), the Russian Tsar’s diplomatic representative to the Hapsburg court in Vienna, to compose three new string quartets, which came to be known as Beethoven’s “Razumovsky Quartets,” Op. 59. Count Razumovsky was the brother-in-law of one of Beethoven’s other patrons – Prince Joseph Franz von Lobkowitz, who had commissioned Beethoven’s first set of six string quartets, Op. 18, and to whom Beethoven also dedicated his third, fifth, and sixth symphonies, his “Harp” String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat major,” Op. 74, the Triple Concerto in C major,” for violin, cello, and piano, Op. 56, and the song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte,” Op. 98.

The Razumovsky Quartets” were written between April and November of 1806, around the same time Beethoven was composing his “Fourth Piano Concerto in G major,” Op. 58. While listening to and studying his second of the three “Razumovsky Quartets,” I noticed certain similarities this work has with Beethoven’s “Fourth Piano Concerto.” At the opening of the concerto, Beethoven begins with the thematic material stated in the piano alone, and in the tonic key of G major, only to have the orchestra respond with an expanded version of the same theme, except now in B major – a key related to the tonic only by the fact it is the third scale degree in G major. Beethoven had used and would continue to use these same kind of key associations in works like his “Fifth Piano Concerto in E-flat major,” Op. 73, “the Emperor,”  the “Third Piano Concerto in C minor,” Op. 37, and his “Fifth Symphony in C minor,” Op. 67, among others. In the opening of the Second Razumovsky Quartet,” Op 59, No. 2, the piece opens in the tonic key of E minor – perhaps not coincidentally the relative minor of G major – the home key of the “Fourth Piano Concerto.” Beethoven, in the very next phrase, transposes the theme up a half-step to F-major, changing the tonality within the first two phrases of the work as he does in the “Fourth Piano Concerto.” It is also interesting how in the final movement of both works, Beethoven not only segues into these last movements without a break, he also starts these movements in the “wrong key” – not the home key of each work. In the “Fourth Piano Concerto,” he starts in C major – the same key he begins the last movement of the Second Razumovsky Quartet.” Eventually in both works, at the end of each piece, he ends up in the home keys of G major and E minor respectively. While these are only a few details, they are notable for their parallels, and show how Beethoven was a very careful planner of his key associations and formal structures.  Another feature which is very unique in Beethoven’s treatment of key choice in his “Second Razumovsky Quartet” is that the first three movements are in the tonality of E – E minor for the first movement, E major for the second movement, and E minor again for the third movement.

The “Second Razumovsky Quartet” is truly a remarkable work. All three of the “Razumovsky Quartets” were monumentally original in their conception at the time they were composed as Haydn’s Op. 33 set of six string quartets were 25 years before, in 1781. Both sets are in a sense, known as “Russian” quartets because Haydn’s were dedicated to the Grand Duke Paul of Russia, while Beethoven’s were dedicated to the Russian ambassador Razumovsky. Both sets of quartets changed the way string quartets were written, as both included new features and possibilities in the treatment of the quartet medium which were never before imagined. In Haydn’s Op. 33 quartets, he includes elements of surprise and great humor, with the second quartet of the set in E-flat major nicknamed, “The Joke.” In the last movement, Haydn uses the rondo form, which had become immensely popular at the time, and has at the end of the last movement, almost uncomfortably long pauses until it finally ends quietly with the opening phrase stated one last time pianissimo, in a kind of “winking humor” that is so characteristic of Haydn. This same humor of Haydn is also evident in his “Surprise” “Symphony No. 94” in G major in which Haydn, after a quiet introduction of the main theme, then calls for a very loud fortissimo chord, complete with timpani and all the instruments playing at the same time. When later asked if he did this to awaken the audience, he said he did not, but did it to do something new. In this Op. 33 set of string quartets, Haydn also changed from writing minuets to scherzi – a practice Beethoven would also adopt. However, this did not entirely change the nature of the music for Haydn, as it still often sounds like a minuet, while Beethoven’s scherzi almost never resemble a minuet. However, Haydn’s rhythmic innovations with the utilization of hemiola , putting the accents off the downbeat, and the utilization of silence as much as sound, along with imaginative textural contrast in the scherzo movement of the fifth string quartet of the Op. 33 set in particular, is truly something remarkably brilliant and was especially innovative for the time. Beethoven would take this even further in his scherzi, with one excellent example in the third movement of the “Second Razumovsky Quartet.”

