Serenata notturna, K. 239
note by Katherine Baber
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is often called a “genius”—a label that for many composers has been more of a curse than a blessing—but listening to his music, particularly the four works on this program, proves Mozart could wear the crown lightly.
Following along from the early but brilliant Serenata notturna to the power of the "Haffner" Symphony, we can retrace Mozart’s progress from a rebellious prodigy to a self-proclaimed king of the Viennese classic. This program opens midway through that journey, with a moment of defiance in defeat. The Impresario Overture, now a staple of symphonic concerts, was once Mozart’s opening salvo in a battle against Antonio Salieri. Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario), with a libretto by Gottlieb Stephanie, was Mozart’s entry into a contest of wit and music at the invitation of the Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II. In opposite ends of the orangery at Schönbrunn Palace, Mozart’s German-language Singspiel was pitted against Salieri’s Italianate Prima la musica e poi le parole (First the music, then the words) for the sake of imperial entertainment. Salieri aimed squarely for Mozart, poking fun at his working relationship with his favorite librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. Mozart set his comic sights higher, mocking the institution of opera as a whole, particularly the vanity of its performers. In a series of flashy arias, the prima donnas Madame Herz (Mrs. Heart) and Mademoiselle Silberklang (Miss Silversound) compete for the lead role, only to be outdone by the tenor, Herr Vogelsang (Mr. Birdsong). Perhaps because he had the last word that evening, Salieri was declared the victor, but Mozart declared himself the better composer nonetheless. With an assist from playwrights like Alexander Pushkin and Peter Shaffer, Mozart seems to have won in the long run, with Salieri now better remembered as Mozart’s nemesis than as a composer in his own right. The overture presents the comedy in miniature, swiftly under-cutting the bombast of its opening fanfares—reinforced by horns, trumpets, and timpani—with giggling figures from the violins. Oboe, bassoon, and strings then present the sort of lovely, naïve melody that characterized many Singspiel. (Are we hearing the voice of Madame Herz?) The following turn to a Sturm und Drang version of the opening, cast in a darker minor mode, is Mozart with his tongue firmly in cheek. The drama, he suggests, is all for show. For Mozart, nothing is sacred—particularly not opera.
The profanity of Mozart’s musical attitude might have been the root of his troubles in Salzburg. When Mozart and his father Leopold had returned from Italy to Salzburg in the winter of 1771, the young musician’s growing irreverence toward authority figures brought him up against the new Prince-Archbishop Hieronymous Colloredo. While his predecessor had favored Leopold, Colloredo brought sweeping changes to court, civic, and church music practices that were wholly unwelcome. Wolfgang and his father resented the importation of Italian composers (although they seemed to like them as audiences just fine) and the curtailing of the university and civic celebrations for which works like the Serenata notturno were usually created. In response, the young Mozart withdrew from the musical life of the court and composed for the church with only half-hearted effort (still making for some beautiful masses). As if to spite the Prince-Archbishop by rejecting both his domains, he devoted most of his effort to chamber works for the enjoyment of private patrons. This serenade in D major for two orchestras—one of solo violins, viola, and double bass, and the other of strings and timpani—has some of the pomp and circumstance of the Finalmusik (graduation music) Mozart had written for the Benedictine University in Salzburg before Colloredo’s crackdown. The serenade begins with dignified fanfares and a light-footed march, fulfilling its typical function as outdoor music performed to greet persons of rank. In the following menuet, however, Mozart turns toward the other sense of a serenade known to Salzburgers: a love song for the evening, or Abend-Ständchen. For a time, Mozart made the customer a king and hailed him appropriately, but we can also hear the twenty-year-old Mozart’s thoughts turning to romance.
