MOZART AND MENDELSSOHN
When Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony was premiered (in London in 1833), it shared the program with a Mozart concerto – not an oboe concerto, as it does in this program, but a piano concerto with Mendelssohn as soloist. Mendelssohn and Mozart have always gone well together. They both began their careers as child prodigies and both died far too young. More important, though, they share a sunny, Italian-inspired outlook and a desire to please and enchant their listeners.
A miniature overture…
MOZART’S MARRIAGE OF FIGARO
Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro represents the revolutionary spirit and newfound egalitarianism of Europe in 1786. It was based on a French play in which a philandering count is bested by his much cleverer servant, Figaro – a daringly political theme on the eve of the French Revolution. Even in Vienna the play was forbidden by the emperor, and Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, had to soften aspects of the story to get the opera approved. The result transcends politics in its sympathetic portrayal of fallible characters and timeless human relationships.
The overture, although heard first in performance, was the last thing to be composed and it’s a miniature masterpiece. In just four minutes, Mozart sets up a bustling mood with brilliant orchestral writing – featuring trumpets and drums – and simple musical gestures that build anticipation for the drama and comedy to come.
The oboe goes to the opera…
MOZART’S OBOE CONCERTO IN C
The Marriage of Figaro was composed in Vienna, where Mozart moved to make his name and find fortune. But he began his career in Salzburg in the court of the archbishop. In 1777 a new oboist, Josef Ferlendis, joined the court orchestra, and it was for him that the Oboe Concerto in C major was composed. The following year another virtuoso, Friedrich Ramm of the famous Mannheim orchestra, played the concerto five times. It was evidently a success!
But for a long time this concerto was thought lost. It wasn’t until 1920 that it was discovered that the concerto known to flutists as the Concerto in D major was in fact an adaptation of the original oboe concerto. (A case of hasty repurposing on Mozart’s part to fulfil a commission from a rich amateur.) Now oboists have reclaimed it for their own and it is one of the most frequently programmed and recorded oboe concertos of all.
Mozart composed in nearly every genre of music, but his greatest achievements were in opera and the concerto. Although opera features the voice and the concerto features instruments, these two genres share a ‘vocal’ or lyrical motivation and a sure dramatic instinct. In the case of the concerto, the drama emerges in the contrast between the solo voice and the full orchestra.
This is something Rebecca Mayhew Schweigert keeps in mind when preparing for a performance of a Mozart concerto. Of course the music is technical and virtuosic, she says, but it is ‘still first and foremost dramatic and operatic, being Mozart.’
The overall mood is lighthearted and graceful. Like The Marriage of Figaro, the concerto belongs to the opera buffa or comic opera tradition, and the first movement (Allegro aperto or ‘fast and cheerful’) sets the scene with lively ideas and witty gestures.
The second movement (Adagio non troppo or ‘slow, not too much’) brings contrast and a feeling of seriousness. Then from the solemnity of the orchestral introduction there springs a gorgeous lyrical solo for the oboe. It would be easy to imagine the neglected Countess in Figaro singing a poignant aria at this point.
The finale offers a chance for extended virtuosity as the oboe plays solos in between repetitions of the main rondo theme. And the operatic spirit prevails: that perky rondo theme was to turn up four years later in an aria for The Abduction from the Seraglio.
Blue skies in A major…
MENDELSSOHN’S ITALIAN SYMPHONY
In the 19th century every young man of good family and sufficient means would be sent on a Grand Tour – traveling Europe, soaking up high culture, making connections and painting watercolors. At 20, Felix Mendelssohn – son of a Berlin banker, grandson of a leading philosopher – had already traveled widely and enjoyed a sophisticated liberal education, but in 1829 he embarked on his own three-year Grand Tour.
He visited Scotland (the inspiration for The Hebrides and his Scottish Symphony), Wales, England, Paris and Vienna, but the itinerary would not be complete without Italy. Venice…Rome…Florence…Naples… the land of “bright skies and warmth” inspired the sunny effervescence of the Italian Symphony, although it wasn’t finished until after Mendelssohn had returned to the grey skies of Berlin.
The Italian Symphony is the creation of a young man, full of optimism and confidence. Each of the four movements is characterized by non-stop rhythmic energy, almost manic by the time we get to the finale. And Mendelssohn begins the first movement as he intends to go on: brilliantly with a breathless, bounding momentum. (The tempo instruction is Allegro vivace or ‘fast and lively’.) At the same time, his trademark elegance of style keeps everything in check and the music never once loses its precision and lightness of touch.
The second movement (‘an easy walking pace’) may have been inspired by a religious procession Mendelssohn witnessed in Naples. It is like a walking meditation, beginning with music that suggests medieval plainchant and becoming more elaborate as flutes and violins spin their melodies above a solemn baseline. The graceful third movement isn’t called a minuet, but it occupies the same spot as the minuet would have done in a Classical symphony from Mozart’s day. There’s a change of feel in the middle, when the horns and bassoons are given poetic and nostalgic music that suggests Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The finale (‘as fast as possible!’) features two Italian dances: the leaping saltarello to begin and end, and in the middle a tarantella, the whirling dance supposedly danced by victims of the tarantula! This movement has such an irresistible and joyous energy, it’s easy to overlook that (almost until the end) it’s in A minor, which in Mendelssohn’s day would have suggested a tender and sorrowful character. The Italian Symphony sounds effortless and fresh, and yet Mendelssohn thought it was “the most mature thing” he’d ever done. It remains one of his most popular creations to this day.
Yvonne Frindle © 2012 Illustrations by Charles Krenner © 2012
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Mozart’s childhood was spent touring Europe as a prodigy, entertaining and astonishing the courts of Europe with his amazing musical gifts. He died, all too young, at the age of 35, but not before he’d demonstrated mature genius. Among his greatest achievements are his operas, including The Marriage of Figaro, composed for Vienna in 1786, and his operatically conceived concertos.
It’s been argued that Mendelssohn at 17 was an even better composer than Mozart at the same age. This is on the strength of two masterpieces: his Octet and the Midsummer Night’s Dream overture from 1826. Soon after, while in his early 20s, he composed The Hebrides and his Italian Symphony. Later music such as the Violin Concerto, completed towards the end of his short life, proves Mendelssohn never lost his ability to enchant listeners.
Season 11 (2014-2015)
Season 10 (2013-2014)
Season 9 (2012-2013)
Season 8 (2011-2012)
Season 7 (2010-2011)
Season 6 (2009-2010)
Season 5 (2008-2009)
CityMusic Cleveland is a professional chamber orchestra that performs free concerts throughout Northeast Ohio,often accompanied by exhibits of local artwork.
Since exploding onto the scene in 2004, CityMusic Cleveland has won cheering audiences with beautiful music, brilliantly performed in familiar neighborhood settings.
FREE concerts - FREE childcare - make CityMusic concerts accessible to everyone!
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....