July 23, 2023: All Mozart: “Linz” & Violin Concerto No. 3

May 25, 2023

The Impresario Overture, K. 486

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Mozart composed the one-act Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario) for a competition organized by none other than Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II. Presented before a princely audience at Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace in February 1786, the event pitted Mozart’s German singspiel (a light opera with spoken dialogue) against an Italian opera, in this case Antonio Salieri’s opera Prima la musica e poi le parole (First the music and then the words). An Italian troupe performed Salieri’s opera at one end of the room and local musicians introduced Mozart’s singspiel at the opposite end. Mozart’s work drew a polite response but the audience ultimately favored Salieri.

Still, one cannot fault Mozart or his librettist, Gottlieb Stephanie, for a dull concept. The plot concerns a theater director who, after butchering the standard repertory, has been tasked with organizing a new troupe for Salzburg. He auditions two sopranos, a tenor, and some actors. The sopranos squabble over status and potential salaries. In a trio, they attempt to out-sing one another while the tenor attempts to quiet them down. Despite the comedic tone, Mozart took the opportunity to craft serious music for the singspiel; most notable is the stately overture, scored for a large orchestra and set in the key of C Major. Perhaps it was a send-up of the contest itself, but Mozart’s overture nonetheless rises above the occasion at hand.

Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, K. 216

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

A 19-year-old Mozart composed his Third Violin Concerto in 1775, while serving as concertmaster of the Archbishop’s court orchestra in Salzburg. It is one of five violin concertos that together are essentially a one-off: Though he later turned to concertos for piano and wind instruments, there is no record of another surviving string-instrument concerto. It’s unclear whether Mozart himself performed the premiere of his violin concertos or if he wrote them for a fellow violinist such as Gaetano Brunetti. The latter is certainly plausible given the fact that Mozart, for all his talent, disliked playing the instrument, and put it aside after leaving his Salzburg post.

The first movement opens with a buoyant theme borrowed from Il rè pastore (The Shepherd King), Mozart’s opera that had been recently staged in Salzburg. In the aria, the title character sings of his satisfaction with life as a shepherd, and begs the gods to help him if he must ever give it up. Violinist and orchestra become protagonists in this mini-drama.

In the songful Adagio, a solo violin melody unspools over a poetic backdrop of muted strings and woodwind punctuations.

From the third movement comes the concerto’s overall nickname. In a letter to his father, the composer once referred to this work as the “Strassburg Concerto,” not in connection with the city of Strasbourg, but with an 18th-century folk song known as “The Strassburger.” With no words linked to the tune, it’s unclear whether it carried a particular meaning for Mozart, but the jig-like movement is endowed with freshness and whimsy right to the finish.

Adagio and Fugue in C Minor, K. 546

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Brief but potent, the Adagio and Fugue in C Minor reflects Mozart’s autumnal reacquaintance with the works of J.S. Bach. Though the Baroque master had been gone for more than a generation, he loomed over the Classical-era imagination (perhaps not unlike our present-day obsessions with the Beatles). One of Mozart’s key patrons and devotees, Baron Gottfried von Swieten, had inspired him to arrange and perform the fugues of Bach and Handel, as well as to write his own counterpoint. Mozart later visited Bach’s Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where he improvised on a Bach chorale, drawing praise from the cantor, a former Bach student. He also transcribed for strings portions of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier.

Yet when Mozart composed a C minor fugue for two pianos in 1783, it was starker and more imposing than anything he performed by Bach. Five years later, Mozart arranged it for string orchestra and added a foreboding Adagio as an introduction (together they were catalogued as K. 546). It’s unclear what prompted this arrangement, coming as he was working on his final symphonic trilogy. But it may have been a way of immersing himself in his earlier counterpoint studies, just before he completed the Symphony No. 41, with its dazzling fugal finale.

Symphony No. 36 in C Major, K. 425, “Linz”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Linz, the capital of Upper Austria and an industrial port on the Danube, has given the world a famous torte filled with raspberry jam, the native son Anton Bruckner, and this symphony by Mozart.

Wolfgang and Constanze Mozart were traveling from Salzburg to Vienna in 1783 when they stopped in Linz as guests of Count Thun, an old friend of the Mozart family. Naturally, the count took it upon himself to schedule a royal concert five days after their arrival. Mozart was expected to perform. But not having packed a symphony in his luggage, the composer needed to write a new one — and copy out the orchestral parts — “at breakneck speed,” as he told his father.

Nothing about this boldly imaginative work suggests a rush job, however. Listeners get the sense that Mozart had advanced well beyond the Symphony No. 35 of the previous year, starting with the slow introduction, his first in a symphony. The tension breaks with the arrival of an exuberant Allegro spiritoso section, though even the main theme contains pensive undercurrents. This is followed by an unusually somber second movement — suggesting Mozart’s determination to avoid music of mere frivolity — and a brief and courtly minuet. The presto finale is marked by joyous outbursts, exuberant rushing figures, and barbed echoes of the pessimistic second movement, before a festive conclusion.


Program notes by Brian Wise

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