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Program Notes: All Mozart
Wednesday, March 31, 2021 at 7:30pm
Simon Rivard, RBC Resident Conductor
Zeyu Victor Li, violin
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Born: Salzburg, Austria, Jan 27, 1756
Died: Vienna, Austria, Dec 5, 1791
- Overture to La finta giardiniera (The Pretended Garden-Girl), K. 196
- Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major, K. 216
- Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550
III. Rondo: Allegro
Of the five violin concertos written by the 19-year-old Mozart in that astonishing nine-month burst of creativity in 1775, No. 3 in G Major, K. 216, remained one of Mozart’s own favourite pieces. In it, “melody is piled upon melody and new ideas succeed each other in blissful insouciance of each other and of any strict formal pattern,” wrote H. C. Robbins Landon.
Of the three later violin concertos, K. 216 was pivotal, as Mozart’s forms became increasingly original, adventurous, and irregular, full of strange and surprising digressions, yet always seeming coherent, logical, even inevitable, perfectly balancing freedom and order. It was also a definitive example of the Arcadian serenade style of Mozart’s later Salzburg works. Maynard Solomon describes the multi-movement serenade as having “originated as an amorous musical offering, an open-air work sung by a lover to his beloved.” Mozart imitated this style in much of his instrumental music, often giving a “vocal” part to a violin; but, in K. 216, he made the connection explicit, borrowing the opening theme of the first movement from the shepherd-king Aminta’s noble aria “Aer tranquillo e dì sereni” from Act I of Il rè pastore, a “serenata”—a short pastoral opera—that he had composed in Salzburg in April of 1775, the very month in which he began writing violin concertos.
The aria speaks of “tranquil air and serene days,” “fresh springs and green fields,” and Mozart translated this mood of idyllic pastorale, of amorous lyricism tinged with melancholy, into instrumental terms, transforming the violin concerto from pleasant entertainment into a more poetic form of expression. The recapitulation in the first movement is preceded by a violin “recitative” also borrowed from Il rè pastore. There is a new world of sonority and sentiment in the dreamy, operatic Adagio, too. Mozart calls for flutes rather than oboes here (18th-century woodwind players often knew both instruments), and writes delicate melodic fioratura for the violin, supported by a serenade-like accompaniment of murmuring muted strings and pizzicato basses.
In the experimental finales of all three of the later violin concertos, Mozart plays fast and loose with the Classical rondo form by introducing the most unexpected contrasting episodes, yet, as stated earlier, he never loses control of his material. In K. 216, the jig-like Allegro unfolds as a perfectly conventional rondo, but just where we would expect the form to draw to a close, Mozart interpolates two delightful episodes. The first is a galant—a seductive French gavotte—in G minor (Andante), with dainty trills and a light, pizzicato accompaniment. (“It sounds as if a French dandy, with handkerchief to nose, had stepped in to reprove the boisterous dance of the Allegro,” wrote the musicologist Daniel Heartz.) The second interpolated episode is a jolly contredanse in G major (Allegretto), based on a popular tune of the day known as the “Strassburger” (hence the nickname “Strassburg” Concerto). Having thus indulged himself, to comic effect, Mozart brings back the jig, resolves the original rondo, and allows the concerto to close quietly, with a little curtsey from the oboes and horns.
Program note by Kevin Bazzana
A Single Burst of Creativity: Mozart’s Violin Concertos
Mozart was, of course, one of the great pianists of his day, but he also had, for a time, a flourishing career as a violinist. He played as a child, and, in November of 1769, at just 13, he became concertmaster of the court orchestra of the Archbishop of Salzburg, in which capacity he gave many performances at home and abroad, leading the orchestra and taking solo parts, often in works of his own composition.
His love of the instrument is evident in the five violin concertos he wrote, with uncommon insight, at the age of 19, in a single burst of creativity between April and December of 1775. Regarding the violinist’s art, he singled out a beautiful singing tone as the highest achievement of a violinist; he was giving himself the ultimate compliment when he said, in 1777, after a performance of one of his own concertos, that it “went like oil. Everyone praised my beautiful, pure tone.”
Mozart was one of many 18th-century musicians for whom the violin, of all solo instruments, most resembled the human voice in expressive potential, and his own violin concertos were nourished by his special genius as a composer of vocal music. He left an impressive body of music for violin with orchestra—more than three dozen movements in all, not counting unfinished and spurious works. And he composed almost all of this music in the mid-1770s, when he was in his late teens and early 20s and still in the employ of the Archbishop of Salzburg, for whom, as a musical courtier, he was required to steadily churn out music—church music, symphonies, serenades, divertimentos, chamber music, dances—intended for immediate consumption as social entertainment. In the case of the violin concertos, he applied his spectacularly assured compositional technique eagerly to the task.
All five violin concertos are inspired works, though the first two, for all their charms, have always been overshadowed by the last three, which remain among Mozart’s best-loved pieces. In the later concertos, his melodies are richer and more numerous, his sonorities more varied and beautiful, his rhetoric more profound and wide-ranging. Of these works, Maynard Solomon wrote that “the beauties succeed each other with a breathtaking rapidity, their outpouring of episodic interpolations suggesting that we need not linger over any single moment of beauty, for beauty is abundant.” Mozart’s forms, as a result, became increasingly original, adventurous, and irregular in the later concertos, full of strange and surprising digressions, yet remaining coherent, logical, even inevitable. In the experimental finales of the last three concertos, he plays fast and loose with the Classical rondo form by introducing the most unexpected contrasting episodes. Yet even where he is so brimming with ideas that he threatens to burst the bounds of convention, he never loses control of his material.
I. Molto allegro
III. Menuetto: Allegretto
IV. Allegro assai
Mozart could not have known that the three symphonies he composed between June 26 and August 10, 1788, would be his last. It is fitting that he should conclude his career as a symphonist with three such masterpieces. They are quite different from each other: Symphony No. 39 is one of his most elegant creations, its successor among his most pathetic. And appropriately, No. 41 is the grandest and most joyous of all his symphonies.
A number of mysteries surround these works. No commission that would have inspired Mozart to compose them has survived. Some writers speculate that he wrote them strictly for his own pleasure. Others, such as noted scholar Neal Zaslaw, feel differently: “The very idea that Mozart would have written three such symphonies, unprecedented in length, complexity, and seriousness, merely to please himself or because he was ‘inspired,’ flies in the face of his known attitudes to music and life and the financial straits in which he then found himself.”
Uncertainty also surrounds their performance during Mozart’s lifetime. It has long been assumed that none of them were played before his death. Circumstantial evidence points to one or more of them being performed on several occasions, such as during the tours he made of Germany in 1788 and 1789.
In the opening movement of Symphony No. 40, an overriding mood of resignation undercuts the music’s plentiful energy. The second theme resembles nothing so much as a series of sighs. The symphony’s sole oasis of repose arrives in the placid second movement. Even here, passages of troubled feelings crop up from time to time. The ensuing Menuetto lies as far from the ballroom as may be imagined. Its almost menacing outer panels make it perhaps the most disturbing example of its kind. The central trio section offers the barest glimpse of happier times. The forward drive of the first movement returns in the finale, with a more insistent edge added. Considerable momentum is generated, but the atmosphere of gloomy defiance persists to the very last bar, without winning through to any kind of emotional victory.
Program note by Don Anderson
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