Beethoven’s “Second Razumovsky Quartet” is primarily about gesture, motif, harmony, and relatively conventional formal structures. The first movement is in sonata form with the traditional repetition of both the exposition and the recapitulation with a coda. The second movement is an incredibly beautiful molto adagio, which begins with a hymn-like theme, followed by an immediate variation with a “limping” motif under the theme.  This is followed later with the main theme accompanied by triplet figures and a lovely counter-melody in the second violin, which returns again towards the end of the piece.  The third movement is a scherzo, and the last movement a rondo. What is less conventional is the use of the extreme higher registers, especially in the first violin part, and sometimes the cello, which is often used to gorgeous effect, as in the beginning of the first movement after the first violin “answers” the cello melody twice, and then finally soars in a light, floating melody above the cello and viola accompaniment, with the melody soon picked up seamlessly by the second violin.

In the molto adagio second movement, it is impossible for me to believe Mahler was not somehow influenced by Beethoven’s string quartets, and most especially his middle and late-period quartets which in the slow movements utilize rich harmonic textures and half-step voice leading to change the harmony, which is especially present in Mahler’s slow movements of his third and ninth symphonies. I can hear Beethoven looking more than a half-century ahead of his time towards Mahler, especially in the second movement of the “Second Razumovsky Quartet,” and in the slow third movement of his last string quartet – No. 16 in F major,” Op. 135. In this second movement of the “Second Razumovsky Quartet,” Beethoven looks ahead to the tone of the famous Cavatina Adagio molto espressivo movement from his String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major,” Op. 130. In it, I hear the same tenderness and love as I do in this movement, but the Razumovsky” molto adagio definitely has more scope and dynamic and rhythmic contrast than the Cavatina.

The heavy and extremely dissonant chords, especially in the scherzo with its equally daring and ingenious rhythmic and textural originality, with the melody beginning just off the first beat, which leaves a feeling not of 3/4 time, but an unsettled sense of rhythmic ambiguity.  This is an even more sophisticated use of rhythmic ambiguity than that of Haydn, with fortissimos off the downbeat, are are also unique features of this piece. Beethoven also masterfully adds a Russian tune, passed between each of the instruments in the “B” section of this scherzo under a busy triplet accompaniment. Beethoven even indicates the theme with the words, “Theme russe” in his score. He also uses an exuberant version of a Russian-sounding theme as the main melodic idea in the rondo of the last movement in the bright key of C major, only to complete the movement in a breathless, dramatically intense “Presto” race to the finish in E minor.

The “Razumovsky Quartets” were composed after Heiligenstadt, and in these works Beethoven did indeed live up to his word to “make a new way” creatively as he put it. It is truly remarkable in this composition how much ingenious textural contrast Beethoven manages to create with just four instruments, showing his complete command of string tone color and its brilliant utilization in his compositional ideas. These are just some of many characteristics which make this work anything but a mere continuation of the excellent Op. 18 set, published just 5 years before.  Regardless of how much Count Razumovsky paid Beethoven for these three string quartets, what Beethoven accomplished in these works is without price, as all three comprise a true watershed in the history of the string quartet and indeed in the history of music.

