Masterworks 1 Program Notes
by Ed Wight
MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466 (1785)
By the 1830s, the modern view of Mozart was set. Critics viewed him as the epitome of a balanced and harmonious ‘Classical’ style, as opposed to the surging and boundless dramatic power of 19th-century musical ‘Romanticism.’ In 1834, Schumann wrote that “cheerfulness, repose, grace – the main features of ancient works of art – are also those of Mozart.” Gounod wrote of the “union of beautiful form and emotional truth” and Herter Norton “all contradictions reconciled…in an eternal beauty and harmoniousness.”
Mozart’s contemporaries as well as early 19th-century musicians and audiences would have found such opinions incomprehensible. In 1810 the great German critic E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote that in Mozart’s music “dread lies all about us…the nocturnal sprit world dissolves into…inexpressible yearning.” Hoffmann considered both Beethoven and Mozart as romantics. Stendahl in 1814 wrote that the graveyard scene in Don Giovanni “represents ‘terror’ as conceived by Shakespeare.” Another prominent critic, Friedrich Rochlitz, wrote in 1800 that “many of his fully-textured compositions are congested, his modulations not infrequently bizarre, his transitions rough.”
This D Minor Concerto is one of his earliest works that generated such views, “one of the fullest realizations of that aspect of Mozart which the 19th century quite rightly named ‘daemonic’” (Charles Rosen). For the first time in any concerto, Mozart employed the minor mode. In his operas, he associated the key of D Minor with arias of vengeance and retribution (Electra, Donna Anna, and Queen of the Night). Mozart reinforces that passion with a technique that differs from Haydn and Beethoven. In their mature minor-mode symphonies, quartets and concertos, they usually return the secondary thematic material in the major mode. However, late Mozart is relentless. He often alters these (originally major-mode) themes to maintain the darker minor mode. Those opera arias all closed in minor, and so does the first movement of today’s concerto.
Another prominent element of the first movement reflects “a new conception of the relationship between soloist and orchestra” (2001 New Grove Dictionary). This is the earliest Mozart concerto to truly pit the soloist against the orchestra. The soft yet ominous opening theme, set in the dark, low register of cellos and basses, never appears in the piano. Similarly, the opening piano theme never occurs in the orchestra. The development section brings this clash into the open with three unyielding statements of these themes. The piano states its opening theme, which the orchestra ignores and changes key with its own primary theme.
The gentle Romanze in F Major comes as a relief. Set in Rondo form, it was his first concerto slow movement to open with piano solo. Yet Mozart shatters the tenderness of the opening themes with yet another dramatic minor-mode explosion. Mozart scholar David Grayson writes that it begins abruptly “with isolated forte hammer blows in the strings” and continues with “agitated…hand-crossing and continuous rapid triplet figuration.”
Mozart’s passionate handling of minor mode continues with a vengeance in the Sonata-Rondo finale. He sets the first three themes in minor, and focuses on them exclusively in the central development section. Even the joyous, major-mode theme which finally appears (in the woodwinds) reflects Mozart’s special penchant by returning later in minor, that mode lasting all the way to the final cadenza and beyond. Mozart relents only then, with that major-mode theme now finally returning in D Major to begin a coda of collaborative “brilliance and gaiety” (Rosen).
The dramatic power of this concerto – quite a contrast to Schumann’s ‘grace and repose’ – helped make it the most popular of all Mozart’s concertos in the 19th century. Beethoven, Cramer, Hummel, Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Anton Rubenstein, Charles Alkan, and Brahms number among the many virtuosos of that era who both performed it and wrote cadenzas for it. Brahms also remarked that “Mozart was more daring in his handling of form than Beethoven. It’s a good thing most people don’t know that.”
But certainly the most heartfelt 19th-century performance took place in Salzburg in September 1842, at the dedication of a statue for Mozart. His widow Constanze died in Salzburg only six months earlier. Franz Xaver Mozart, their youngest son, performed this concerto at the festival for the statue’s unveiling (with his older brother Carl in the audience) in memory of both their parents.
