Symphoria 2016-17 Season: Booklet II: CASUAL III
March 12, 2017
It’s well known that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was murdered by rival composer Antonio Salieri, who envied both Mozart’s success and Mozart’s genius. It’s well known—even though it happens to be entirely untrue. This bit of fake news has been around, in various guises, for more than two centuries, finding artistic expression toward the beginning of the nineteenth century in Pushkin’s dark short play Mozart and Salieri (later turned into a chilling chamber opera by Rimsky-Korsakov) and toward the end of the twentieth in Peter Schafer’s Amadeus, especially in the film version of his popular play. Indeed, Amadeus leaned on this theme so heavily, and the film had such an impact on the popular imagination (it won eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture), that it seems the story of Salieri’s murderous impulses will never stand corrected.
So why are we spending this afternoon celebrating a bit of egregiously false history? For two interconnected reasons.
First, while the film may have over-dramatized, romanticized, and falsified the facts of Mozart’s life, it nonetheless managed to make audiences fall in love with the eccentric composer as a person. Yes, the Mozart in the film is at times churlish, coarse, and even oddly immature. But his fallibility (in everything except his composition), his exuberant sense of life (even, to a large extent, when he was ground down by poverty), and his unflinching commitment to his music and to his wider audience (although not necessarily to his noble patrons) all made him seem both human and immediate. Classical composers are often treated with a kind of reverence that, frankly, makes them seem boring. Shafer, however, removed all piety from Mozart’s image: in fact, his flippancy and profanity were precisely what the movie Salieri hated most about him. And because of this artistic choice, Amadeus managed to bring Mozart back into our world.
As for the second reason for celebrating the film: more than most movies about musicians, Amadeus made our pleasure in the music its primary goal—in part by treating the music itself with both enthusiasm and respect, in part by tying it to such a loveable character. When you come out of the film, all you want to do is hear more Mozart.
This concert responds to that appetite by revisiting some of the works featured in Amadeus—but in a slightly different way. I said above that the music in the film was treated with respect—and it was. It wasn’t, however, always treated with integrity. Apparently, music supervisor Sir Neville Marriner agreed to participate only if there were no alterations to Mozart’s music—but while that obviously applied to things like harmony and orchestration, it clearly didn’t apply to formal changes. The soundtrack is full of slices and splices: virtually everything in the film is cut; and in spots, the music suddenly leaps from one part of a piece to another—even from one piece to another. This afternoon, we’ll have a chance to hear Mozart without these distortions.
We focus on two dramatic minor-key works. The main work on our first half is the Piano Concerto in D Minor, K. 464 (1785), the first of only two concertos Mozart wrote in a minor key. Mozart is often considered, along with Haydn, as an icon of the classical idiom—but especially in this dark work, perhaps his most Beethovenian, he looks ahead to the romantic style. (Beethoven in fact performed the work as piano soloist and wrote cadenzas for it). Mozart used the key of D Minor rarely, and when he did, as in Don Giovanni and the Requiem, it had the most turbulent emotional undertones. This concerto is not a violent work as Don Giovanni is; but from the throbbing opening measures, there’s an underlying tension, a tension magnified by the constant sense of strain between the piano and the orchestra. The second movement romance lightens the tone a bit, but it’s forlorn rather that sunny. In fact, parts of it were used to add a shade of resignation to the final credits of the film. And until its closing pages in D Major, the finale is, if anything, more intense than the first movement.
Our soloist, Xak Bjerken, learned this concerto after seeing Amadeus as a college student. The image of the horse and carriage driving through the snow, and the masked man who torments Mozart, left a lasting impression. “Mozart could tap into both insecurity and fear on one hand, and sweet ebullience on the other—those qualities of his and our lives are the same. What a pleasure it is to return to this amazing work.”
The concert closes with Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 in G Minor, K. 183 (1773). As is the case with his concertos, there are only two Mozart two symphonies in minor keys. The more familiar one, the Symphony No. 40, was composed just a few years before he died; the one we’re playing today is from fairly early in his career. Written under the influence of Haydn’s Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) symphonies, it has many of the same general characteristics as Haydn’s Symphony No. 44, composed just a few years earlier and heard on our previous casual concert. Of particular importance in creating the music’s effects are the urgent rhythms (note the lashing syncopations at the very beginning, which return in modified form in the finale) and the severe melodic lines. But for all the Haydn influence, it’s very much a Mozart work—no one else, for instance, could have penned the wonderful wind octet (the work includes four horns) that serves as the trio of the third movement.
To conductor Larry Loh, this symphony represents “the dark side of Mozart’s life”—and the concerto is certainly no lighter. We therefore leaven the angst of these works with a clutch of shorter pieces, all extracted from German-language singspiels (plays with music that fit somewhere on the spectrum between operas and musicals). We begin with the overture to one of Mozart’s early theatrical successes, The Abduction from the Seraglio, K. 384, first performed in 1782. There’s no space here to give a full summary of the opera. Suffice it to say that despite its flirtation with a variety of clichés about Islamic culture, the opera does find its happy resolution in a kind of cross-cultural understanding that would be surely welcome today. The overture is one of Mozart’s spiffiest pieces. Using piccolo, triangle, cymbals, and bass drum, Mozart imitates, in what Larry calls “precisely his own way,” what sounded to Europeans of the time like “Turkish” music—to exhilarating effect.
Between our two major works, we have two excerpts from The Magic Flute, K. 620 (Mozart’s last-completed major work, composed in 1791). One is a popular, folk-song-like aria (Beethoven used it for a set of variations for cello and piano) by the hero’s sidekick, the bird-catcher Papageno, as he sings about his longing for a wife. The other is what stands as perhaps the model for vocal virtuosity, the Queen of the Night vengeance aria from Act II, which calls for elaborate vocal acrobatics—including leaps to a high F. It’s shows up well before the end of The Magic Flute, but it’s certainly the aria that brings down the house.
Peter J. Rabinowitz
Have any comments or questions? Please write to me at prabinowitz@ExperienceSymphoria.org