Beethoven – The Price of Genius

There is a wonderful painting of Beethoven composing I have cited at the top of this post which I find most fascinating.  It perfectly represents exactly what I envision it might have been like to watch Beethoven compose – lost in thought, papers scattered everywhere, seated at the piano trying to find the right notes for the next phrase or chord progression.  On the surface, it would appear Beethoven is the embodiment of total disorganization – unkempt, wild hair, piles of papers in no apparent order, yet in his music, and most especially his early works, I hear not disorganization, but a total mastery of form and very careful planning and organization, as he learned from the great Classical masters Haydn and Mozart before him.  In his first set of six string quartets, Op. 18, Beethoven demonstrates complete command of the Classical style, paying homage to Haydn and Mozart, while also making the Classical style his own, with his personality shining through in these relatively “behaved” pieces of music compared to his later works.  This is also clearly evident in his first two symphonies and piano concertos, not to mention his early cello sonatas, violin sonatas, piano sonatas, and other beautiful chamber works he composed with an assuredness of being the equal of Haydn and Mozart.  It is quite impressive how Beethoven, under what must have been the overpowering shadow of Haydn and Mozart forged ahead to establish himself as the next great Viennese composer.  It had to have taken an incredible amount of courage and self-confidence to pull this off, and he succeeded brilliantly.  It was a character trait that little did Beethoven know then, would be indispensable for him to survive the crushing trials that were ahead of him.

It is amazing how Beethoven could have found such beauty, coherence, and clarity in his music as his world and his own personal life was crumbling around him – with the French occupation of Vienna and Napoleon’s Army shelling the city, the gradual loss of his hearing, his eventual early retirement as a pianist after his last public performance on the concert stage at the age of 38 at his December 22, 1808 concert, and the breakdown of his relationship with his nephew Karl.  It is incredible how he had the ability to keep his sanity well enough to enable him to continue to compose some of his most beloved and enduring masterpieces such as the 9th Symphony, his last string quartets, and his Missa Solemnis.  Other people of a less courageous and a weaker constitution would have simply folded, gone insane, created nothing further, or committed suicide – an option Beethoven seriously considered more than once in his life, and especially at Heiligenstadt, where he wrote his famous testament reflecting his despair over his increasing deafness.

But Beethoven’s will was extraordinary.  With more defiance and determination than ever, he emerged from Heiligenstadt committed to live for his art, and to go in a new direction creatively.   He may well have been the most strong-willed and courageous artist in the history of music. It is one of the reasons we identify with him – because his struggles are our struggles.  He rises above his adverse circumstances and emerges triumphant. He is the underdog, the champion of the everyman.  He is an ordinary person who does extraordinary things.  In many ways, he is a hero.  It is no coincidence his middle creative period after Heiligenstadt is often referred to as the “heroic” period which saw the composition of his heroic, “Eroica” Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, the 4th and 5th Piano Concertos, the Razumovsky Quartets, the “Kreutzer” Sonata for Violin and Piano, and the 4th through 8th Symphonies to name only some of his middle period works.

It can be said that Beethoven took on every challenge life threw at him musically, and found a way to answer that challenge masterfully.  However, he was a continual failure in his personal life, never able to find lasting love in a lifelong mate, and was so overbearing to his adopted nephew Karl that he eventually attempted suicide.  Beethoven is the classic example of an extremely gifted, abused child.  Like most people who are abused, he ended up abusing others – most especially his nephew and lived to regret it.  In many ways, Beethoven’s story is a tragic story, and perhaps more than any other illustrates the incredibly high price of genius – a life lived in isolation, married to one’s work, socially inept, and producing creative riches which reflect the beauty of life in all its fullness and joy, sorrow, and longings, yet one which ironically makes the creator themselves unable to personally participate in that life to the fullest.  In a sense the creative genius is like a soldier who gives their life not so they may live a better life, but so others might.  The creative genius gives their life to their art.  It is those after them who enjoy the fruits of their incredible sacrifice and labor.  We see how composers like Brahms, Schubert,  and Tchaikovsky had to accept a life of general solitude in commitment to their work. Mahler’s marriage failed in part because of his single-minded and impassioned dedication to his work at the expense of his marriage, and because he forbade his wife Alma to compose.  He could never find a balance and his personal life suffered because of it.  In some ways, it seems there is not enough room for both – for total commitment to  one’s art and to living.  For the creative genius this is an impossible situation, because they cannot deny either side to them, but feel they must choose.