MAHLER: Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor (1902)
Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony in 1803 – lasting over 1600 bars – constituted the longest symphony written to that point. His symphonies featured a grander, more powerful style of symphonic writing often focused on the brass section, and inaugurated the greatest century in the history of the genre (Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Saint-Saens, Dvorak, Bruckner, Brahms, and Mahler among many others). All but one Mahler’s symphonies surpass the length of the ‘Eroica.’ With previously uncalled for orchestral resources (often over 100 players) and unprecedented scope (five symphonies over 2000 bars in length), Mahler brought this symphonic grandeur “to its fullest maturity and also effectively to its end” (2001 New Grove Dictionary).
Yet the greater scale of Mahler’s works tells only part of the story. “Unlike Dvorak, Bruckner, and Brahms, Mahler represented a progressive force in the Viennese symphonic tradition” He moved the symphony away from “a predictable series of four movements displaying certain tempos and styles” (symphony scholar A. Peter Brown). After his three previous symphonies included voices Mahler acknowledged he turned to an ‘entirely new style’ for his fifth symphony. Its unprecedented structure includes opening with a huge, primarily slow movement (a funeral march). Mahler also features a pivotal third movement encompassing the longest symphonic Scherzo ever written (over 800 bars) as he moves from the minor-mode funereal tragedy of the first two movements to a life-affirming, major-mode triumph in the finale.
Trumpets had long been associated with Austrian funeral processions, and the extensive opening trumpet fanfare that begins Part 1 leads to the somber main theme in the strings. In a huge 5-part structure, both aspects of this funeral March return after the first of two dramatically contrasting Trio sections. Its final return at the end of the movement consists solely of the now darker trumpet fanfare, closing in C-sharp Minor.
The powerful, Sonata-form second movement continues in the minor mode. While first-movement motives return, Mahler’s study of Bach during this period perhaps led him to include an incomplete, chorale-like theme in D Major for the brass instruments late in the development section provides the main focus. The chorale returns in the Coda, still in a fragmentary state (postponing a complete triumphant restatement until the finale).
Part 2 recalls the dance heritage of minuet and scherzo movements, as Mahler opens the huge Scherzo and Trio in D Major with a delightful waltz in the wind section. But he immediately compromises this mood with a return of the minor mode, the entire movement “replete with moments of darkness and frenzy…revealing a notable accumulation of minor keys” (Mahler historian Donald Mitchell). A later fugal section for the strings, with invertible counterpoint, reflects Mahler’s newfound sophisticated counterpoint. So does the gentle Trio section introduced by a series of solo horn calls. Opening with pizzicato strings, Mahler presents this pastoral Landler horn theme in canon-like fashion throughout its varied appearances in myriad instrumental colors. He also leaves tragedy and minor mode darkness behind in a D Major movement that Mahler said represented “a human being in the full light of day, in the prime of his life.”
Mahler turns miniature to striking effect in the 4th-movement Adagietto in F Major. This opens Part 3, and he maintains the same harp and string scoring and the same, primarily gentle mood throughout a movement lasting only 103 bars. Set in A B A form the chromatic middle section offers a brief reference to Tristan und Isolde. Is it mere coincidence that Mahler wrote this wondrously tender movement while courting his future wife, Alma Schindler? It remains the most beloved and most performed movement of Mahler’s career.
Clear, joyous spirits prevail in an extensive D Major Rondo finale that is “remarkably shadowless and free of the volcanic tensions of Part I” (Mitchell). It also triumphantly restates – and thus integrates – earlier passages from the symphony. As in the Scherzo, Mahler writes another, longer fugato for the strings. In a later rondo episode for the strings, he offers a faster version of the primary theme from the Adagietto, the joyful happiness of love. And in the coda, the truncated Chorale theme from the second movement now fully blossoms in complete, thunderous, brass-section triumph.
The Adagietto now enjoys another personal identification in addition to Alma Mahler. Mahler’s music received few performances in the decades after his death. Among many people who helped revive Mahler’s music after World War II, Leonard Bernstein played a pivotal role. He personally championed Mahler’s symphonies, and also performed the Adagietto at memorial services for Robert Kennedy and Serge Koussevitzky. After Bernstein’s sudden death in October 1990, many orchestras around the world changed their programs and played that movement in his honor.