Finale: Mozart Extravaganza
Sunday August 20 at 4:00 pm
Trinity Episcopal Church | $22-$35
Among the very last music Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) ever composed, The Magic Flute remains one of his most beloved and intriguing works. Known by its original German title, Die Zauberflöte is a two-act singspiel. That genre was once extremely popular, noted for its free mixture of sung and spoken text. The singspiel originated in Germany, and most examples - including several by Mozart himself, as well as Weber’s Der Freischütz - are set in that language rather than Italian or French, which was more common for traditional opera. Plot elements often borrow heavily from the supernatural and merge both high art and folk culture.
Mozart’s partner on The Magic Flute was Emanuel Schikaneder: writer, impresario, actor, and owner of the theater where the work would be premiered in September 1791, just two months before Mozart’s death. Schikaneder was also the original Papageno, one of the great characters to emerge from this collaboration. In brief, the Queen of the Night summons Prince Tamino to rescue her daughter (Pamina) from the menacing High Priest (Sarastro). But in fact, Sarastro’s enlightened beliefs cause Tamino to reconsider his mission. He will rescue Pamina but then join with her and Sarastro to the unending torment of the Queen. The nature of this plot invites ulterior, symbolic readings that are only bolstered by what appear to be numerous Masonic codes within the score. Both Mozart and Schikaneder were Freemasons, the former having been initiated at Vienna’s most prestigious lodge in 1784. Whatever Mozart’s intentions with regard to Masonic symbolism, there can be little doubt that Schikaneder’s libretto valorized enlightenment ideals over traditional monarchy. Sarastro, an Egyptian priest modeled on the Persian Zoroaster, gains the upper hand on the domineering Queen of the Night, variously interpreted as a depiction of authority, in general, or Empress Maria Theresa in particular.
Fresh on the heels of an agile and invigorating overture, Act I opens in medias res with Tamino being pursued by a serpent and singing a plea for help from the gods (“Zu Hilfe!”). Fainting away from fright, he is rescued by three attendants of the Queen of the Night, each coveting this handsome stranger for herself. After they depart, Tamino awakens only to be encountered by Papageno, one of the opera’s most beloved roles. The two men will go off on a quest at the bidding of the Queen to rescue her daughter, Pamina. One of Tamino’s tools will be a magic flute with which he may enchant animals. This all-important object is presented to him by the three ladies during the Act I Quintet “Hm! Hm! Hm! Hm!” In this Quintet Mozart brilliantly merges musical complexity with lighthearted comedy, starting with Papageno’s interjected mumbling (he has had his mouth chained shut for lying). But additionally, this Quintet benefits from the cross purposes of the characters involved: Tamino seeking adventure and possible love, aided by the magic flute; and Papageno, who desires getting no closer to realms ruled over by the mysterious Sarastro. Pulling them together, musically and dramatically, are the three radiant female voices. And thus, in six delightful minutes we hear Mozart’s take on both magic and mischief.
Mozart’s experience with opera is one of the most significant factors in the development of his non-vocal music. Otherwise stated, we learn a lot when we consider his instrumental works as if they were untexted arias, duets, and choruses. This can be heard in many of the composer’s piano concertos. Rather than being mere display vehicles for Mozart, the concertos project his dramatic and comic sense better than anything else outside of opera. In terms of structure - concerto form deriving from the Baroque ritornello, an alternation between solo and ensemble episodes - the connection between concertos and opera is well established. Already during the Baroque, the concerto developed in tandem with the da capo aria.