Mozart tried to find a middle ground between living and being committed to his art.  He knew he needed a marital partner, and found one in Constanze Weber.  Together they had six children, only two of which survived infancy.  While Mozart tried to have a “normal” domestic life, and his surviving letters to his wife reveal himself to be an affectionate, loving, protective, and sometimes jealous and possessive husband, it is hard to imagine exactly how involved as a father and husband he could have possibly been given his almost superhuman compositional production, not to mention the innumerable concerts, rehearsals, meetings with librettists, royalty, collegues and friends, billiard playing, and entertaining he did in his home.  It is no wonder his light burned out only too quickly.  He tried to do it all – to live fully and be an artist fully, but he could not keep up the pace.  He paid the price with his life, as Beethoven did, but in a different way.

I recognized this dilemma of the conflict between living and being an artist for myself when I was studying to be a composer while in college.  The film “Amadeus” inspired me to decide to become a composer at age 13. I naively thought if I worked hard enough I could “catch up” and become another Mozart.  It is with the deepest humility I can now say almost 30 years later, I never had any chance at that, because the likes of a talent like Mozart’s and Beethoven’s  has not been seen since, and may never be seen again.  While musically talented, I am nowhere close to either man in ability.  I thought it would be great to be a genius like Mozart.  How naive I was, as I did not then realize the incredibly high price of genius, and what it meant to be enslaved to one’s work in many ways, even if it is so often a joy.  I did very well in college, and wrote some very good music while in school, and especially after I graduated.  While I can say I have perhaps had some “ingenious” moments as a composer, I certainly never lived as one the way Beethoven and Mozart did, who dedicated their entire lifetime to music.  I have several other interests in addition to music, a desire to live life, to work on my relationships with others as passionately as I pursue my artistic endeavors, and so I can say now, in retrospect how glad I am not to be a genius as they were.  I can enjoy the fruits of their labors, admire them, appreciate them, and perhaps say a word or two which might at least somewhat reflect the incredible impact they have on those who sincerely appreciate what riches they have given us through their sacrifice…



Mozart’s Divertimento in E-Flat Major, K. 563

My first introduction to Mozart’s music was while watching the film “Amadeus” during music class in seventh grade. I was amazed by the very first notes of Mozart’s music at the start of the film with the opening chords to the overture of “Don Giovanni,” and most especially the first movement from his “Symphony No. 25 in G Minor,” K. 183 which dramatically accompanies the opening scene of Salieri’s servants discovering he has slit his throat in a botched suicide attempt. The intensity and breadth of this music, along with every other wonderful piece on this soundtrack lit a spark within me of a passion for music that has endured to this very day. After researching Mozart tirelessly upon seeing this film, I soon discovered that much of “Amadeus” was pure fiction. That did not however stop me from appreciating the music which was for me, what really made this movie. The true Mozart – the music itself was the most memorable “character” of the film – more memorable to me than any other character in this movie – the fictionalized version of Salieri and also Mozart, with the high-pitched giggle made famous by Tom Hulce, whom I nevertheless still think did an excellent job capturing amidst the fiction, much of the truthful Mozart – Mozart the brilliant performer and improviser, Mozart the sometimes arrogant and vulgar, and Mozart the driven and ingenious composer working late into the night on his scores.

