PROGRAM NOTES | Sun July 5 | 7:30 pm
Copyright Susan Halperin
“Chaconne” and “Pas seul” from Idomeneo: Ballet Music, K. 367
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
(Born January 27, 1756, in Salzburg; died December 5, 1791, in Vienna)
Mozart composed his tenth opera, Idomeneo, in late 1780 and the first weeks of 1781, at the age of twenty-five, at which point he had already been a professional musician for twenty years. Idomeneo made its premiere at the Residenztheater in Munich on January 29, 1781. Its serious and ambitious music captured attention for Mozart when he was a still relatively unknown composer. Musicians have always admired this opera; Brahms called it “in general a miracle.”
The first time Mozart traveled alone without one of his parents accompanying him, was when he journeyed to Munich to prepare the production of Idomeneo, an opera seria with roots in a play based on ancient legends. For his subject, Mozart chose an old French libretto by Danchet that André Campra had set in 1712; Mozart asked the Salzburg Court Chaplain, Giambattista Varesco, to adapt the story and translate it into Italian.
Idomeneo, the king of Crete, survives a storm at sea and thanks Neptune for his good fortune by promising to offer in sacrifice the first living being he encounters on land. This unlucky person turns out to be his own son, Idamante. Neptune sends a monster to cause destruction when Idomeneo does not comply with the agreement, but Idamante kills the monster. In the final act, Idomeneo is about to sacrifice his son when the son’s beloved Ilia intervenes, offering her own life instead. Neptune decrees that Idomeneo must yield the throne to Ilia and Idamante, and the people call upon the god of love and marriage to bless the royal pair and bring peace.
In Mozart’s time, operas frequently ended with a ballet, and Idomeneo was no exception, although it is not known what scenario was used for its choreography. The opera’s story and Mozart’s music make commentators believe that the ballet was intended to depict festivities held at the coronation of Prince Idamante. The music Mozart composed for the ballet includes a group of five dances. Mozart’s ballet music is unquestionably marvelous, but at least once when writing a letter home, he referred to this ballet music as “these accursed dances.”
This extended ballet’s first two dances are the “Chaconne” and the “Pas Seul (de Mr. Le Grand).” The highlight of the five is the powerfully majestic “Chaconne,” brilliantly ceremonial and quite varied in its moods. The chaconne is a dance that probably originated in post-conquest Mexico; it traveled first to Spain, then to Italy, and finally to France. It most typically includes a set of variations on a repeated pattern of harmonies or over a repeated bass, but in the 17th and 18th century, a chaconne often was a piece in which a refrain of the theme returns after each variation (almost like in a rondo with the main theme alternating with other ideas). In Mozart’s elaborate chaconne, each episode, Allegro, is followed by a refrain, which is interrupted by a slower section, Larghetto. Mozart borrowed the chaconne theme from Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide of 1774, which the late musicologist Michael Steinberg postulated Mozart did perhaps as homage to Gluck or because the theme was so recognizable that it was, in effect, common property.
Most likely the corps de ballet danced the refrain, but individual dancers were featured in the episodes, especially since the interludes are marked as “Pas seul,” meaning solo dance. (Mozart even listed the soloists’ names at the head of each section.) The Munich ballet master, Monsieur LeGrand, gave himself the biggest solo portion, an independent pas seul (solo dance), which follows the “Chaconne” without a pause.
Monsieur LeGrand’s “Pas seul” is a movement in four parts, each part quicker than the preceding one.
The Ballet Music from Idomeneo is scored for two flutes, two oboes and two bassoons; two horns and two trumpets; timpani, and strings.
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No.23 in A Major, K. 488
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
(Born January 27, 1756, in Salzburg; died December .3675, 1791, in Vienna)
K. 488 is the most charming of the trilogy of piano concertos Mozart wrote in 1785-86. The themes are delightful, and the writing is captivating. During the winter and spring of 1785-1786, Mozart wrote three piano concertos, The Marriage of Figaro and the little one-act operatic comedy, The Impresario. The Concerto in A Major was the second of the concertos; he completed it March 2, 1786. He planned to perform all these works at his Lenten concerts when the opera and theaters were closed for the solemn season and there was little other entertainment for the Viennese.
After several years of experience, Mozart had learned how to appeal to his public, and his reputation assured him of a good audience if he had a big new work for each event. Sometime earlier, he had written in a letter to his father that his new concertos were “a very happy medium between too easy and too difficult; they are very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural. There are special passages from which connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction, but I believe that the less-learned cannot fail to be pleased, even without knowing why.”