After various youthful experiments, Mozart took to the piano concerto in earnest shortly after settling in Vienna in 1781. Three concertos (Nos. 11-13) appeared for his own use on concert programs the following year. Then, between early 1784 and the end of 1786, Mozart composed a staggering twelve more, including his finest works in the genre. The Concerto in G Major, K. 453, leads a set of three that show numerous similarities. It was dedicated to Barbara Ployer, Mozart’s pupil, and completed in April 1784. The work is cast in three movements; today we will hear the central Andante and rousing Finale. The slow movement offers a pleading sort of earnestness, and the main theme curiously comes to a pause after just one statement. Mozart then repeats the idea, giving it more room to breathe and adding woodwinds for color. When the piano finally enters, it uses the mid-theme pause as a chance to break free into an impassioned statement in G minor. Thus begins a delightful give-and-take between the orchestra and the piano soloist. And indeed, it is with hindsight that we can appreciate how Mozart takes every recurrence of that pause as an opportunity to shift tonally to quite striking new destinations.
The Finale operates on the popular premise of theme and variations, now enriched by Mozart’s recent experiences writing opera. This is buffa work in the purest sense, and Mozart passes through various musical styles (also called “topics”) in dizzying fashion. The main theme can be classed as a bourée, but it also merits attention for Mozart’s claim that he taught the tune to his newly-acquired pet bird. Featuring the flute and frequent repetition, the hummable melody could easily have been heard coming from the mouth of Papageno. The first variation falls to solo piano, while the second is scored as a charming conversation between piano and winds. In Variation III the cantabile theme passes from oboe to flute to bassoon before a bustling Alberti bass in the piano picks up the thread. Such variation sets require a minor-mode episode as well, and Mozart obliges with Variation IV in his best Empfindsamkeit or sentimental manner. It is brusquely cast aside by a march in overtly bombastic tones. But this is all mere prelude to the true comedy of the closing Presto. Energized strings and horns signal a hunting topic at full speed, and thematic tidbits rumble past with reckless abandon. Two times Mozart calls upon sustained chords to halt the chase, all to no avail. Only adding to the buffa mood, Mozart hints at an ending before finally making a dash to the final cadence.
Without a doubt, Mozart has earned his place among the greatest composers of opera – arguably, the greatest active in Europe during the latter half of the 18th century. He also composed very important sacred choral works, including the titanic Requiem and numerous masses (more on that later in today’s program). Mozart did not write extensively in the solo song genre, and relatively little attention has been paid to this part of creativity. Yet considering his astounding gifts in vocal music generally, we will not be astonished that he could successfully compose such songs when opportunity or inspiration arose. If you attended our Springfest this past April, you may have heard several of his songs. They are significant musically, of course, but also for showing an early history to the lied genre, predecessors that set the stage for Schubert, Schumann, and others. In the case of Abendempfindung, K. 523 (1787), Mozart crafts a tender melody over rippling arpeggio accompaniment. The mood captures the languor of the text, written by an unknown poet and which ruminates over leaving this lovely world behind. Without being particularly daring or inventive here, Mozart is still sensitive to the poem, and he cares enough to create different music for successive moments in the poet’s sentimental reflections.
Mozart composed his Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550, during a particularly fruitful period. It became the central work of three incredible symphonies composed in rapid succession between June and August 1778. For years historians believed Mozart never heard it performed, but new evidence suggests the symphony was played several times before his death in December 1791 - not always very well, as Mozart reportedly walked out of the room mid-performance on one occasion. He had recently brought to the stage both The Marriage of Figaro (1786) and Don Giovanni (1787), and he had to deal with the passing of his father in May 1787. A year later, prior to putting pen to paper on these three symphonies, Mozart moved his family to a Vienna suburb ostensibly to have more living space and save money. Finances were a continual issue, as the composer’s income seriously declined and he was repeatedly in debt to friends. While the quality of his work never diminished, the quantity certainly slowed dramatically. Frequent illness forced him to save his energy for fewer projects.
