Saturday April 22 at 12:00 pm
Trinity Episcopal Church | Free admission
It may seem strange to open an all-Mozart concert with a work by another composer. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), in many ways, inherited the mantle of Mozart when the latter died in 1791. Beethoven had intended to study with Mozart in Vienna and pursue the path of a “free artist.” Death intervened, of course, and Beethoven went on to study with Haydn. However, the connections with Mozart remained strong throughout Beethoven’s career, despite him trying actively to shed the influence of his famous predecessors.
Beethoven created many significant variation sets. In 1795, still settling into his new home in Vienna (was Beethoven ever settled? He apparently lodged in over 50 locations), he took a popular melody from Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni (1787) as the basis for a theme and variations scored for two oboes and English horn. In Mozart’s opera “Là ci darem la mano” represents the dulcet seduction of Giovanni, in pursuit of the naïve Zerlina. Her initial resistance begins to fade as the vocal duet grows ever more intertwined.
In his variations, Beethoven’s choice of paired oboes with English horn (performed today on bassoon) may have been inspired by particular wind musicians in his circle of acquaintances, and it is possible this may have been conceived as part of a larger work. Successive variations explore rhythmic and textural contrast. Some variations (#2 for bassoon, #5 for oboe) offer acrobatic exercises, and such witty passages made variations incredibly popular music for social gatherings. Variations in counterpoint (#4) and a chromatically expressive minor mode (#6) make their requisite appearance before a rousing finish. We know this is Beethoven because he cannot resist the temptation to insert a vigorous, imitative coda that finally ends with a restrained series of cadences.
Turning now to Wolfgang Amadé Mozart (1756-1791) himself, we start with one of his many works for solo keyboard. In addition to his eighteen piano sonatas, Mozart composed several brilliant fantasias. This was an older form inherited from the Renaissance and Baroque eras, when it was a favorite among organists for its flexibility and improvisatory quality. Where the fantasias of Buxtehude or Bach explored alternations of rapid figuration versus fugue, by Mozart’s generation it had broadened into a more generic series of contrasting sections. Mozart’s great C-Minor Fantasia, K. 475, opens with a slow section replete with angular shapes, chromatic explorations, and pregnant pauses. This is music for a very small space – intimate and poetic, each gesture seems calculated to draw the listener closer in. Gradually, the texture begins to fill out and the tonal center shifts to related and unrelated areas, including episodes in B minor and F major. One need not catalog each new idea or key, for the entire effect of the music is to shift quite freely, spontaneously, and often chromatically from one topic to the next. In condensed form, then, we have aspects of Mozart’s genius that take many pages to develop in his larger works.
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 numerous masses and the titanic Requiem. However, less attention is paid to his Lieder (solo songs with piano accompaniment), though he wrote several dozen. We perform four today. All of Mozart’s pure lyricism, familiar from his finest arias, is here on display.
“Das Veilchen” (A Little Violet) opens in limpid strains but quickly shows a more sophisticated form. Through composed (rather than using strophic repetitions), the song ebbs and flows in response to the text – at times pained and chromatic, at other times fluid and cheerful. The later song, “Sehnsucht nach dem Frühling” (Spring Yearning), is simpler and in strophic form. “Abendempfindung” (Evening Sensations) captures Mozart in particularly rich vein, exploring a style that quotes from aria and recitative but which unfolds lyrically above an undulating piano accompaniment. As one might suspect by the title, “Die Zufriedenheit” (Contentment) presents hardly a ripple across its shimmering and reposeful B-flat major surface.
In connection with the variations performed earlier, we mentioned how Beethoven may have composed the set in direct response to contact with musicians he knew. This was a common practice in the Classical era, and Mozart’s delightful Oboe Quartet in F, K. 370. The work was completed in 1781 while Mozart was in Munich for the premiere of one of his operas. He created this virtuosic work to highlight the brilliant musicianship of his friend, Friedrich Ramm, one of the leading oboists active in southern German territories. Mozart had met Ramm earlier, and the quartet became a token of their renewed friendship in the early 1780s.
Organized in three movements, the Oboe Quartet in F shades the difference between chamber music and concerto. The use of reduced scoring should not mask the fact that this work operates as a concerto for solo oboe with string accompaniment. At the same time, the crystalline four-part texture looks on the page just like one of his many string quartets. This is an aspect of the Classical style that retains links to the older tradition: a great deal of music can be suitably rescored for different instruments with no loss of effect and only changes in color. Perhaps more of Mozart’s string quartets could be programmed with oboe, flute, or other treble instrument replacing the first violin?
The opening Allegro features an unhurried main theme led by the oboe soloist. A simple transition brings us to the second theme in the dominant key (C major), offering some charming dialogue between oboe and violin. A brief, imitative development section hardly muddies the water at all, and Mozart rounds back to the opening material for pat finish. The following D-minor Adagio offers a new level of emotion, combining a soaring oboe line over the lower strings. As in the first movement, it is the oboe that seems to lead the conversation, initiating moves into new key areas with carefully placed chromatic notes. In final position, Mozart places a sunny Rondo in 6/8 meter. Rapid sixteenth-note figures in the oboe demand superlative articulation, but at no point do they obscure the simple grace of the entire work.
© Jason Stell, 2023