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Bassoon Concerto in B-flat major, K.191/186e

Composed by

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart



solo bassoon, 2 oboes, 2 horns, strings

I. Allegro
II. Andante ma adagio
III. Rondo: Tempo di menuetto

Composed 1774.

The symphonies that bookend this evening’s program were two of the last works Mozart wrote in Salzburg before striking out on his own in Vienna. Together, they represent the end of an era. In 1772, Hieronymus Colloredo had been declared the Prince Archbishop of Salzburg and begun a series of political, social, and cultural reforms modeled on those of Emperor Joseph II, a so-called “enlightened despot.” Colloredo’s reforms included radical reductions to the musical activities in Salzburg that depended on his patronage. In response, Mozart and his father left for Vienna in July of 1773 to seek a court appointment there. Unsuccessful, they returned in September, and Mozart entered his final flurry of compositional activity in Salzburg. Despite his frustrations with Colloredo, his symphonies hardly suffered; they are the height of galant fashion and full of the wit and ingenuity that make Mozart’s music perpetually au courant.

The Symphony No. 24 in B-flat Major (1773), likely conceived in Vienna before being finished in Salzburg, is like the best Viennese pastries: sweet, light, even frothy, but requiring great technical skill and no less the work of a master than other forms of musical haute cuisine. Like many of the other Salzburg symphonies (and most desserts) it is gone too soon, composed of just three short movements. The Allegro spiritoso condenses the essence of sonata form. The first theme is a balance between the clarion fanfare led by the oboes and French horns and the irrepressible response from the violins. The second theme is a stark contrast, with its sparse orchestration of the melody in widely-spaced octaves in the violins and the accompaniment in octaves between the viola and bass. There is also a surprising amount of harmonic ambiguity here for a movement that is so brief, with the violins and the bass each refusing to settle into the expected dominant area. Mozart continues to delay the expected throughout the development and even into the recapitulation (which does not begin on the expected tonic harmony) before finally returning to solid ground in the coda. The character of the movement is suffused with the warmth of oboes and French horns, and the energetic figures from the strings help propel us through the harmonic obstacle course Mozart has constructed. The Andantino grazioso offers something of a palate cleanser with the gentility of muted violins and flutes and a polite, predictable rondo form. Finally, the Allegro whips and whirls the symphony to its finish, the symphonic equivalent of Schlagobers (whipped cream).

Written in the same key as the symphony and in the same city, the Bassoon Concerto in B-flat Major (1774) was likely intended for one of the two bassoonists employed by Colloredo. In this earliest of the woodwind concertos Mozart wrote—each a treasured part of the repertoire—we can hear already his instinct for the special capabilities and character of a given solo instrument. The first movement shows off the bassoon’s remarkable agility, rapid articulation, and extraordinary range, while maintaining a conversational tone with the orchestra, as opposed to exerting virtuoso dominance. As with many eighteenth-century concertos, the interior Andante ma adagio takes the form of an aria, though even here there is dialogue: the colla parte strings sing along with the bassoon at times and the oboes and other woodwinds finish some of the soloist’s phrases. In this more intimate movement, the tone color of the bassoon foreshadows some of the mournful arias Mozart would eventually write for Viennese opera houses. The closing rondo is more extroverted, but is cast as a minuet that is more courtly and dignified than the frivolity of the earlier symphony finale.

Although composed in Vienna, Eine kleine Nachtmusik (1787) recalls the several serenades Mozart wrote while in Salzburg. Having lost one of its five original movements, it now follows the patterns of a standard symphony, proceeding from a sonata form, to a slow lyrical movement, to a minuet, to a joyful rondo finale. The reduced scale of the chamber ensemble would have worked just as well in the era of economy under Colloredo. However, the archbishop would have thoroughly disapproved of the frivolity of the piece, meant to evoke an impromptu concert under a beloved’s window. If not quite seductive, the serenade is meant to be emotionally persuasive, and it has certainly succeeded. The piece turns on a series of memorable tunes that have come to define our appreciation of Mozart. Still, compared to the masterpieces that preceded it, like Don Giovanni and the “Prague” Symphony, Eine kleine Nachtmusik seems trivial. Was Mozart homesick for Salzburg, the city he once couldn’t wait to leave? Following his father’s death in the spring of 1787 and his mother’s that July, Mozart wrote very little music, but this piece from August seems lovingly crafted. We might even hear a note of pathos in the second movement romance. While Mozart had fallen out of touch with his sister, Nannerl, he does seem to have reached back to Salzburg through music.

The Symphony No. 29 in A major (1774) is the last of only three symphonies (out of over forty) in this key. To an eighteenth-century audience, the key would have lent a sense of occasion to the work, and it provides a fitting (and fashionable) finish to this concert. Mozart’s writing here is stylish but restrained, without the exuberance and Sturm und Drang dramatics that had characterized the “Little G Minor” Symphony just six months before. The Allegro moderato is, indeed, moderate—the balanced melody of the first theme is backed by clear, exposed part writing rather than the energetic rhythms of other galant accompaniments. Carefully crafted counterpoint occasionally stirs the texture up, but on the whole, this is a more dignified than exciting opening to the symphony. The Andante is characteristically more intimate, again in a restrained fashion—almost a string quartet, with the winds used as touches of color only. In terms of character, this slow movement is more imperial than sentimental. The Menuetto is again more chamber-like, but the near constant dotted rhythms lend it an almost aggressive edge, an attitude that persists into the finale. The Allegro con spirito takes a sonata form, an intense choice for a final movement that forecasts later works, like the “Jupiter” Symphony, and somewhat at odds with the modest scale of the work and size of the orchestra. Where the first movement demonstrates mastery of counterpoint, this finale shows mastery of form. This finale is small but mighty, with a bold spirit in its rushing scales and other energetic outbursts that captures Mozart’s attitude as he ventured out from Salzburg.

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