One of the flaws of this otherwise remarkable “Amadeus” soundtrack is the almost total absence of any of Mozart’s chamber music. In this soundtrack, the only real chamber piece featured in the film is his wonderful “Gran Partita” for 13 wind instruments, K. 361. This is a worthy piece to be included, but the lack of his amazing string quartets, string quintets, the Clarinet Quintet, and so many other remarkable chamber works in the “Amadeus” soundtrack was I believe, a missed opportunity for the filmmakers. Since this soundtrack was my first introduction to Mozart’s music, I was therefore exposed to the kinds of works included on the soundtrack – namely his symphonies, piano concertos, operas, and more large-scale orchestral and sacred choral works, and did not really explore the wealth of riches to be found in his chamber works until many years later after my initial discovery of Mozart.

After spending countless hours listening to and researching music over the past 29 years, and particularly the music of Mozart, it is amazing to me I only recently discovered, just a couple months ago, what I believe to be his finest achievement in chamber music, if not in all of his music – namely, the “Divertimento” as Mozart entitled it, in E-flat major, K. 563 for string trio. Interestingly enough, I first learned of this Mozart work while doing research on the Beethoven string quartets, which referenced the amazing Mozart “Divertimento.” Most of mature Mozart, and also a good deal of the adolescent Mozart is of superior quality, but in this piece, Mozart reaches yet another level, even for him. When you get the very best of the best – the cream of the most perfect music, it is something so rare, it is hard to believe what you are hearing. I certainly feel that way every time I listen to the second movement of this piece especially – the glorious Adagio in A-flat major, whose perfection has moved me to tears.

When examining the amazing last nine bars of the exposition of this second movement, we can see how Mozart sets up these last nine bars with two bars preceding it with octave leaps in the violin under a chromatic harmonic rhythm changing every beat, suspensefully leading up to the violin dissolving into an unexpected and gorgeous 32nd-note run in bar 36. It makes everything after that moment – in all of its simplicity and purity all the more striking and breathtaking.

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After this stunningly beautiful 32nd-note run in the violin, he finishes the phrase on a trill in the violin which resolves in a deceptive cadence to a C minor chord in bar 38.  This alone is remarkable, as a lesser composer could have simply ended the exposition here in the dominant – E-flat major.

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But then, Mozart continues on to yet another lovely phrase beginning with the end of bar 38, which finally resolves – again to a C minor chord in bar 42.

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He does this only to continue on yet again to a third phrase, with an almost painful, poignant beauty, so moving as to outshine all of the beauty that had come before, if that were possible. finishing off this amazing exposition with another 32nd-note run to finally resolve in a lovely “sighing” cadence in the expected dominant – E-flat major.

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If that were not enough, Mozart, at the end of this movement, expands the formal structure again, at the end of the recapitulation with a 15-bar long coda, beginning after the resolution to C minor again, with a continuation of the phrase in bar 111.  In this coda, Mozart masterfully passes the expansive melody heard throughout the piece to each instrument, which beautifully exploits the lower to higher registers first in the viola at measure 114 (in yellow), then the cello at measure 116 (blue), and finally the violin at measure 118 (purple), finishing this exquisite movement with delicate grace notes before eighth notes, ending in a lovely high A-flat in the violin to complete 125 bars of pure elegance.

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This is vintage Mozart at his finest, and these are only two of several lovely examples of his ingenious  treatment of structure and musical content in this movement alone, not to mention the entire work.

Mozart’s autograph manuscript for this “Divertimento” is missing.  The piece was preserved in a set of parts in a first edition released in 1792, just months after Mozart’s death, by the music publisher Artaria and Company.  The only surviving source for this composition in the composer’s handwriting can be found in his Catalogue of Works he kept from 1784 to 1791. In it, he wrote a 6-bar incipit as illustrated in the picture at the top of this post, notating the opening of the piece as was his practice when cataloging his music. On the left-hand page of his catalogue, he indicated the title and date of completion of the piece, as he did in the picture below. He entitled it, “A Divertimento” for 1 violin, 1 viola, and violoncello, in six movements.