If the A-major Concerto made concessions to public taste, they were in the direction of poignant beauty and intense expression. The elegant, plastic themes lend themselves perfectly to Mozart’s skillful manipulation of the musical forms current in his time. Although sometimes he completely worked out pieces in his head before writing them down on paper, he changed his mind several times about this one. Surviving sketches show that he began to write an entirely different slow movement and then made two false starts on the finale before he developed his ideas into the finished work.
The first movement, Allegro, is one of the few in which Mozart’s bountiful invention is presented with the simplicity and regularity that became textbook models. He leaves nothing to chance. Even the soloist’s cadenza, which would have been left open for improvisation or written down separately at another time, he writes out in full in the score.
The second movement is marked Adagio, slow and leisurely, even though Mozart often said that his concertos’ second movements were always to be played Andante, at a moderate walking pace. The movement is not long, but expresses deep emotion, and is full of the uniquely beautiful kind of woodwind writing that Mozart had created in 1784 for his concerto-like Quintet for Piano and Winds. The last movement is a rondo, Allegro assai, in which new melodies pour out, one after another, in alternation with a humorous main theme that the unaccompanied piano first announces.
The piece is scored for flute, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, and strings. This concerto and the preceding one, K. 482, were Mozart’s first with clarinets, which he used in place of the usual pair of oboes.
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
An anonymous critic of this symphony once wrote, “There are few things in art that are perfect. The G minor Symphony is one of them.” In two months of the summer of 1788, at a time of terrible misfortune and disappointments, Mozart wrote this and two other symphonies, which were the three last symphonies he composed. It was a particularly hard time for him because his wife was ill and his always troubled finances had never been worse. He made every effort he could to ward off great despair; he even wrote his friend Puchberg for a loan explaining that he was in a period “prey to gloomy thoughts which I must repel with all my might.”
Instead of reflections of the composer’s unhappy condition, the three symphonies are powerfully assertive works. Perhaps Mozart’s troubles had caused him to turn inward and to discover within himself, consciously or unconsciously, music of an emotional depth that no one had ever before imagined possible. Mozart presumably had none of the usual reasons for writing the symphonies he had had in the past because there were no commissions and no promises of concert dates, nor a publisher waiting to receive them.
At that time, composers rarely wrote solely from inspiration, and some historians believe these three symphonies were conceived purely from an inner, emotional, expressive impulse. No record exists of when any of Mozart’s last three symphonies were first performed; the only evidence that the Symphony in G minor may possibly have been played during Mozart’s lifetime is the fact that he later re-orchestrated it, adding two clarinets to the orchestra and revising the two oboe parts to fit the enlarged wind section. The occasion for the revision may have been the pair of concerts, given at the Imperial and Royal Court Theater for the benefit of the widows and orphans of musicians, performed on April 16 and 17, 1791, less than eight months before Mozart’s own death. Among the prominent performers included his sister-in-law and Vienna’s leading clarinetists, the Stadler brothers. The unidentified symphony that opened the program may have been this one, in its clarinet version. The musical director of the event was Antonio Salieri. As Mozart also changed the orchestration of two passages of the second movement, his recent biographer, Robert Gutman, believes that such modifications could have only followed from the results of specific performances such as this one. Gutman thus concludes that the popular idea that Mozart never heard his last three symphonies is a myth.
In describing this work, Pitts Sanborn noted: “There is no doubt that this symphony is touched with the ineffable sadness that sometimes crosses like a summer cloud the radiance of Mozart’s sun-god temperament. And along with this there are moments of a celestial tenderness. Yet, at the same time, this Symphony has its capricious and sprite-like quality, which comes out in the ascending and descending pairs of thirty-second notes in the Andante, echoed distantly in the whimsicality and waywardness of certain measures of the Finale.”
This symphony’s first movement, Molto allegro, full of melancholy passion, begins with its first theme in octaves in the violins. There is a strong and forceful subsidiary theme before the second wistful theme enters. The poise, elegance and beautiful proportions of the second movement, Andante, is initiated with an elegiac first theme in the violins, which emerges from the rhythmic figure of the opening measures. Unlike most slow movements of symphonies, this movement is in sonata form. Mozart called the third movement Minuet and marked it Allegretto, but the movement is not a graceful ballroom minuet. Instead, the Minuet is vigorous and animated, full of syncopated rhythms and clashing dissonance, with a contrasting central Trio that is relaxed and direct. The final Allegro assai is the most spirited of the symphony’s four movements. Also in sonata form, it opens with a theme whose first eight notes are identical to the first eight notes of the initial theme of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, but the rhythm is so different that the ear does not easily sense the similarity. The strings and then the woodwinds introduce the lyrical second theme.