Despite its minor key and the personal struggles he experienced in these years, Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 conveys abundant grace and charm. The Allegro Molto dives directly in with no introduction beyond a few beats of bare accompaniment; this gesture reminds us of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto or Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto. Mozart’s first main theme, with its distinctive rhythmic profile, seems ever to be leaning forward, leading metrically to the next accented beat. Already in the first paragraph of this masterful work, we can observe two important points. First, Mozart adds a second viola to the instrumentation. That small addition adds weight to the string sound, greater resonance in the middle register, and more polyphony between the inner voices of the texture. His recent String Quintets, K. 515 and 516 use the same scoring and must surely provide an explanation for his choice here. Second, in the revised version of the symphony heard today, Mozart added clarinets for richer timbral possibilities. The inclusion of winds and brass - not universally involved in Classical-era symphonies - adds meat to the harmonic frame set out in the opening phrase. Those instruments also punctuate moments where Mozart leans on key dissonances. Some passages will suggest the early symphonies of Schubert, which share a similar kind of crystalline structure and unhurried pace. This does not deny that Mozart takes his chances to be dramatic, particularly during the development section. Stalled on the dominant of the dominant, Mozart allows the winds to navigate the chromatic retransition back to G minor, and the reprise steals in with hardly a whisper.
The Andante in E-flat Major unfolds one voice at a time, almost in the manner of a Renaissance vocal motet. Pungent chromatic notes pass by quietly in low strings, though moments later Mozart repeats the gesture in broader rhythms in first violins. Clearly, in spite of the speed with which this symphony was composed, he is taking enough time to introduce sophisticated nuances. In harmony, too, we find Mozart in rare form. Eschewing any transition to the second key (B-flat), he simply asserts it and then quickly leaves it for the radiant, unexpected turn to D-flat major. And without running the effect, let me just say that the tonal surprises do not end there….
Mozart follows this lyrical effusion with a Minuet. To be more precise, the movement is labeled “Menuetto,” but several factors work against that designation. While being notated in 3/4 time, the main theme aggressively foregrounds a conflict between the accompaniment in triple rhythm and the melody in duple. This creates irregular phrases that are three measures long; nearly all Classical-era works are based on four-measure groupings. The tail-end of the main section seems to get back on track, but occasional syncopations only muddy what seemed to be smooth waters. In the tender Trio, Mozart allows the triple meter to exert its calming influence, making the movement sound, at last, much more like a Minuet.
No finale can compete with the fourth movement from the “Jupiter” Symphony No. 41. But the Allegro assai that concludes this G-minor symphony more than amply fulfills its mission. Cast in sonata-allegro form, rather than a conventional Rondo, it could work well as the opening movement for any other symphony. Special comment must be accorded to the highly chromatic development section, which splinters the main theme into small fragments as it makes a wide circuit across many keys, including a prolonged stop in C-sharp minor. Mozart uses a simple harmonic sequence to introduce diminished-7th harmony on F-sharp, thus opening a secret passage right back into G minor. No coda delays the final cadence, and we proceed with Mozart to the work’s satisfying conclusion.
Like many members of his social network, Mozart became active in various fraternal groups gathered under the heading of Freemasons. Freemasonry developed out of the medieval stonemason guilds, but by Mozart’s era it had evolved into a social and intellectual club of sorts, attracting membership from across the political spectrum. Indeed, one of the main tenets of European freemasonry was that members refrain from discussing politics or religion within the Masonic lodge or temple. Through their long history, Freemasons have been targeted by the Catholic Church for espousing belief in a non-traditional Deity. For their part, these societies have never opposed members continuing to practice and even serve in liturgical settings (although it has generally excluded women from participating). Today it is usually regarded as a rather dubious secret society. But many misconceptions derive from the fact that certain aspects of Masonic life are kept within the confines of the lodge. In the 18th century many prominent individuals were Masons, including George Washington, Ben Franklin, Joseph Haydn, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
On several occasions Mozart composed music to celebrate his Masonic affiliations. One of the most famous, mentioned earlier, is the late opera Die Zauberflöte, which is rife with symbolism connected to Freemasonry. Around the same time he also created a Little Masonic Cantata (Kleine Freimaruer-Kantate), K. 623. The cantata designation should not call to mind J. S. Bach; this work is very modest in scope and carries no sacred ideology. It was commissioned from Mozart for the installation of his own society, The Crowned Hope, to a new location. It has the distinction of being the very last work he completed. Premiered at the lodge on November 18, 1791, the cantata was very enthusiastically received. Mozart returned home elated with the reception, and the glow of the evening inspired him to return to his unfinished REquiem project. Sadly, within 48 hours, he took to bed for the final illness.
