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Notes by Bruce Lamott


Mozart’s predominance in the late 18th century Classical style period—also called “Viennese Classical,” though none of its Holy Trinity of Haydn, Mozart, and young Beethoven were native to Vienna—has all but eclipsed the works of leading composers in other cultural centers such as Paris and Mannheim. Mozart’s genius lay in part by his assimilation of other composers encountered in his youth and young adulthood. As a ten-year-old prodigy, he played in Geneva for André Ernest Modeste Grétry (1741–1813), the foremost Parisian composer of comic operas. Both composers were influenced by the musical style and orchestral techniques of Johann Stamitz, originator of “the Mannheim style,” brought to Paris by his two sons. Despite his father’s urging, Mozart made no other personal contact with Grétry in his adult life, but their operas and personal styles co-existed, even sharing the same stage in Vienna, and Mozart thought enough of Grétry to compose piano variations on one of his popular tunes.


MOZART Overture to La finta semplice, K. 51

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, c. 1763

The backstage consternation following Emperor Joseph II’s request that a twelve-year-old boy from provincial Salzburg write and conduct an opera for the Imperial Court in Vienna in 1768 is quite understandable. In letters home, Leopold, father of “Wolfgangerl”—as he called him—recounts the intrigue: “The singers were incited and the orchestra stirred up against us; everything was done to prevent the performances of this opera from going ahead.” Moreover, the lad who was writing a three-act Italian comic opera (opera buffa) had never written an Italian opera nor been to Italy. Despite his stage-parent’s appeal to the Emperor himself, Mozart’s opera, La finta semplice (The Pretend Simpleton) was never performed in Vienna. Even so, this didn’t stop criticism by “certain persons that the music was not worth a rap, while others were saying that the music did not fit the words or the meter, since the boy did not understand the Italian language sufficiently.”

The Overture, or Sinfonia, however, speaks Italian fluently. The propulsion of repeated notes—a convenient substitution for tympani called “drum bass” (Trommelbass) supports an animated violin melody teeming with scalewise passagework. The three-movement (fast/slow/fast) form is also characteristic of the Italian sinfonia. Though Wolfgangerl hadn’t yet visited Italy, he had visited Mannheim, where the orchestra was praised for sudden shifts in dynamics. This occurs both in alternating soft and loud phrases—as heard in the opening bars—as well as single-note accents marked “fp” (forte/piano), often reinforced by the woodwinds.

Grétry Orchestral Suite from Zémire et Azor and La Caravane du Caire

André Ernest Modeste Grétry (1741-1813)

Born in Liège (now in Belgium) and educated in Rome, Grétry came to Paris in 1767, in the midst of the “War of the Buffoons” (Guerre des Buffons), a struggle between the proponents of Italian comic opera (opera buffa) and French lyric tragedy (tragedie lyrique). In the next thirty years spanning the French Revolution, his fifty operas brought the two styles together in a popular synthesis.

The Ottoman Turks, once a threat to the future of Christian Western Europe until their defeat in the Battle of Vienna in 1683, had a century later become a fashion statement. The imitation–or caricature–of their culture (called turkisme) expressed itself in music, fashion, architecture, and in the bitter roasted beans they left behind in their hasty retreat, now known as “Viennese” coffee. The croissant, in the shape of the Turkish Crescent, is supposed to date from this time. Hence the archetypal “French” breakfast is really Viennese! Imitation of the mustachioed bands of Janissaries inspired composers to add bass drum, cymbals, and triangle to the orchestral percussion battery. Both Mozart’s German comic opera (or Singspiel), “The Abduction from the Seraglio” (Die Entführung aus dem Serail, 1782) and Grétry’s opéra-comique (sung in German translation), Zémire et Azor (1771), setting the story of Beauty and the Beast in “exotic” Persia, put turkisme on the stage of Emperor Joseph’s II’s Court Theater in Vienna in the 1780s. Each received thirty-eight performances, and Mozart’s sister-in-law, Aloysia Weber Lange, sang both the role of Konstanze in “Abduction” as well as the title role of Zémire.

Some of Grétry’s instrumental music in this program shows more influence of Mannheim than Persia, however. The French connection with Mannheim was close: Mannheimers played in the orchestra of the Concerts Spirituels in Paris, and in Mannheim, Zémire et Azor was performed for the court of Electoral Karl Theodor. Its Overture opens with the unison fanfare (premier coup d’archet), answered by lyrical passages in the violins. Sudden changes in dynamics (the hallmark of the Mannheim style) as well as the upwelling of “Mannheim crescendos” lead to unexpected harmonic shifts as well. The middle section (development) plunges into outbursts of “beastly” minor—the musical topic called “storm and stress” (Sturm und Drang)—contrasting with the “beauty” of serene strings in major. A brief melancholy slow movement leads directly into another bustling Mannheim crescendo, with woodwind fanfares contrasted with Italianate passagework in the violins.

More overt in its turkisme is Grétry’s La caravane du Caire (The Caravan of Cairo, 1783), performed over 500 times between 1785 and 1791. This opera-ballet with libretto by Étienne Morel de Chédeville retells the popular trope of “civilized” Europeans held captive by an Egyptian Pasha, whose clemency—as in Mozart’s Abduction—leads to a happy finale. The “Marche égyptienne” imitates the cadence of a Janissary marching band while an “exotic” melody in the violins and oboes, shrilly spiked with piccolo, leaps over the distinctive three half-steps of the “Hungarian” minor scale. A contrasting episode in G major with snappy dotted rhythms and a hint of fugal imitation evokes the “civilized” finesse of a French military band.