Mozart's Catalogue of Works autograph entry of the Divertimento in E-flat Major, K. 563
Mozart’s Catalogue of Works autograph entry of the Divertimento in E-flat Major, K. 563

The “Divertimento” capped a year of amazing creativity for Mozart which included some of his most enduring masterpieces, especially his last three symphonies, E-flat major, K. 543, the “Great” G minor Symphony, K. 550, and his final symphonic masterpiece, the C major “Jupiter” Symphony, K. 551, all three of which were composed over a staggering six-week period in the summer of 1788. Also composed in this amazing year was his poignant Adagio in B Minor for piano solo, K. 540, his famous C Major “Sonata Facile,” K. 545, his Piano Concerto No. 26 in D Major, the “Coronation” K. 537, and his masterly Adagio and Fugue in C Minor for strings, K. 546.

Mozart completed his “Divertimento” on September 27, 1788, just over a month after completing his last, and perhaps his greatest symphony – the “Jupiter.” The “Divertimento” is often said to have been composed for his fellow freemason friend Michael Puchberg in gratitude for his continual financial assistance to Mozart in response to several begging letters. It is possible the “trio” which Mozart says he composed for Puchberg, referred to in a letter to his wife dated April 16, 1789, could have also been one of his three piano trios composed in 1788 – the K. 542 in E major, K. 548 in C major, or the K. 564 in G major. As no dedication exists in his Catalogue of Works, it is difficult to tell which exact trio he is referring to. It is understandable given the scope and monumentality of his symphonic achievement that summer in his last three symphonies, that a composition with the unassuming title of “Divertimento” written in the fall of that same year would be overlooked in being presumably “less important” than a symphony. Still, while the very best of his symphonies, concertos, and string quartets are undisputed masterpieces, this piece has to rank at least as their equal, and in my opinion, their superior. The musical title “divertimento” was one Mozart rarely used in his maturity, but used quite frequently in his earlier youth and Salzburg years. While some of these early divertimenti are quite polished and beautifully composed, others are exactly what this music was intended to be – a “diversion” if you will – light background music to please the aristocracy and the attendees of their social gatherings. That is hardly the case with this remarkable piece Mozart composed. It is anything but a “diversion,” but rather the pinnacle of his achievements in chamber music.

The string trio may be an even more difficult compositional medium than the string quartet – a medium even a composer as skilled as Mozart found rigorous, demanding, and extremely taxing. For his “Prussian” quartets, several sketches survive, bearing witness to the effort he had to put into these “difficult works” as Mozart described them in a letter to Puchberg. Mozart also referred to his six string quartets dedicated to Haydn as “the fruits of a long and laborious effort.” This contradicts the “Amadeus” myth composition always came easliy to Mozart, with everything already finished in his head before he wrote a note down on paper.  While Mozart had a superior memory and an unsurpassed awareness of musical structure, the details of his most difficult works had to be worked out through a more elaborate creative process.  With one less voice than the string quartet, the string trio is even more exposed than the string quartet in such a way which leaves no margin for error for the composer. Every single note is significant, and must perfectly fit the melody, motif, phrase, partwriting, the overall structure of the movement, and indeed the entire piece. Mozart managed to accomplish this staggering feat without redundancy or mundanity. He sustains interest with exceptional mastery of form, equal and ingenious treatment of the violin, viola, and cello, passing motifs and melodies to each instrument in three-part dialogue, beauty of sound, and a striking contrast of tonalities, texture, and rhythm in the longest chamber composition he ever composed – by some readings close to an hour long.

