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Paris Import-Export

Paris Import-Export

Saturday April 22 at 7:00 pm
Trinity Episcopal Church | $24-$30

Program Notes

Tonight’s concert makes another stop in tracking the movements of Wolfgang Amadé Mozart (1756-1791) and the emerging “galant style” in European music. We visited Paris briefly yesterday, in the form of a short string quartet by Joseph Bologne, the brilliant violinist and latter-day Musketeer. Now we take a more leisurely stroll through the annals of music in the French capital across the entire 18th century.
Mozart spent time in Paris on three occasions. In November 1763 seven-year-old Wolfgang arrived with his father and sister Nannerl on a grand tour and were even received by Louis XV at Versailles. For four months the family cultivated important musical connections and attended all manner of musical events, at a time when the Baroque style was still preeminent. After stops in England and the Low Countries, the family passed again through Paris in spring 1766 on their way home to Salzburg. His third and final visit to France would take place a decade later, but that story must wait.

What kind of musical culture would young Mozart have encountered in Paris in the 1760s? Some connoisseurs clearly still clung to older traditions, such as the simple polyphonic airs of the late 1600s and keyboard works in the manner of François Couperin. The oldest composer presented this evening is Michel Pignolet de Montéclair (1667-1737), an exact contemporary of people like Couperin, Vivaldi, Telemann. Highly regarded as a teacher and innovator in orchestration, Pignolet did not exert great influence as a composer. His Concert in B Minor for two flutes (or oboes) without bass reveals a thorough grasp of the Baroque dance suite: two-part polyphony, not overly elaborate, and always based on dance rhythms.

A more transitional figure is Jacques Duphly (1715-1789), one of the most productive and highly regarded harpsichordists of his generation. The last 20 years of Duphly’s life are lost in shadow, but between 1744 and 1768 he published four tomes of original keyboard works. Early works, such as “La Felix” from Book II and “Les Graces” from Book III, remain fully within the ornamental manner of Couperin. They are richly resonant and feature a broken chordal style pioneered decades earlier by lutenists; buzzing trills vibrate around every cadence. By his later years Duphly was incorporating elements of the new galant style, including Alberti bass. Still, one senses Mozart would have had little interest in the overly refined mannerisms on display, apart from certain harmonic tricks and technical details of performance.

In the 1760s Versailles still figured largely in musical life, but concerts in Paris (particularly at the opera) exerted greater and greater sway in forming public opinion. The famous Querrelle des Bouffons – a debate over the relative merits of Italian versus French operatic style – was fresh in everyone’s minds. One side argued for retaining the naturalness of French music, while the other praised innovations arriving from Italy. A leading voice in this debate was Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764). Composer of operas and keyboard works as well as the most important treatise on 18th-century harmony, Rameau landed squarely on the side of “native simplicity”: the belief that Italian influence could only corrupt and destroy the natural purity of French song. At the same time, he often drew material for his librettos from exotic settings, taking Parisian audiences to places in the theater that would otherwise never go.

As a case in point, consider the ballet-opera celebrating “The Amorous Indies” (Les Indes Galantes). Written around 1735, this work pulls together unrelated scenes ranging from Turkey and Arabia to Peru and 17th-century North America. Indeed, Rameau’s original inspiration stemmed from the appearance in Paris in 1725 of six Native American chiefs. Their visit roughly corresponds to a “return to nature” movement among European aristocracy (later epitomized by Jean Jacques Rousseau – ironically, to become Rameau’s chief opponent in the Querrelle).

Another person caught up in this debate was François-André Philidor (1726-1795). Philidor’s reputation today rests on his prodigious chess skills, but he also earned plaudits as one of the best opera composers active in Paris at mid-century. He came from a long lineage of French composers and enjoyed royal patronage at times in his career. We hear his instrumental Sinfonia No. 4 in B-flat Major, a curious mixture of old and new ideas. With its poignant sustained dissonances, “walking bass,” and incomplete final cadence, the opening Adagio movement conveys the lyric manner of older Italian masters (Corelli chief among them). The following Allegro, however, jumps right into the newer concertante style, with strings supporting the oboe melodic lead. Moments sound exactly like Classical quartet writing and would be rather attractive to young Mozart.

A more significant influence came from Johann Schobert (ca. 1735-1767). While we know next to nothing about his origins – both his birthdate and place of origin are unknown – we do know several important facts that connect him with young Mozart. First, Schobert settled in Paris in 1761 to work as resident keyboardist in the house of Louis François I, Prince de Conti. Second, the Mozart family performed at the Prince’s home during their visit in 1764. A painting exists from that concert, showing young Wolfgang at the keyboard. Third, Mozart transcribed and adapted several of Schobert’s sonatas to become piano concertos – something he also did with works by Johann Christian Bach.

