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Viennese Melodrama

Viennese Melodrama

Sunday April 23 at 4:00 pm
Trinity Episcopal Church | $24-$30

Program Notes

Our previous concert notes mentioned how Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) originally intended to move from his birthplace in Bonn to Vienna in order to study with Mozart. That plan did not materialize, but after several delays he did eventually arrive in Hapsburg’s imperial capital late in 1792. Haydn would become one of his first teachers, in addition to several others including Salieri and Albrechtsberger. At the time Beethoven still fancied his prospects as a performing pianist; composition was secondary to his ambitions. As such he was always in need of powerful, virtuosic, and lyrical works to showcase his talent – either his own original works or music by other composers. Often the music he produced in social settings cannot now be recreated, being the result of spontaneous improvisation. At other times he came prepared with at least an outline of what he planned to perform.

Aristocratic salons each had their own individual flavor and priorities. One vehicle that was sure to find favor in nearly all settings was the theme and variations. Beethoven composed more than a dozen variation sets on original themes, folksongs, and melodies from popular operas (e.g., his variations Mozart’s “Là ci darem la Mano” heard yesterday at noon). Beethoven’s variation sets exist on two different planes. Some were tossed off rather quickly, such as Five Variations on “Rule Britannia.” Others, including the famous “Diabelli” Variations and the finale of Op. 111, engrossed all of the composer’s energies for an extended period. The 32 Variations in C Minor (1806) certainly belong in the latter category.

The theme of these variations takes a common structural idea: a descending bass motion from the tonic note (C), stepping chromatically downward to the dominant note (G). This harmonic pattern recurs so thoroughly that the work begins to mimic the older Baroque form known as chaconne. Against this bassline, Beethoven explores all manner of piano textures, figures, and affects across the full range of emotions. One need look no further than Variations I and II to see two devices at work. Variation I situates the harmonic formula below fleetly running 16th notes; in Variation II Beethoven simply asks the pianist’s hands to swap parts – a simple but effective trick that would have delighted its initial audience. But he is just getting started.

Subsequent variations explore arpeggios in contrary motion, staccato versus legato articulation, thin and thick textures, counterpoint, and contrasts between C minor and major. It is no exaggeration to say that a work like the 32 Variations in C Minor seek to present a complete world unto itself of compositional techniques. It is a highly successful and beloved piece. Nevertheless, the cantankerous author reportedly distanced himself from it later in life and hardly even recognized it as one of his own creations.

Beethoven’s presence in Vienna for over 30 years helped to solidify that city’s reputation as the musical capital of Europe. He would be followed by many others (Schubert, Strauss, Brahms, Bruckner, Mahler, and so on) and had, of course, himself gone to Vienna to be closer to Mozart and Haydn. Wolfgang Amadé Mozart (1756-1791) came to Vienna in 1781 at the request of his employer, Archbishop Colloredo. This was originally just going to be a visit, but Mozart made the move permanent after a painful, public break with his employer. Over the next ten years, Mozart composed nearly all of the music for which he is best remembered today, from The Abduction from the Seraglio and The Marriage of Figaro to the mature piano concertos, the “Jupiter” Symphony, and the unfinished Requiem.

Years earlier, while still living in Salzburg, the twelve-year-old Wolfgang produced a comic opera on the popular tale of Bastien und Bastienne (1768). Like The Abduction, Bastien is classed as a singspiel (pronounced ZING-schpeel), the German term for a comic opera in one act. Singspiels typically feature a great deal of spoken dialogue, alternating with arias, duets, choruses, and even dance numbers. The well-known physician Franz Mesmer may have commissioned Wolfgang to create Bastien, for it was presented privately at Mesmer’s home – then not heard again for over a century. Bastien und Bastienne overtly parodies a very famous predecessor, Le devin du village (The Village Soothsayer) by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Their plots are identical. The shepherd Bastien loves Bastienne, and she him. However, both allow their doubts to build toward suspicions of infidelity, and both approach the quack magician Colas for a quick fix. He suggests to each, in turn, that they feign indifference toward the other as the surest way to regain the other’s affection. After various scenes of posturing and pleading, the lovers reveal their true feelings and are reconciled.

Bastien und Bastienne is rarely heard in concert today. Having only three principal roles facilitates the production, but the German dialogues are long and not very interesting. In today’s performance they are replaced by shorter versions in English. Stylistically Bastien pulls on both German and French vocal traditions. Listeners will likely detect the resemblance between the overture’s opening theme and the first movement of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. This is pure coincidence, let it be noted. There is no evidence, and no likely explanation, that Beethoven would have encountered a minor private comic-opera by the boy Mozart, especially since it was not heard publicly until 1890. At most, one can observe that such arpeggiated themes became quite common in the Classical era. Overall, the music delights but clearly pales in comparison to Mozart’s sophisticated mature operas. Bastien will never become a staple of the repertoire, but it remains a fitting testimony to the musical skill and comic sense that this child seemed to imbibe with his mother’s milk.

