Mozart is, without fail, the most recognized name in classical music. The only composer who might rival him for the top spot would be Beethoven. And in this concert we bring you some of Mozart’s most beautiful and most sparkling music. These are all relatively youthful pieces, but it’s a program that shows his range. There’s the Mozart who composed brilliant concertos and who quite liked to play viola. There’s the composer for orchestra who knew how to please heart and mind, to entertain as well as impress. And there’s the composer who knew better than anyone how to write for the voice – whether he was writing for the opera theatre or the church, Mozart’s vocal music was always sublime.
So it’s December and it’s “mainly Mozart”. Except this program looks like it’s all Mozart – what’s with that? Well, it is December and the holidays, so stay tuned for surprises.
CONCERTO FOR TWO
Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola
The height of fashion…
What’s better than a concerto for one soloist? A concerto for two! At least, that’s what everyone thought in 18th-century Paris, and Paris has always been the centre of fashion. When Mozart visited the French capital in 1778 the craze for the sinfonia concertante was at its height – no one could get enough of these ‘symphony concertos’, concertos for more than one soloist.
Mozart responded to the fad by writing a concerto for flute and harp. Once home in Salzburg – and perhaps further inspired by the fine orchestral musicians he’d heard in Mannheim – he composed a concerto for two pianos, began an ambitious sinfonia concertante for three soloists (violin, viola and cello) and, having abandoned that, created a masterpiece in the Sinfonia concertante for violin and viola.
Violin and viola…
This is the greatest of Mozart’s string concertos, and in this music everything comes together: the assurance and brilliance of youth matched by an emerging maturity of style, the novelty of the genre, the influence of Mozart’s visits to Italy and his forays into opera, his unerring instinct in writing for the various instruments of the orchestra, and above all his love for the viola. Mozart may have been a very accomplished violinist, but his favorite string instrument, and the one he preferred to play in chamber music, was the viola, whose rich, dark tones would nestle at the heart of the texture.
Everyone’s a soloist
In the Sinfonia concertante, of course, the viola is brought into the limelight, together with its partner the violin. But if you listen carefully you can hear that Mozart extends the ‘concertante’ principle to the orchestra itself – there are solos for the oboes and the horns as well. At other times the whole ensemble is treated as a ‘soloist’, and Mozart gives the orchestra virtuoso effects such as the famous ‘Mannheim crescendo’, in which the players must build, via subtly controlled gradations, from a perfectly soft beginning to an exhilarating climax.
It is from the first of these climaxes, less than two minutes into the first movement, that the two soloists emerge from the texture, two long, high notes sustained as the orchestra slips into the background. The whole work is full of such magical moments.
The first movement is marked Allegro maestoso, to be played ‘fast and majestically’, but the music is never pompous. Instead there is a sense of congenial conversation, as the two soloists finish each other’s sentences. Later in the movement, Mozart swaps the two solo parts, bringing back the violin’s music in the viola part and vice versa. This wonderful collaboration culminates in the duo cadenza, provided by the composer, in which it’s demonstrated that the true virtuoso doesn’t simply play faster and higher, but more musically and more expressively too.
Eloquence and brilliance…
The second movement carries an innocuous tempo marking (Andante, ‘an easy walking pace’) but the music adopts a darker, heartfelt mood. Charming conversation is abandoned for an impassioned eloquence and the expressive character of the viola comes into its own.
The almost painful intensity of the Andante is then relieved by the third movement, a Presto (‘as fast as possible’). The movement is organised as a rondo, with its exuberant refrain for the full orchestra punctuating the brilliantly showy music for the soloists.
A SALZBURG SYMPHONY
Divertimento in D, K136
Mozart’s Divertimento in D (K136) was one of a set of three composed in Salzburg when he was just 16 years old. Two of these follow the same satisfying pattern – two fast movements framing a slower, more expressive one – making them similar to the early symphonies that came out of Italy and which had their origins in the opera overture, in the world of pure entertainment.
A divertimento is literally a ‘diversion’, an amusement – it should be direct in expression, melodious, lively and perfectly easy on the ear. Like the serenade, a divertimento in Mozart’s day would have been informal in character, and the principal difference between the two forms lay in the manner of performance: a serenade was typically performed with several string players to each part (an orchestra, in other words), while a divertimento was usually performed with one player per part (chamber music).
Chamber music or symphony?
There are various signs in the music that Mozart may have thought of this divertimento and its companions as chamber music: there are fast, intricate passages which are easy for a solo performer but more difficult for a group to coordinate, and the interaction between the different musical lines tends to be more elaborate than in his orchestral pieces from around the same time.