In this one work alone, Mozart composed in most of the formal structures of his day – sonata form (first and second movements), minuet and trio (third and fifth movements), theme and variations (fourth movement), and rondo form (sixth movement).  While no one work can contain everything, if I had to pick just one piece for a person to hear who had never heard Mozart’s music before, and wanted to know what his music is all about, I would pick this one.  This piece virtually encapsulates every compositional skill Mozart possessed – masterful execution of counterpoint, brilliant motific development, perfect harmony, sublime melody, formal mastery, and perhaps more so than in any other composition he composed, that intangible “Mozartean” quality of being moving without sentimentality, deep without being emotional, and original without being innovative, since the wellspring from which Mozart’s music came was not of the inevitable ups and downs of  his personal life, nor the desire to “outdo” his fellow composers by being innovative for innovation’s sake, but is instead the impeccable reflection of the perfect balance and oneness of the universe.

Opera – the Key to Unlocking the Heart of Mozart

I have recently found myself interested in studying the operas of Mozart more in depth than I have in the past.  I have now heard his operas, “Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail,” “Le Nozze di Figaro,” “Don Giovanni,” “Cosi fan tutte,” and “Die Zauberflote.”  I have only heard one in its entirety as a live performance – “Die Zauberflote,” in an English language translation performed by a two-piano team playing an orchestral reduction at the college I attended.  In each of these operas, certain specific themes continually resurface, even though Mozart worked with three different librettists between all of these operas – Johann Gottlieb Stephanie (the Younger) for “Die Entfuhrung,” Lorenzo da Ponte for his three great Viennese Italian operas, “Le Nozze di Figaro,” “Don Giovanni,” and “Cosi fan tutte,” and Emanuel Schikaneder for his last German singspiel opera, “Die Zauberflote,” otherwise known in English as “The Magic Flute.” 

It is interesting to note this cross-section of his most famous and most performed operas cover both German singspiel (“Die Entfuhrung,” and “Die Zauberflote”), and Italian Opera buffa (comic opera) (“Le Nozze di Figaro,” “Don Giovanni,” and “Cosi fan tutte”), although “Don Giovanni” has sometimes been referred to as an Opera Seria (tragic opera).  In these operas, Mozart demostrates his complete command over the most important operatic styles of his day.  As I said in my post, “There is No “I” in Mozart,” there is not a “personal” element in Mozart’s music the same way it exists in the music of Beethoven and even Haydn to some degree.  However, in just beginning to again revisit opera, having just finished listening to and following the libretto of “Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail,” I see it is in opera where Mozart most reveals himself to the extent he ever does regarding his personal feelings, beliefs, hopes, fears, and aspirations.  It is in opera where we can perhaps find the key to unlocking the heart of Mozart.

The themes which continually recur in these operatic masterpieces of Mozart are:

  • the faithfulness/unfaithfulness of woman and men in romantic relationships
  • forgiveness
  • selflessness/selfishness and their consequences
  • how love is more powerful than all hatred, malice, revenge, jealousy, and evil

I was quite moved as I read some of the concluding words from “Die Entfuhrung,” which shows the strong belief Mozart had in the power of forgiveness and love over revenge and bitterness, which would also come to be the essential message in “Figaro.” 

BELMONTE: Yes. Pasha.  Cool your wrath on me. I am prepared for anything.

SELIM:  You are mistaken.  I hold your father in too much detestation ever to be able to tread in his footsteps.  Take your freedom.  Take Constanze, sail home and tell your father that you were in my power and I set you free so that you could tell him it is a far greater pleasure to repay an injustice with a favor than an evil with an evil. 

BELMONTE:  My lord! – You astound me –

SELIM:  I can believe that.  Go away and at least be more humane than your father.”