Buried among the hundreds of substantial compositions Mozart created in his very short life, there exist a handful of pieces for various mechanical instruments. The musical clock, the glass harmonica, and mechanical organ – each has a work or two from Mozart’s hands to add luster to their history. His Adagio and Allegro (or Fantasie) in F Minor, K. 594, for mechanical organ is heard today. A mechanical organ, as originally designed, does not require a player except perhaps to manipulate the bellows. Like the barrel organ or player pianos, the music unfolds by virtue of a mechanized cylindrical drum, allowing certain pitches to sound at specific times. The name to know in this field, at least in 18th century Vienna, was Joseph Count Deym von Strzitéz. That’s a mouthful, to be sure, so we will call him Müller, the pseudonym he adopted to avoid repercussions after fighting a duel. Müller owned a Viennese clock store which he kept open until late at night for paying customers to enter and hear assorted musico-chronometric serenades on the hour.

Mozart may have been intrigued by the technological precision of such instruments, though comments to his wife reveal that inspiration was hard to come by as he worked on the commission for the Adagio and Allegro, K. 594:

I compose a bit of it every day, but I have to break off now and then as I get bored. If it were for a large instrument, then the work would sound like an organ piece, and I might get some fun out of it. But as it is, the machines consist solely of little pipes, which sound too high-pitched and too childish for my taste.

We can remedy that, in part, by taking Mozart’s cue and performing K. 594 on a modern pipe organ, such as the majestic Taylor & Boody tracker organ here in Trinity Episcopal. And to be fair, Mozart certainly exerted effort in creating this composition; otherwise, he would have tossed it off in a matter of days. Instead he worked at it over a period of about three months in late 1790. The opening Adagio explores all the chromatic pathos usually connected with the tonally dark key of F minor. It is a very brief introduction, though note that this tonality and mood will return at the end for a sense of cyclical completion. The majority of the work – occupying the central five minutes – is a spirited Allegro in F major. Mozart maintains a tone of exhilaration from start to finish, and his use of active pedal parts and inner voices shows deep appreciation for the organ. Quite apart from his feelings about Müller’s clockwork sideshow, Mozart clearly could express himself on the “king of instruments” had the inclination taken further hold.

From roughly 1550 to 1750, from Renaissance madrigalists and Monteverdi to Corelli and Vivaldi, Italian music dominated Europe for over two hundred years. It influenced the tastes and practices of musicians across England, western Europe, and the Austro-German lands. And well did they learn, too, for after about 1730 the tide had turned. A new galant style – what we call the early stages of the Classical style – began to exert greater influence as a reaction against the intricacies and excesses of the late Baroque. Vivaldi is regarded as an important force in that change, for he developed a brilliant, largely instrumental style that relied on fewer harmonies and clear forms. Most of the notable figures active in the galant style were born in modern-day Germany, Austria, and northern Italy: Quantz, Stamitz, Haydn, Mozart, Johann Christian Bach, and Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805).

Son of a professional string player, Boccherini was born in Lucca and trained in Rome. For a brief spell in his late teens, he lived and worked in Vienna along with his father. However, Boccherini spent most of his life in Spain, being supported by private benefactors and royal appointments in Madrid. He debuted early on the cello, which became his primary instrument. While staying abreast of the major developments in European music, Boccherini always remained on the periphery – one outcome of his residency in Spain, which had long ago lost its dominant position in European politics and culture. In his output, one can clearly see the growing status of instrumental music. He wrote almost no sacred music, and even opera played a very minor role in his massive output: 11 cello concertos, 20 string symphonies, more than 100 sonatas, 48 trios, 90 quartets, and over 120 string quintets!

Today we hear the dramatic Symphony in D Minor, subtitled “The House of the Devil,” which was composed in 1771. As one might anticipate, it opens with a foreboding slow introduction in the minor mode, but the following vibrant main theme in D major seems to eschew the subtitle. Boccherini resists the very programmatic interpretation his title argues for; no damnable tritones, no jabbing dissonant gestures feature here. His brilliant string writing loses nothing in comparison with more famous contemporaries, and the minor-mode slow movement generally maintains the easy grace of the previous Allegro. Thus the weight of this “Devil’s House” falls upon the energetic final Allegro, which carries it brilliantly. After a slow introduction, Boccherini’s fast, sinister main theme rushes in like an infernal wind. Recalling the great storm motifs of the Italian Baroque masters, this tempestuous finale is one of Boccherini’s finest creations.

© Jason Stell, 2023

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