The cantata sets an anonymous text, Laut verkünde unsre Freude (Announce Our Happiness Loudly), likely penned by one of his fellow Masons. Its four movements are scored for tenor and bass soloists, male chorus, and orchestra. Like a traditional cantata, it does begin and end with choral movements, as well as episodes of accompanied recitative. In fact, the choral frame repeats the same music, note for note, at beginning and ending. The majority of the music, therefore, centers on the tenor aria and a duet for tenor and bass. Both display heartfelt ethos in the melodic line, balanced neatly with more vigorous accompaniment figures. Mozart certainly took enough care here to valorize his Masonic brothers and that philosophy in music of highest quality.
Sacred music never formed a substantial amount of Mozart’s output; certainly he wrote far fewer sacred works than composers of the previous generation, even fewer than Haydn. However, among those few works are some recognized masterpieces including the Requiem and the “Great” Mass in C Minor, K. 482 - both of which he left unfinished. The Mass originated in Mozart’s earliest days in Vienna. Its birth connects with the composer’s marriage in August 1782 to Constanze Weber. Mozart had earlier promised a solemn Mass to celebrate presenting his bride to family members back in Salzburg. Constanze herself sang the “Et incarnatus est” at the premiere, but he never got around to completing all the movements. Scant evidence exists to explain why he failed to complete the Mass. He lived for nearly another decade, and this was not his first turn at sacred vocal music. Part of the issue may have been the scope of the undertaking. Prior to beginning K. 482, Mozart had only composed Masses for smaller forces and less formal occasions. This new Mass, scored for four soloists (two sopranos, tenor, and bass), double chorus, and orchestra, represented a far more ambitious project. He completed the entire Kyrie and Gloria and portions of the other movements. Modern completions last nearly an hour, and the original Gloria - as heard today - occupies nearly half of that span.
In the Gloria Mozart sets up a contrast between the resounding full-voiced texture and static harmonies for celestial passages, and a more intimate style for texts pointing toward terra firma. For the Laudamus Te, he favors a vibrant soprano aria, perhaps in overt homage to his musical bride. It is one of his most virtuosic displays: sustained vocal trills, running scales, and leaps over an octave in size. A short choral/orchestral Gratias, characterized by angular gestures and the dark A minor key, prepares for a stunning duet in D minor, the Domine Deus. One might quibble with Mozart’s text underlay at moments, but the overall effect of his vocal duet writing is assured and captivating. Qui tollis opens like a grand French overture; note the continuous dotted rhythms. There is something powerfully antique about the tight vocal polyphony and dissonance treatment. The chain of 7-6 suspensions, a favorite of the Italian madrigalists of two centuries prior, create an intense meditation on [text message]. Only at the final phrase does Mozart inject the brighter tone of the major tonic harmony. As if he has just been getting warmed to the task, Mozart creates a three-part fugue for the soloists during the Quoniam. While the voices surely garner our attention, it is fascinating to also observe their interactions and influence upon the gestures given to the orchestral accompaniment.
The entire Gloria ends with a festive, four-voice fugue for the complete ensemble. Mozart looks back in time yet again with the fugue subject, which employs long note values redolent of the Renaissance. Balanced against this grand stasis and aiding in the drive to conclusion, the strings pour forth in nearly ceaseless running eighth notes. A second imitative figure enters briefly at “in Gloria” but is just as quickly overcome by a unison rendition of the main fugue subject. We are at a temporary ending only - not, of course, the ending of the entire Mass. But as subsequent passages do not exist for us in anything approaching as complete a state as this magnificent Gloria, it seems a fitting tribute to end our celebration of Mozart here, before other hands must get involved.