Masterworks 5Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756-1791

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Overture to La clemenza di Tito, K. 621

Mozart composed La clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus) just three months before his death, on order of the Austrian court, for the celebration in Prague of Emperor Leopold II’s coronation on September 6, 1791 as King of Bohemia. Despite his many years in Vienna, Mozart had never been popular at the Imperial Court. In fact, he was compelled to write the opera on very short notice after Antonio Salieri turned it down. Mozart had contributed the most significant innovations to opera since its inception, but now he was required to compose La clemenza di Tito in the outdated form of the early eighteenth-century opera seria, which consisted of static arias and recitatives with little or no stage action. To get the commission in on time, he had to interrupt his work on his final opera, The Magic Flute; and while its formal structure is passé, the music of La clemenza di Tito frequently reminds us of this masterpiece.

Although the opera was quite successful at its premiere and for a few years afterwards, it quickly faded into obscurity in part because of its old-fashioned form and the complex plot of love, betrayal and forgiveness. Contemporary revivals fall into the category of “historical productions.”

Mozart penned the overture in classic sonata-allegro form the day before the premiere. It opens with a brassy fanfare leading into the principal subject, Example 1 followed by the conventionally delicate second subject. Example 2

Sergey Rachmaninov 1873-1943

Sergey Rachmaninov (1873-1943)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18

Sergey Rachmaninov grew up in a middle-class musical family, but under strained economic conditions. His father, a gambler and an alcoholic, squandered the family’s fortune to the point that eventually his mother and father separated, and she had to sell what remained of the family’s assets and move into a small apartment in St. Petersburg. Sergey – whose care in better times would have been entrusted to a nanny – consequently grew up with little supervision.

His schooling suffered as a result. Although he showed early promise as a pianist and obtained a scholarship to study at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, the administration threatened to expel him for failing to attend classes. He subsequently transferred to the Moscow Conservatory where his mentor, Nicolay Zverev discouraged his initial attempts at composing. Nevertheless, Rachmaninov continued to march to his own drummer, defying his teacher and transferring to classes in counterpoint and composition.

Clearly, his sense of his own worth was more accurate than that of his professors. While still a student, he produced a string of successful works, including the tone poem Prince Rostislav, his First Piano Trio, and a flood songs and piano pieces. For his graduation in 1892 he composed the opera Aleko, which won him the highest distinction, the Great Gold Medal. The same year he also composed the Prelude in C-sharp minor, a work whose inordinate fame haunted him all his life because audiences always expected – and demanded – it as an encore at his performances as one of history’s greatest pianists.

By 1895 Rachmaninov felt confident enough to compose a symphony. The premiere took place in St. Petersburg in 1897 but was a dismal failure, in large part because to the shoddy conducting of Alexander Glazunov who was under “the influence.” Whereas earlier defeats had produced in the young composer creative defiance, this disappointment brought on a severe depression. For three years he was unable to do any significant composing. After consulting numerous physicians and advisors, even asking old Leo Tolstoy for help, he finally went for therapy and hypnosis in 1900 to Dr. Nikolay Dahl, an internist who had studied hypnosis and rudimentary psychiatry in Paris. The result was one of the first well-known successes of modern psychotherapy. Although the composer was able to return to creative work, relapses into depression dogged him for the rest of his life. Significantly, all his large instrumental compositions are in minor keys, and one of the melodic themes recurring in many of his compositions is theDies irae from the Catholic mass for the dead reminding mourners of the terrors of the day of judgment.

Rachmaninov expressed his gratitude to Dr. Dahl by dedicating the Second Piano Concerto to him. The first performance of the complete work took place in November 1901 with the composer at the piano and was an instant success. It is Rachmaninov's most frequently performed and recorded orchestral work and its popularity has never waned. It even found its way into Hollywood as background music to the World War II movie Brief Encounter.

The first movement, moderato, opens with dark unaccompanied chords on the piano, which increase in intensity and are gradually joined by the orchestra, leading to the first theme. The effect is like the tolling of the giant low-pitched bells common in Russian churches. Example 1 The piano introduces the sensuous second theme, one of the composer's signature melodies. Example 2 About halfway through the movement as the development continues, a new rhythmic figure makes its appearance, Example 3 first as a barely audible accompaniment figure in the flute, then taken up in the piano and timpani as an accompaniment to the second theme. Example 4 Increasingly, it crops up all over the orchestra until the piano pounds it out, letting the rest of the orchestra carry the recapitulation of the main theme. Example 5 A long rhapsodic coda concludes the movement with a final dramatic burst of energy.

The second movement opens with muted strings, following with hesitant piano arpeggios in left hand. Example 6 As the piano remains in the background joined by a solo flute the clarinet finally brings out the theme in its entirety. Example 7 The middle section of this ABA form centers on a second theme, which is built on the first and belongs to the piano. Example 8 Typically of the middle sections of slow movements, it is more intense and passionate than the A section. It builds in speed and energy in a brief cadenza, after which the gentle atmosphere of the beginning return with variations of the first theme.

