with Steven Isserlis
February 7-11, 2018
The Janus-faced 18th century began with the widespread imitation of that most-absolute of absolute monarchs, Louis XIV, ruling by what he believed to be God-given rights. It ended with cries for liberty, equality, and fraternity of the American and French Revolutions and government “by the people.” The prevailing musical taste of that period underwent a parallel (though less bloody) revolution as the prevailing musical style of the Classic Era ousted the regional styles of the Baroque Period. The musical Old Regime was style-conscious, reveling in the distinctions that separated the Italian, French, and German taste though some regional differences remained, the Classic style was by and large international, enjoyed by audiences from Lisbon to Stockholm, London to St. Petersburg. [Note: Because popular culture has rendered the designation “classical” almost useless, I am using “Classic” to define this musical style period.]
The new Classic style reflected a kind of musical populism that spoke to the experience of the listener. The baffling complexity of fugues and imitative writing (counterpoint) so admired in the Baroque period was used sparingly. The rigidity of movements expressing a single affect was replaced by a parade of contrasts and musical topics, what the late Wye Jamison Allanbrook called “the secular commedia.” Once hailed as “absolute music” because of its formal clarity and lack of descriptive titles music written in the Classic style has been only recently decoded by music historians, led by Stanford’s Leonard Ratner, using many of the same sources that led to the revival of period instruments and the formation of orchestras such as Philharmonia.
This approach opens new horizons to the listener, especially one unfamiliar with the sometimes arcane vocabulary of music theory. Instead of gripping one’s seat, anxiously trying to discern the modulation to the flat submediant before the recapitulation as often described in program notes, “topic theory” invites us to listen for the same musical references that were familiar to Mozart’s audience: the hunt style, the fanfare, sudden outbursts of Sturm und Drang (storm and stress), and the pastoral drones of an imaginary Arcadia. The pleasure of listening to music in the Classic style is simply to take in the passing parade, not to make a story out of it.
For a brief exercise in topical listening, take the opening of the Mozart Symphony No. 17, written in Salzburg in 1772 when he was sixteen. An emphatic quadruple stop (a chord using all four strings of the violin) opens the movement with a bang called a coup d’archet, followed by a crescendo over a curtain-raising drum roll (Trommelbass) in the lower strings. The melody is embellished with rhythmic short-long “Scotch snaps” (as in “comin’ thro’ the rye Little do we suspect that three of these snappy figures will figure prominently in the rest of the movement. The drumroll gives way to broken chords (arpeggios) while the second violins play rapid scales in the brilliant style ending with an oboe flourish.
After a complete stop (cadence), the violas take over the drumroll and those three Scotch snaps that we heard in the very opening migrate through the strings from top to bottom. A very theatrical crescendo rises from pianissimo to forte, a trick Mozart learned from hearing the fabled orchestra in Mannheim. The brief middle portion (development) of the movement is dominated by the shifting character of the three snappy figures: at first demure, then brash as they rudely interrupt the violins’ delicate figure in a struggle between major and minor.
The Andante in C major is in the “singing style,” with tuneful, symmetrical phrases separated by rests. Its naive simplicity contrasts with a brief “learned” midsection in the imitative style of a fugue. The oboes and horns spring to live in the rollicking Finale in the “hunt style,” as usual in the galloping rhythm of a gigue.
The emancipation of the basso continuo section of harpsichord and cello was another development of the Classic period, resulting in works such as Joseph Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 2. Previously virtually inseparable in their service of providing a continuous bass line and harmony for the Baroque orchestra, each instrument was elevated to soloist status. The harpsichord was liberated by J.S. Bach in his Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, but it was the beginning of the end for the instrument, soon to be overtaken by the fortepiano. The cello, on the other hand, was in the ascendant, having edged out the viola da gamba, which, like the harpsichord, was extinct by the turn of the century. Haydn’s two cello concertos, together with those of his contemporary Luigi Boccherini, are pre-eminent in the modern cello repertoire.
Though Haydn’s C major concerto (No. 1) was of certain authenticity, it was not until 1951 that tonight’s D major concerto (No. 2) could be authenticated, as some had attributed it to Anton Kraft, the cellist of the Esterhazy court orchestra for whom he wrote it. Like the Brandenburg, the Haydn concerto does not stint itself in pushing the instrument to its limits: multiple stops (playing multiple strings simultaneously), arpeggios that arc over all four strings, and brilliant passagework that extends into the stratosphere above the treble clef by the use of harmonics and “thumb position.” Lightly touching a string at its midpoint produces a harmonic, causing it to vibrate in half; stopping the string at that point, using the thumb like a capo on a guitar, allows the other four fingers to reach up into the territory of the viola or violin. This pure sound contributes to the ethereal atmosphere of the second movement. Haydn wrote no cadenzas for this concerto, but indicated places for them to be improvised by the soloist. Stephen Isserlis will be improvising his own cadenzas in these performances.
Sir William Herschel is much better known for his discovery of the planet Uranus (which he named after King George III) than his musical compositions. Like Handel, he came to England from Hanover, where he was born Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel on November 15, 1738. He came to England in 1756–the same year that Mozart was born–but did not become a naturalized Englishman for 37 years. His musical career began in the Hanover Guards as oboist and violinist, later to become bandmaster for a band of four: two oboes and two french horns. He was quite prolific, composing two viola concertos, one oboe concerto, 18 symphonies, as well as chamber music, organ music, and an Anglican Service, the latter while organist at the Octagon Chapel, Bath. It was there from his garden that he spotted what he at first thought was a comet. For a while he managed to pursue both of his musical and astronomical interests. However, following his 1781 discovery of “Georgium Sidus” (not officially renamed for Uranus until 1850) and after receiving an annual stipend of £200 from the King to keep his mind on science, he gave up his musical career for astronomy.
The mysterious opening of Herschel’s Symphony No. 8 bears all the hallmarks of Sturm und Drang: brooding minor key, sudden dynamic contrasts, and restless agitation. An insistent repeated figure ploughs through dissonance into a sunny moment of Classic elegance before the turmoil resumes. The development section begins with a literal return to the opening passage, but the loud passages, now played in major, sound less foreboding. The surprising solo appearance by a string quartet adds to the variety of a movement with a short attention span.
The Andante is a melancholy minuet drooping with sigh figures. It ends with a delicate postlude which acts as a foil to the turmoil of the final Presto assai. Recalling the brooding contrasts of the first movement, Herschel juxtaposes furiously agitated string passages with elegant episodes in the genteel galant style.
The same year that 17-year-old Mozart was writing his 17th symphony, Haydn, age 40, was writing his Symphony No. 43 for the court orchestra of Prince Esterházy, on the scale of chamber music with a modest instrumentation of two oboes, two horns, and strings. ‘Mercury,’ as with many nicknames for Haydn symphonies, was the result of the imagination of someone in the 19th century. The first movement begins at first more like a minuet than a symphonic allegro. Haydn often wrote slow introductions to his symphonies, but in this case he gives that illusion with the same tempo when the whole orchestra bursts in with energetic subdivisions of the same pulse. Haydn’s sense of humor peeks through with a false recapitulation in the middle (development) section. He then teases the listener by starting the opening theme three times in different keys as if fishing for a keyhole in the dark. Haydn begins the slow movement with tuneful, balanced phrases, but becomes obsessive with a single short-short-long motive. The sturdy minuet suggests the Ländler, a precursor to the waltz. Like the first movement, the finale creates its own quiet introduction before the bustling of the brilliant style. Haydn’s signature use of unexpected silence precedes the final rush to the finish.