The father and son struggle with Colloredo ended in their dual dismissal, so Leopold charged his son to seek employment in Mannheim, well known at the time for the quality of its orchestra and the generosity of its patrons. Mozart found just such a benefactor in Ferdinand de Jean, a physician who accumulated his wealth working for the Dutch East India Company. A lover of music and amateur flutist himself, de Jean requested three flute concertos and two flute quartets from Mozart. Unfortunately for de Jean, Mozart also met Aloisia Weber, the elder sister of Constanze (the woman he would eventually marry). Smitten despite her rejection of him, Mozart never finished the commission, but did find time to write Aloisia an aria. Later, despite her marriage to actor Joseph Lange, he wrote her a whole operatic role in (you guessed it) Der Schauspieldirektor, as Madame Herz. Other than the Concerto in C Major, K. 315, it is difficult to say when Mozart got around to finishing the requested flute concerti (he never did write the quartets). That said, this Concerto in G Major, K. 313 is definitely a case of “better late than never.” The first movement maintains a balance between the poise and clear harmonic outlines of a traditional sonata form and the dramatic flair expected in a concerto. However, we soon hear the composer’s mind wander, lost in the hesitant caresses of the adagio. The final rondo is perhaps more coy than impressive, showing flashes of virtuosic heat but always retreating to the lilting flirtatiousness of its opening melody.
Although audiences today revere Mozart as a member of the pantheon of classical music, he was never elevated to the ranks of the earthly nobility. His friend, Sigmund Haffner, however, did receive just such a promotion. In honor of the occasion, Mozart composed one of his grander symphonies at the time, scored at first for Salzburg with pairs of oboes, bassoons, horns, and trumpets in addition to timpani and strings, and further embellished for Vienna with flutes and clarinets added to the outer movements. The choice of key—D major—would likewise have been heard as celebratory and ennobled, since it was one of the few keys available to the rather limited capabilities of eighteenth century trumpets. The first movement projects power and drama, with its martial dotted rhythms, bold leaps, cascading scalar figures, and striking dynamic contrasts between winds and strings. This primary material is then treated to an ingenious and thorough contrapuntal development in an assertion of compositional, rather than military mastery. Even the typically contrasting secondary theme is more majestic than lyrical. The Adagio retreats to an idyllic space, more softly inflected in a way reminiscent of Mozart’s Salzburger style, as heard in the serenade (also in D major). Even the regular phrasing patterns of the third movement are similar to the “sturdy” minuets of his time in Salzburg (to borrow A. Peter Brown’s apt description). In bookending the symphony with sonata forms in the first and fourth movements, he signals its import, if not its weight. With Mozart’s instruction that it should be performed as fast as the orchestra can manage while maintaining clarity, the fourth movement leans forward without quite falling into a headlong rush. In this symphony on the whole—which balances the majestic, the learned, and the fleet and stylish galant—we can hear the coming of the Jupiter Symphony in C major (so called by the London public) at the height of his career. Not yet to the point of being declared a god among men, in the "Haffner" Symphony Mozart elevates his friend at the same time as he places the compositional crown on his own head.
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- Bassoon Concerto in B-flat major, K.191/186e
- Clarinet Concerto
- Concerto for Flute & Harp, K. 299
- Divertimento in D, K. 136
- Don Giovanni Overture
- Eine kleine Nachtmusik, K. 525
- Flute Concerto in G, K. 313
- Le nozze di Figaro Overture
- Piano Concerto No. 12 in A major, K 414
- Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488
- Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat major "Jeunehomme", K. 271
- Piano Trio No. 3 in B-flat Major, K. 502
- Prelude to Apollo et Hyacinthus, K. 38
- Sinfonia concertante, K. 364
- Symphony No. 35 "Haffner", K. 385
- Symphony No. 24 in B-flat major, K. 182/173dA
- Symphony No. 29 in A major, K. 201
- Symphony No. 33 in B-flat, K. 319
- Symphony No. 36 “Linz”, K. 425
- Symphony No 38 Prague K. 504
- Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major, K. 543
- Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550
- Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter”, K. 551
- The Impresario Overture