Mozart's Math and Magic
Sunday August 20 at 10:30 am
Blackfriars Playhouse | $16-$22
Among the very last music he ever composed, The Magic Flute remains one of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s (1756-1791) 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.
A brief summary of the plot is as follows: 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, but whatever Mozart’s intentions with regard to masonic symbolism, there can be little doubt that Emanuel 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.
Today’s excerpts from The Magic Flute were arranged for wind octet by Joseph Heidenreich, an 18th-century Austrian composer and arranger. At the time of writing, Heidenreich was operating within the established tradition of Harmoniemusik, distilling a popular, fully-orchestrated work into an arrangement for wind chamber ensemble. Wind bands in the military and in royal courts had a steady presence in central Europe throughout the 18th century, but it was not until Emperor Joseph II established an ensemble of the best oboists, clarinetists, horn players, and bassoonists for his court in 1782 that the Harmonie ensemble became codified as a Viennese tradition. Naturally, writing for the smaller ensemble presented some constraints for Heidenreich—the Magic Flute’s libretto was lost, musical textures had to be simplified, unique timbres had to be swapped out for those available within the group, etc.
Despite the significant alterations to Mozart’s original work, however, the imaginative, whimsical voice of the composer still bursts through and calls us into the enchanting world of The Magic Flute. The first selection performed today introduces us to Tamino’s lovelorn companion Papageno, while in the second, Tamino rejoices in the magic flute’s power over animals, while regretting its inability to attract Pamina to him. In the third excerpt, we hear Papageno play the enchanted magic bells gifted to him by the Queen of the Night’s three attendants, warding away those pursuing Pamina, Tamino, and himself. In the fourth selection, Monostatos – chief of Sarastro’s slaves – rhapsodizes on the beauty of Pamina as she lies sleeping. The final excerpt presents a happy ending for Papageno, as he sings a duet with his beloved Papagena and the two envision their future together.
Mozart’s Musical Dice Game, program note by Zachary Wadsworth
We live in times of generative entertainment: ChatGPT and other AI-driven language models seem to, magically, produce intelligible sentences out of nothing (much to our delight and/or horror). Centuries ago, this kind of generative delight could be found in musical dice games, where a series of dice rolls could, “magically,” generate something that sounded like music. One such Musicalisches Würfelspiel was (probably incorrectly) attributed to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
It is “Mozart’s” game that I used in creating this comedic exploration of the genre for actor and small orchestra, called A Musical Dice Game. Here, the actor leads the orchestra (which is the same size and constitution as Mozart’s “Haffner” Serenade) and audience through the game. They manage to successfully generate a minuet together before things go gently, comically, off the rails. In this piece, nearly all of the musical material, with the exception of a
few drones and tremolos, come from “Mozart’s” published game.
Between 1784 and 1788, Mozart enjoyed the most productive years of his career. He had just arrived in Vienna in November of 1873, after a three-month stint in Salzburg with family, and set to work immediately both conducting and performing in public concerts. Numerous subscription concerts held from spring 1784 until the end of 1786 propelled him to write a dozen piano concertos. He performed in countless private events – in 1784, he gave thirteen performances within the single month of March – and was commissioned to write many new pieces for local virtuosos and concert organizations. In addition to the performances, his list of published compositions was growing steadily: sonatas, piano concertos, symphonies, string quartets and quintets, the list goes on. At this point, Mozart seemed to take greater notice of the growth rate of his compositional oeuvre, and started a catalog of his works starting in February 1874, naming it Verzeichnüss aller meiner Werke (Register of All My Works).
It is due to this record that we know Mozart began a set of two string quintets in the spring of 1787, later identified within the comprehensive Köchel catalogue system as K515 and K516. The Austrian composer has been described as the string quintet’s inventor and perfecter, although this is not entirely true. The genre was already very popular amongst Viennese composers before he began these two quintets: Albrechtsberger, Pleyel, and Hoffmeister are just a few of the composers who stand out as composers familiar with the five-piece chamber ensemble. Mozart did, however, exert considerable influence by writing the first string quintets that firmly reinforced the four-movement structure. He is also credited with being the first quintet composer to fully realize the textural possibilities latent within the unique chamber ensemble, maximizing antiphonal – think question and answer – interplay between upper and lower groupings of instruments.
We hear this phenomenon within the opening measures of his String Quintet in C Major (K515): the cello begins the opening phrase, climbing up an arpeggiated scale, only to let the first violin finish the statement in a flourish. Soon enough, their positions are switched, and the cello is finishing the violin’s sentences. This exchange between violin and cello forms the core of the entire movement, in a way, as Mozart continually returns to the conversation, after episodes of inventive thematic development. The Andante also emphasizes the dialogic capabilities of the quintet, although this time the featured pair is the first violin and the first viola. Although it is the slow movement, it is not terribly slow, perhaps making it easier on the ear to transition into the Menuetto -Trio, which dances through various instrumental pairings on light feet. The conversational interplay continues into the final Allegro, although after the first violin introduces the primary “earworm” theme of the movement, it is difficult to hear the finale as much other than a vehicle for the first violinist’s lyrical virtuosity.
© Emily Masincup, 2023