MOZART Oboe Concerto in C Major, K271k/K. 314

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, c. 1788

For over a hundred years, the only oboe concerto Mozart wrote was thought to be lost, despite its popularity in his lifetime. He wrote it for the new oboist in the Salzburg archbishop’s orchestra, Giuseppe Ferlendis, in 1777, but it made a greater sensation in the hands of Friedrich Ramm, oboist of the reknowned Mannheim orchestra. Writing that Ramm was “quite crazy with delight” with the concerto, Mozart said, “It is now Ramm’s cheval de bataille [warhorse].” However, the warhorse was believed lost after a copy was sent to Haydn’s oboist in the Esterháza orchestra in 1783. In 1920 it was rediscovered in a lone bass part marked “Concerto in C/Oboe Principale” by the director of the Salzburg Mozarteum archives, who recognized it as a transposition of Mozart’s familiar flute concerto in D major. It turns out that it was the flute concerto that was the remake, a recycled transposition for an amateur French flutist when Mozart was desperate for money in Paris in the winter of 1777-78, leaving the final tally of Mozart flute/oboe concertos at one-all.

The first movement bears Mozart’s unusual marking “Allegro aperto” (open allegro), suggesting a bold and energetic tempo consistent with the brightly tuned key of C Major. The opening ritornello is concise and ends with a repeated question-and-answer “tag” that articulates the sections of the form. Throughout the concerto, Mozart often accompanies the oboe solo with the first and second violins alone, creating a floating and transparent fabric beneath the solo line. The second theme, introduced by three sustained notes, momentarily halts the momentum, but pulsations in the bass and violins maintain a consistent rhythmic energy throughout the movement. Mozart’s writing for the oboe parallels his bravura arias for soprano, exploiting contrasts in tone color with wide leaps from the bottom to the top of the range and fluid scale-wise passagework.

The second movement is equally operatic, with a lyrical oboe melody in balanced phrases that “breathe” vocally. It is an expressive “song without words” in the sensitive, or empfindsamer style. Four years after he writes the oboe concerto, the playful theme of the rondo finale reappears in Blonde’s aria in Abduction from the Seraglio, “Welche Wonne, welche Lust” (What bliss, what pleasure now reigns in my breast.) Mozart riffs on the opening phrase in fugal imitation, perhaps a good-humored jape of what was known as the “serious” or “learned” style.

MOZART Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, c. 1780

Unlike the “musings” of the young Mozart heard in the rest of this concert, his well-known G minor symphony—one of only two he wrote in this key and fifteen years after the previous one, sometimes called the “Little” G minor, K.183—shows as much maturity as his short life alloted him. One of the final three of his forty-one symphonies (the others being Symphony in E-flat, K. 543, and the “Jupiter,” K. 551) it appealed especially to listeners in the nineteenth century for its intimations of Romanticism. Richard Grant White, one of New York’s foremost music critics, wrote in 1846 that it “possesses an intensity in its pathos and mightiness in the emotions which it suggests, which are not usually attributed to Mozart, though he has full claim to them.”

Like other mysteries of his later life, it is not known whether Mozart ever heard the work performed. He entered it into his own catalogue of works dated July 25, 1788, and at some point he re-scored the wind parts, reapportioning the oboe parts in order to include clarinet parts for his friend Anton Stadler and his younger brother Johann. The composer was in dire financial straits, and while an appeal for financial aid mentions a concert series in 1788 in which the symphony might have premiered, there is no evidence that concerts took place. He did, however, hear one of his last three symphonies—conducted by the Imperial Royal Chamber Composer Antonio Salieri—performed in 1791, but which remains unknown. It is also possible that the three symphonies were written to send to England in the hope of getting work there, as Haydn did a few years later—in which case, they were probably transported there by Nancy Storace, the first Susanna in Figaro, who was returning home shortly after they were written.

“No symphony of Mozart’s, not even the ‘Jupiter,’ has aroused so much comment as this one,” writes musicologist Neal Zaslaw. Its opening measure alone is the subject of a 16-page monograph in the Journal of Musicology. The mysterious “cushion” of cellos and violas preceding the theme creates an asymmetrical phrase structure as the theme seems to arrive ahead of schedule. The entire movement is saturated with an anapestic rhythmic motive (dit-dit-dah) that introduces a question, then answers itself. The Andante likewise begins in hushed tones with a pulsing melody that rises from violas to second violins to first violins over a chromatic cello line. The flitting pairs of thirty-second notes that circle the theme running the gamut from flutes to bassoons were quoted by the elderly Haydn in The Seasons following the text “exhausted is the summer’s strength,” a reflection on his own age and an hommage to the late Mozart.
The spiky melodic line of the very un-minuet-like Minuet is compounded by hemiolas which disrupt the meter from the very first measure, a far cry from the courtly propriety of the Trio, a serenade featuring woodwind ensemble (known as Harmonie). The Finale brings us full-circle to Mannheim again, this time with a “Mannheim rocket,” a propulsive arpeggio that launches piano from the depths and bursts in an emphatic and vigorous forte.