Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart 1756-1791
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Overture to Idomeneo, rè di Creta, K. 366

Mozart composed Idomeneo in 1780-81 on a commission from the Bavarian court in Munich. It was his first great opportunity to stage a full-scale music drama in the reformed tradition of Christoph Willibald Gluck that included a substantial role for chorus and ballet. The plot was based on a tragédie lyrique, as French opera of the period was called, by librettist Antoine Danchet with music by André Campra.

Idomeneo (Idomeneus), the King of Crete, was one of Agamemnon’s generals and trusted advisors in The Iliad. In a late Roman extension of the aftermath of the Trojan War, Idomeneo leaves his kingdom in the care of his young son Idamante to join the siege of Troy. The essence of the plot is a little like the biblical story of Jephtha, who in return for a military victory vowed to sacrifice the first living thing to greet him when he returned home – as it turned out, his daughter. Idomeneo, beset by a storm at sea on his homeward journey from the Trojan War, has made a similar vow to Neptune. The rest of the plot concerns his vain attempts to avoid sacrificing Idamante. Naturally, there's a love interest as well, a triangle among Idamante, the Trojan princess Ilia and – of all people – Agamemnon’s daughter Electra, who has sought refuge in Crete after her mother Clytemnestra has murdered her father. Ultimately, after Idamante has slain a sea monster sent by Neptune to devour the Cretan people, an oracle emerges as a deus ex machina, ordering Idomeneo to abdicate in favor of his son.

Unfortunately the opera was not a great success and never gained popularity in the composer’s lifetime, although Mozart himself thought highly of it. He made numerous changes to gain its acceptance in Vienna, but to no avail. It has experienced a limited renaissance in large opera houses, where innovative productions outside the standard repertory have elicited audience support.

As was customary of overtures at the time, the Overture is in sonata form, although without any significant development section. There is the obligatory slow introduction, a series of pompous blasts of the full orchestra, followed by a threatening theme, recalling what Mozart would later put into his overture for Don Giovanni. Example 1 The Allegro runs out an array of themes, the most important of which are the first and second. Example 2 & Example 3 The recapitulation simply recasts the themes into their proper keys for a proper resolution in the tonic.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466

Mozart composed a total of 28 solo keyboard concertos, most of them for his own use in subscription concerts in Vienna. Consequently, the timing of their composition was influenced by the artistic fashions and the economic wellbeing of the city. For five years after Mozart moved to Vienna in 1781, he was a hot commodity both as composer and virtuoso performer. Commissions were coming in like a flood, and he was able to live quite high off the hog. Thus, in the short period between 1782 and 1786, with a booming economy creating a heyday for musical life in Vienna, Mozart composed 17 of these concertos, including this one in D minor. During those years aristocratic families vied with one another to underwrite and sponsor concerts of the latest in musical fashion. “Concertos,” Mozart wrote his father, “are a happy medium between what is too hard and too easy...pleasing to the ear...without being vapid.”

But occasionally darker moods prevailed. This Concerto is one of only two he wrote in a minor key. It is full of stormy outbursts and is probably the most emotionally charged of all of Mozart's concerti. Not surprisingly, the young Beethoven was particularly taken with this Concerto, wrote two cadenzas for it, and performed it as the intermission feature in a performance of Mozart's opera La clemenza di Tito at a concert organized by Mozart's widow, Constanza, on March 31, 1795.

The composition and part copying of the concerto were not completed until the afternoon of the premiere on February 11, 1785, and thus performed without a complete rehearsal and, at place, at sight! According to a letter of Leopold Mozart, the composer's father, the orchestra nevertheless played splendidly.

Right from the growling syncopated opening measures we know we’re in for a wild ride. Example 1 The orchestra then introduces the obligatory second theme in the major Example 2 but returns to the minor with a motive that will recur throughout the movement. Example 3 After the orchestra’s exposition, Mozart has the piano enter on a completely new theme instead of having the soloist slavishly repeat the exposition. Example 4 The piano also introduces a new secondary theme, this time clearly establishing the major mode. Example 5 It is this new theme that shifts the entire emotional tone of the movement into a brighter more optimistic vein that includes taking up the initial themes in the major, suggesting something of a battle for modal supremacy between orchestra and soloist. Rapid variations in orchestral dynamics suggest a Haydn symphony, and the movement has many of the erratic and stormy characteristics that Mozart was later to use in the Overture to Don Giovanni. To intensify the mood, Mozart makes an uncharacteristically abundant use of the timpani (another characteristic more likely to be found in Haydn).

In the second movement, entitle “Romance,” the emotional temperature has suddenly dropped far below the level Mozart normally invests in the slow movements of his concerti. Example 6 A second section introduces a new theme with a return to the opening. Example 7 Only the middle section, now back in G minor, his chosen key for pathos and tragedy, recalls the mood of the opening movement, including the same use of syncopation as in the opening bars of the Concerto. Example 8 Of course, the ABA song form so common in slow movements requires the return to the mood of the opening.