If ever we can find a key to the man behind the music, it is here – in the librettos of Mozart’s operas.  It is fascinating it is in the words, and not the music where we encounter Mozart the man, especially since Mozart was not himself the actual librettist persay.  However, we do know from many letters to his father, especially regarding “Idomoneo,” “Die Entfuhrung,” and “Figaro,” Mozart had a definite hand in the shaping of a libretto to suit his needs, musically, dramatically, and otherwise, and most definitely had input in how the libretto ultimately came out.  Music is a an abstract art form, and is at its most subjective in instrumental music, sometimes called “absolute music.”  It can be said to be at its least abstract and subjective in song and opera, because the words tell us what is specifically behind the sound we hear.  While Mozart was obviously sensitive to having his music reflect the words, we again cannot necessarily say it is “personal” in the same way it is for the great Romantic masters of opera – Wagner and Verdi.  Even in his operas, Mozart’s music is never really “personal.” In music, Mozart is never about Mozart.  He is about music, which is why it can be said of Mozart perhaps more than any other composer, he is  music itself.  As quoted from a letter to his father Leopold dated September 26, 1781, “…because the passions, whether violent or not, must never be expressed to the point of causing disgust, and because music, even in the most terrible situation, must never offend the ear but must give pleasure and, hence, always remain music…”  Yet in the words of his opera “Die Entfuhrung,” it is hard to imagine Mozart did not have his own beloved Constanze Weber in mind when the heroine for “Die Entfuhrung” was also named Constanze, whom Belmonte rescues from the harem of Pasha Salim in which she is captured.  Mozart too, in a letter to his sister dated February 13, 1782, while at work on his opera “Die Entfuhrung,” stated his need to “rescue” his Constanze from her overbearing mother, whose company Mozart found most unpleasant… “I then go to see my dear Constanze – where the pleasure of seeing each other is, however, generally spoilt by her mother’s embittered remarks – I’ll explain all this in my next letter to my father – hence my wish to free her and rescue her as soon as possible…”

It is in “Die Entfuhrung” where Mozart is perhaps his most “personal” in a most specific way, even with the heroine named after his own beloved.  His strong association with Freemasonry and its ideals, along with those of the Enlightenment is clearly evident in much of the themes of brotherhood, secrecy, fraternity, and love, as found in the libretto for “Die Zauberflote.”  This may seem more “general” than specific, and we cannot know just how direct these themes were related personally to both Schikaneder and Mozart.  His strong Catholic beliefs in the ultimate damnation of unrepentant sinners is blatantly clear in the moral tale of “Don Giovanni,” whose lack of repentence for his cruel womanizing, as well as the murder of the father of one of his would-be victims Donna Anna leads to his being consigned to the flames of Hell.  But again, it is in the words rather than the music where we see these beliefs, opinions, and feelings of Mozart, which are also corroborated by many invaluable letters, especially those to his father. That is why after his father’s death on May 28, 1787, we lose much potential valuable information regarding the depth of his feelings on his operatic work.

While Mozart does deal in his operas with issues of divisions over class, religion, and gender which were especially relevant to him personally – between the aristocracy and the middle class, religious divisions between Christians and Muslims, as expressed in “Die Entfuhrung,” class divisions as found in “Figaro” and “Don Giovanni,” and tensions and divisive attitudes between men and women as found in “Figaro,” “Don Giovanni,” and “Cosi fan tutte,” he always ultimately shows reconciliation of all of these seeming irreconcilable differences, as long as one is willing to be reasonable – a significant ideal of the Enlightenment Era in which he lived.  The reason the Don is consigned to Hell at the end of “Don Giovanni” is because he refuses to be reasonable, to repent, to own up to his terrible behavior.  It shows, at least metaphorically that a lack of ownership and forgiveness leads to ultimate death and suffering. Being charitable, forgiving, and understanding leads to health and happiness.  It is a moving testament to these timeless truths which can so beautifully emody art, even if they so often allude us in our everyday lives.  As the Baron van Swieten said in “Amadeus,” “Opera is here to ignoble us Mozart.  You and me, just the same as His Majesty.” It is no wonder it is here – in opera, where we can find the key to the heart of Mozart the man.  It is in opera where Mozart reveals himself the most, as it is often said he aspired to writing opera more than anything else, as it embodies everything – a “total art work” as Wagner would later call it – music, drama, costumes, set design… the embodiment of Life Itself on a stage… as Shakespeare is quoted from his play, “As You Like it,”  “All the world’s a stage”….