Schobert’s F-Minor Piano Quartet offers several important observations about the emerging Classical style circa 1764. For one thing, it is labeled by the composer as a “Sonata en quatuor pour le clavecin, avec accompagnement de deux Violon et Basse ad Libitum” (a sonata in quartet [scoring] for keyboard with two violins and ad libitum bass). This is a far cry from the precisely notated scores of later composers; moreover, the focus is clearly on the keyboard, with the other parts supporting the harmony and texture. Mozart would likely have been drawn by Schobert’s melodic poetry, as well as the pianistic writing (note the undulating triplet figures throughout the opening Andante). However, it is the Allegro finale that impresses most. Schobert’s rustic and virtuosic figures appear later in Mozart. Hear how quickly the pesante opening theme yields to the minor mode and rippling arpeggios from top to bottom. Dwelling on G major (the dominant of the dominant, to be precise) opens up the key of C major for new secondary theme – one of the hallmarks of the Classical sonata form. Moreover, Schobert several times relies on a particular harmonic sequence, known as the circle of fifths, that Mozart would use to great effect in his own works. Here in nearly complete form are so many features we love about the Classical style.

A decade after his last visit, Wolfgang was back in the City of Light, this time accompanied by his mother. He had recently resigned his post in Salzburg and set out on an international job search. Arriving in France in March 1778, he was now a highly-skilled, professional 22-year-old musician, and one would think the Parisian world would welcome him with open arms. But despite meeting both old and new friends, Mozart realized the shine of his child prodigy days had worn off. Despite completing a fabulous “Paris” Symphony in D Major, K. 297, hopes for gainful employment or patronage came to naught. Worse still, his mother grew ill and died that summer. Mozart left the city in the fall, lingered for a few months around Munich, and finally returned to take a position – much to his loathing – back in Salzburg in early 1779.

During this Parisian visit he completed a fair amount of music in addition to the Symphony K. 297, including the Piano Sonata in A Minor, a double concerto for harp and flute, and several chamber sonatas for violin and piano. These were started in Mannheim earlier in the year in connection with the fabulous orchestral musicians Mozart encountered there. The Violin Sonata in E Minor, K. 304, instantly reveals how much had happened in the decade since his last visit. There is a robust urgency about the opening bars, played in three-part unison texture. Moreover, the violin and piano engage in equal dialogue; neither subordinates the other, as was the case in the Schobert. Finally, the experience Mozart gained in writing comic opera in the 1770s shapes numerous passages, from transitions to cadential gestures. One can still hear echoes of the past, as in the use of “lament bass” chord progression for Minuet, but the overall result stands leaps and bounds beyond anything written a decade prior.

Navigating through the 104 symphonies of Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), there are certain signposts, including the nickname symphonies such as The Philosopher or Mercury, as well as the larger groups written for Paris and London. The six “Paris” symphonies, Nos. 82-87, were composed at Esterházy in 1785 and 1786 and played to great success in the French capital the following season. The commission came from the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a rather gallant musician, poet, and modern-day Musketeer, who wanted to feature Haydn’s music on a prestigious concert series in Paris. Haydn was known to French audiences by at least 1764. These six symphonies are significant because they were written with the best features of the Parisian orchestra in mind: very large ensembles, including 40 violins, and superlative woodwind players.

The second work in the collection, Symphony No. 83 in G Minor, is nicknamed La poule or “The Hen.” One of the few Haydn symphonies in a minor key, this work’s distinctive name comes from the second subject of the opening movement. Following a fiery, tempestuous opening subject, the second idea in B-flat major picks up the dotted rhythm figure motif to mimic the hen’s jerky motion. It is enhanced by the entrance of the solo oboe, which adds a clucking sound to the mix. The development section fixates on the first subject, dissolving into a slow meditation on the motive before the dramatic reprise begins.

The Andante opens with a pleading theme in the strings, and the ensuing transition to the second key (B-flat) is elegance itself. None of that prepares us for the intentionally surprising fortissimo chordal outbursts that periodically occur in the second theme. Those details carry over into an interesting development section, punctuated by spicy chromaticism and touches of foreboding. The following Minuet and Trio in G major casts aside such weighty matters and unfolds with typically rustic charm. Haydn does tinker with the metric feeling in the opening bars, creating a moment’s confusion about duple or triple rhythm. Even the finale rejects this Symphony’s minor-mode past in favor of a spirited G major dance. But listen carefully and you will hear echoes of D minor in the move toward the second subject. Those implications are not realized, but Haydn shows here his subtle command of tonal color and dramatic pacing.

© Jason Stell, 2023

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