You could say that the three divertimenti were the closest Mozart got to writing a string quartet in Salzburg. But these characteristics certainly don’t prevent the divertimenti being performed by a string orchestra, and their effect is all the more brilliant when they are. It’s not without reason that the three divertimenti came to be known as the ‘Salzburg symphonies’.
But it’s an Italian rather than an Austrian spirit that comes to the fore in this music. Like an opera overture, the Divertimento in D catches your attention from the beginning. The two violin parts spend the first movement (marked Allegro, ‘fast’) bouncing ideas off each other in witty dialogue.
The second movement (Andante) is elegantly lyrical – here the music sings and sighs with the ardor of a young girl happily in love.
The third movement (to be played Presto) bears a thematic resemblance to the first movement, but it outdoes it in wit and exuberance. This is Mozart in a comic mood: he delights in such gestures as asking the musicians to play soft, detached phrases, followed immediately by loud outbursts. And since this is a diversion, you’re allowed to smile!
SING FOR JOY!
‘Exsultate, jubilate’ – Motet
Mozart wrote only three motets – religious music for voice and instruments – but two of these can claim to be among his most popular and memorable works. One is ‘Exsultate, jubilate’ with its exhilarating Alleluja; the other is the much-loved ‘Ave, verum corpus’. ‘Ave verum corpus’ dates from the last year of Mozart’s life, but he was barely 17 when he composed ‘Exsultate, jubilate’ – a talented teenager enjoying the kind of celebrity and success in Milan that he could only dream about at home in Salzburg.
A great voice…
It must have given Mozart enormous pleasure to match the Italians at their own game with his opera Lucio Silla, but he seems to have been even more excited by the chance to hear the famous castrato Venanzio Rauzzini, who sang his leading role ‘like an angel’. And it was Rauzzini he had in mind for ‘Exsultate, jubilate’ – you only have to listen to the music to imagine the virtuosity, flexibility and astonishing soprano range of the castrato’s voice.
In a word…
To understand what a motet is, think of the related word ‘mot’ (in French) or ‘motto’ (in English) – at the root of all these words is the idea of ‘the word’, and the motet is a musical form where the words are of utmost importance. The motet as Mozart knew it belongs in church, but the words themselves don’t come from the set liturgy, instead a motet will use religious poetry that enhances the theme of the service. (In Anglican or Episcopalian churches this would be the anthem, in the Catholic mass a motet is sung after the Credo.)
A concerto for the voice…
‘Exsultate, jubilate’ motet belongs to this tradition, but since it’s Mozart it goes above and beyond what you might expect of a religious anthem. Perhaps it even goes too far, because this motet can be heard as something else: a concerto – virtuoso music – for the voice.
Setting aside the tiny Recitativo (barely 60 seconds of recitative or ‘sung speech’), the motet falls into three movements, fast—slow—fast, just as a concerto would, and it’s as brilliant and virtuosic as any instrumental concerto. But you couldn’t accuse Mozart of ignoring the meaning of the words in this music, because the whole motet is suffused with the high spirits and sheer elation of the (Latin) text.
Rejoice, shout for joy, sing sweet hymns…
The motet begins in high spirits with a quick (Allegro) aria, or song, calling us to rejoice and shout for joy. The recitative follows – linking music in which the words take precedence: “The friendly day shines forth, both cloud and storms have now fled: an unexpected calm has appeared for the righteous…”
As dark gives way to blessed dawn, so this recitative leads into the gentle aria (Andante) at the centre of the motet, a serene hymn to the virgin Mary: “Thou crown of virgins, grant us peace, comfort the passions which make our hearts sigh.”
The final aria is the most famous as well as the most virtuosic. (And it’s in this movement, at the very end, that sopranos often insert a brilliant high C!) Its text consists of just one word – “Alleluia!” – which shifts our focus from the intellectual meaning of the motet to the simple feeling of exuberance conveyed by the music.
Yvonne Frindle © 2009
Composer portraits by Charles Krenner
The text and translation for the motet will be published in the program book available at the concerts. Various translations can also be found online, including this one.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
When he wasn’t being carted around Europe by his father, Mozart spent most of his early years in Salzburg as a musical servant at the court of the Prince-Archbishop. His duties included composition and performing – in addition to being a virtuoso at the keyboard (harpsichord, piano and organ), he was a very accomplished violinist and enjoyed playing viola. As a composer he turned his hand to many types of music from ambitious operas to concertos, church music and symphonies.
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CityMusic with Heather Headley at Masonic Auditorium (May 28)
Mike Telin, clevelandclassical.com, June 2, 2015
On Thursday, May 28 at Masonic Auditorium, CityMusic Cleveland, under the direction of Avner D....