I hope you have all had a wonderful holiday season, as I have. Our first concert of 2017 brings with it the joy, human warmth, and divine inspiration that only Mozart can provide. For me, there is no mood so dark, no feeling so sad that his music can’t cure!
We open with one of Mozart’s least known but most exciting overtures: Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario). It is the opening of a singspiel: literally, a “sing-play”, an early form of operetta. The occasion it was written for in 1786 was a fascinating opera competition devised by the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II himself. The Emperor’s kapellmeister was the eminent composer of Italian operas, Antonio Salieri, who was commissioned to write a comic opera for his company of Italian singers. At the same time, Mozart was asked for an opera in German, which was still an unusual, modern, almost radical idea. The two operas would be performed the same afternoon in the same theater at the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, and the royal patron and his invited guests would decide which was the better work. Both composers had a lot to prove. Salieri was defending not only the grand tradition of Italian opera, but his very position at court. Mozart was the upwardly mobile 30 year old genius who embraced the modern notion that opera should be for and about the common people. Salieri’s opera, Prima la musica, poi le parole (First the Music, Then the Words) is a farce about the struggle between composer and librettist, a theme that is still being exploited today. Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor is a backstage comedy, a parody on the vanity of opera singers. It is a bit long on dialog, but the beautiful music within bears his unique stamp.
The Emperor’s competition was officially pronounced to be a tie. Neither opera is often performed today, but we are left with Mozart’s breakneck and virtuosic overture, a great start to an evening of great music!
Ten years earlier, when Mozart was still living in his hometown of Salzburg, he composed our second work, the Serenata Notturna. While the year 1776 was a rather important moment of change in America, in Austria things were still “business as usual”, and the church and royal court together were the center of all things. Mozart’s Serenades and Divertimentos were all written for parties and celebrations for the nobility, and were meant only to be background music. Such works were part of his duties to his employer, Count Hieronymus Colloredo, Archbishop of Salzburg. This Serenata Notturna was written in January, thus probably was destined for the annual Carnival festivities, even today a rather decadent period that precedes the austerity of Lent. It is appropriately lighthearted and whimsical, but unlike most of his serenades, it comprises only three movements. What really sets it apart is its unusual instrumentation: it is written for two orchestras, one large (strings and tympani) and one small (2 violins, viola, and double bass). Mozart has them in constant conversation, in a charming romp that has been beloved by audiences since it was first written.
Next, I don my other hat, as the soloist in the Flute Concerto No. 1 in G major. It is not easy to be soloist and conductor at the same time, but it is certainly never boring! In 1777, 21 year old Mozart traveled to Mannheim, site of the world’s greatest orchestra at the time. While there, he befriended the woodwind players, the flutist Johann Wendling in particular. Wendling introduced him to a wealthy Dutch amateur flutist named de Jean or De Jong, who was quite wealthy from his work for the historic Dutch East India Company. De Jean commissioned Mozart to write three concertos and six quartets, “not too long or too difficult”, and the composer accepted immediately. At this point the story takes an odd turn. Mozart wrote to his father "You know how laggard I become when obliged to write for an instrument which I cannot bear,” and he delivered much less music than promised, some of it actually written earlier for other occasions. The remark to his father is puzzling, considering the beauty of the music he wrote for the flute before and after this period. What historians think more likely is that Mozart disliked Mr. de Jean and his amateurish playing. In any event, the G major concerto is rather long, quite difficult, and gorgeous. Mozart scholar Alfred Einstein pronounced it "written con amore from beginning to end."
We end our celebration with a bona fide masterpiece: the Symphony No. 35 in D major, known as the “Haffner”. By 1782, Mozart was living in Vienna, where he was enjoying considerable success with his opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Abduction from the Seraglio). He received a request from his father Leopold to submit a new work for the ennoblement ceremony of an old family friend, Sigmund Haffner. The Haffners had supported the Mozarts for decades, and Wolfgang had previously written a large serenade for the wedding of Sigmund’s sister. That splendid work is known as the “Haffner” Serenade, not to be confused with the present “Haffner” Symphony. Mozart was extremely busy in Vienna, but promised his father that he would send a new work, a little bit at a time. To add to the complexity of our understanding of the situation, the work he sent was in fact another multi-movement serenade (are you lost yet?). The ceremony came off as planned, and Mozart’s new serenade was much admired. It was only a year later that he decided to take another look at the piece, and was surprised at how good it was. He needed a new symphony for an upcoming Lenten concert in Vienna, and decided to rework the serenade, expanding the orchestration and dropping some movements. The result is the celebrated “Haffner” Symphony, which ranks among his very finest works. He was beginning to come under the thrall of elder composer Franz Josef Haydn, and that influence is obvious in this symphony’s advanced structure and development. Suffice it to say that we musicians realize when we play this work that we are in the presence of greatness!
I am excited to announce informally here that this concert is the first in an ongoing annual Mozart Festival. We are looking forward to years of sharing and experiencing this inspiring and uplifting music with you!