The brilliant third movement is characterized by abrupt changes in mood, all based on two themes. It opens deceptively quietly in the lower range of the orchestra, breaking into a sudden sparkling, drivingly rhythmic piano cadenza and finally the main theme. Example 9 The second theme, introduced by the violas and oboes, is intensely passionate, and another of the melodies that have made this Concerto so popular. Example 10 To conform to this new romantic mood, Rachmaninov rhythmically transforms his first theme. Example 11 Suddenly, the tempo increases to presto and we're in a whirlwind development of the first theme, including a little truncated fugue. Example 12 Then it's back to romantic second theme, more mood swings until after a short cadenza the second romantic theme is taken up by the highest instruments in the orchestra, culminating in a glittering climax. Example 13

Johannes Brahms 1833-1897

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68

“You don’t know what it is like always to hear that giant marching along behind me,” Brahms wrote to the conductor Hermann Levi, in reference to Beethoven. As a classically oriented composer who revered Beethoven, Brahms found writing a symphony a daunting proposition. It took fame, respectability, middle age and numerous false starts before he finally finished his First Symphony at age 43, after at least 14 years’ gestation. An earlier attempt at a symphony, in 1854, ended up, after numerous transformations, as part of the D minor Piano Concerto and the German Requiem.

Despite Brahms’s reputation and the positive anticipation of the public, the Symphony, premiered in 1876, was at first coolly received. The rigorous classical form baffled the public and critics, who expected something more romantic and innovative. Wagner, Liszt and programmatic music were all the rage and most critics considered the classical form backward looking and reactionary. But it was not long before the Symphony’s riveting power was recognized, along with its own contribution to symphonic innovation.

If, indeed, the First Symphony cannot strictly be considered program music, it nevertheless unfolds with great drama – even, one might say, a musical plot. While the typical classical symphony gave the greatest weight to the first movement, ending with a faster rousing finale, often a dance, Mozart, in his last three symphonies, and Beethoven in the Third, Fifth and especially the Ninth Symphonies, recast the pattern. In these works, the finale provides the culmination to the entire symphony. When listening to Brahms’s First, one can easily imagine the composer’s reticence at treading in the great man’s shadow. Nevertheless, his combined sense for musical drama and structure prevailed as he launched what conductor Hans von Bülow called “The Tenth.” Only Mendelssohn in his Symphony No. 3, “The Scottish,” had trod that path.

The ominous pounding of the timpani under slow ascending and descending chromatic scales, Example 1 fragmentary motives Example 2 and the ambiguous tonality of the Introduction poses a musical question – actually more of a demand – that remains unresolved until the final movement. It is one of the most spine-chilling introductions in all of classical music, made more so by the contrasting secondary theme, a trio for the oboe, flute and cellos – which, incidentally, is never heard again. Example 4 The following Allegro fleshes out motives from the Introduction into a full-fledged theme, developing it with an almost savage energy that threatens to obscure the traditional sonata form. Example 5 But Brahms was a classicist and introduces two new subsidiary themes into the Allegro, a gentle oboe theme, the mate to the one in the Introduction, Example 6 followed by another stormy chromatic one with an ascending chromatic scale and its resulting tonal ambiguity, in keeping with the overall mood of the movement. Example 7

The middle two movements are a respite from the drive of the first. The Andante sostenuto second movement, a classic ABA form, although with a highly modified repeat, reminiscent of Beethoven's variations in the slow movement of the Ninth Symphony. The theme of this movement is in two phrases, the first concluding with a motive that Brahms uses in different musical contexts throughout. Example 8 The end of the second phrase recalls the opening of the Allegro in the first movement. Example 10 The oboe solo is a mate to the solo for the same instrument in the introduction, Example 11 beginning what becomes a pattern for Brahms in this symphony of foreshadowing and recalling motivic elements from movement to movement. Shortly afterwards, he hints at the main theme of the third movement to come in a brief duet for flute and oboe. Example 12 All in all, it is lovely, albeit melancholy, and still fraught with the unresolved tension of the work as a whole.

The third movement, a modified scherzo form, is more of an intermezzo that opens with a lilting clarinet theme, suggested already in the preceding movement. Example 13 It does, however, include a trio. Example 14 The contrapuntal accompaniment to the repeat of the clarinet theme, after the Trio section, foreshadows the principal theme from the Finale. Example 15

Rumbling timpani now returns us to the serious business of resolving the tensions raised in the first movement, Example 16 and the resolution appears none too optimistic with its creeping pizzicato strings and sforzando appoggiaturas in the winds. Example 17 This return to the mood of the first movement Allegro reminds us of the unresolved issues, but suddenly, as if from behind a cloud, an alpenhorn calls out, answered by the flute, Example 18 turning the turgid C minor into a resounding C major chorale-like melody. Example 19

The alpenhorn solo has its own little history. In 1868, eight years before the Symphony was premiered, Brahms had quarreled with his friend, and probably secret love, Clara Schumann, about whether she should cut back on her concretizing to spend more time at home with her children. That September, he sent her a mollifying postcard with the alpenhorn theme scrawled on it to the words, ”High on the mountain, deep in the valley, I greet you a thousand fold.”

Of course, the introduction of the chorale tune is not the final statement. Brahms develops it and a series of subsidiary themes with emotional force, but with less brutality than the first movement. The chorale does battle with the music from the stormy introduction Example 21 to emerge triumphant in an exultant coda, again reminiscent of Beethoven's excited finales. Example 22

Program notes copyright by:
Joseph & Elizabeth Kahn