The rondo finale with its almost shrieking theme from the piano takes up where the first left off. Example 9 Mozart was often given to creating thematic unity in his works by repeating small motives or even intervals in the different movements of a work. In the D minor Concerto, he both recalls the syncopations of the opening and recalls the opening piano theme of the first movement, this time in a different rhythm. Example 10 Mozart again plays with numerous swings between minor and major. In the end, he both obeys and thumbs his nose at the convention against ending large works in the minor mode. Although he concludes the coda in a triumphant fanfare in D major, he inserts an ominous timpani roll into the final bars. Example 11

Ludwig van Beethoven 1770-1827
Ludwig van Beethoven
Ludwig van Beethoven
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92

There is little information about Beethoven’s activities during 1812, the year of the composition of the Seventh Symphony. He was in poor health and while he produced little else that year, the Symphony makes up for in quality what was lacking in quantity. The year itself was momentous; the Russian winter had finally halted Napoleon in his eastward march of conquest, a fact that must have lightened Beethoven’s heart. Napoleon had been the composer’s hero, the intended dedicatee of his Third Symphony, but his insatiable lust for conquest and power was so disillusioning that Beethoven rescinded the dedication and harbored a lifelong grudge. The hardship resulting from Napoleon’s occupation of Vienna in 1809-10 added to his bitterness. The Seventh Symphony premiered on December 8, 1813 at a gala benefit concert of primarily Beethoven’s own works to aid the wounded of the latest battles against Napoleon.

Also on the program were Wellington's Victory (the "Battle Symphony"), also celebrating a Napoleonic defeat, and numerous smaller works. Beethoven – although nearly completely deaf – directed an orchestra consisting of a collection of Vienna’s most important musical celebrities: Louis Spohr, Domenico Dragonetti, Mauro Giuliani and Ignaz Schuppanzigh played in the strings; Giacomo Meyerbeer and Johann Nepomuk Hummel played timpani; Ignaz Moscheles played the cymbals, and even old Antonio Salieri was there, heading the percussion section.*

Each movement of the Symphony is dominated by persistent rhythmic motive which – especially in the second movement – is equal in importance the melodic content of the themes. Richard Wagner described the Seventh Symphony as "the apotheosis of dance in its loftiest aspects." The story goes that he once attempted to demonstrate this dance to the accompaniment of Liszt's piano playing.

The lengthy slow introduction, featuring some of the repertory’s loveliest oboe solos, Example 1 contrasts in mood with the Allegro to follow in lively 6/8 meter. The opening movement actually consists of a single complex theme held together by an underlying dotted rhythm in the accompaniment. Example 2 & Example 3 The pulse extends throughout the entire movement and is only occasionally interrupted by a special musical articulation. Example 4

The theme of second movement is minimal, a 4/4 ostinato consisting primarily of repeated pitches over which Beethoven adds counter-melodies and increases the orchestration to build emotional tension. Example 5 & Example 6 A contrasting second section of the movement breaks out into a series of new melodies in the relative major key but retaining the pulse. Example 7 Beethoven’s innovative use of the rhythmic pulse in this movement influenced the Romantic composers that followed, serving as a model for Schubert in his Symphony No. 9 in C major, "The Great." Example 13

The scherzo, in 3/4, is defined by driving quarter notes, dynamic contrasts and shifting rhythms. Example 8 The trio, with its legato wind melody, provides the expected contrast, breaking away from the rhythmic pulse of the scherzo. Example 9

Musicologist Sir Donald Tovey described the finale as “A triumph of Bacchic fury.” The rondo theme, with its emphatic timpani part, resembles a stomping peasant dance–admittedly refined for the occasion. Example 10 But this movement is built on variety and contrast, as each episode contrasts sharply with the rondo theme by setting up its own defining rhythms. Example 11 & Example 12

* Louis Spohr (1784-1859) was one of Paris’s most noted opera composers. Domenico Dragonetti (1763-1846) was a virtuoso double bass player and composer. Mauro Giuliani (1781-1829) was a famous Italian guitar virtuoso and composer. Ignaz Schuppanzigh (1776-1830) was an Austrian violinist, who headed a string quartet for whom Beethoven wrote the three Op.59 quartets. Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1776-1837) was a composer and pianist remembered mostly for his clarinet compositions. Pianist and composer Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870) was a famous interpreter and editor of Beethoven’s music. And former court composer to the Hapsburg emperors, composer Antonio Salieri (1750-1825) is familiar to music lovers for the fictional account of his rivalry with Mozart in the film Amadeus.
Copyright © Elizabeth and Joseph Kahn 2016