29 April 2015 The London Connection


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Symphony No.26 in E flat major, K.184

As many people know, Mozart began writing symphonies early—his first symphony dates from 1764 – and gets the occasional performance, not only because it’s astonishing for an eight-year-old, but because it sticks in the mind. The next 23 numbered symphonies, and the dozen or so unnumbered ones from the same period, are rarely heard outside a sound system, even in years of Mozart-mania. Most have their charming or piquant moments; but they do not rise memorably above a general level. This starts to change with the symphonies written in Salzburg after the seventeen-year-old Mozart returned in March 1773 from his final tour of Italy.

Although the dramatic ‘Little G minor’ Symphony (No.25) and the genial Symphony No.29 in A major are the most familiar of the seven Salzburg symphonies numbered from 22 to 30, the one now known as No. 26 is probably next in line. It was actually the earliest of them, dated 30 March 1773, about two weeks after Mozart’s repatriation. With its three brief movements in a fast-slow-fast pattern, played without pause, it resembles a contemporary Italian opera overture, and in fact its instrumentation, calling for a pair of flutes as well as oboes, suggests it may have been intended as such: the presence of both woodwinds simultaneously was typical of theatre orchestras. And it did serve that purpose eventually: around 1785 Mozart provided it (along with his music to Thamos, King of Egypt) to an itinerant theatre troupe for use in a now-forgotten play called Lanassa.

This symphony is interesting for several reasons, and provides numerous hints of Mozart works yet to come. An E flat major work, with an emotionally wrought C minor slow movement, it foreshadows in that regard the String Quartet No.11, K.171, the Piano Concerto No.9, K.271 and the Sinfonia concertante for Violin and Viola, K.364; here a five-note motive (not unlike the one starting Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony but ending with a sigh instead of a shaken fist) is passed almost endlessly from one group of instruments to another. The first movement, its bright opening fanfares and falling ‘rocket’ arpeggios, tailor-made for quieting unruly 18th century opera audiences, is also prescient of the Sinfonia concertante. It carries a tempo marking Molto presto, meaning very fast indeed, while the jig-like finale is merely marked Allegro – apparently reversing the normal order of things (in this movement a little flourish in the violas will be familiar to those acquainted with the composer’s 4th Horn Concerto). Also notable, especially in the transitions between movements, is the prominence of the wind instruments, exceptional for the period and again prefiguring Mozart’s later mastery.

Richard Wagner (1813-1883): Siegfried Idyll

Whatever Cosima Wagner wanted for Christmas in 1870, what she got was this piece (actually, it was intended for her birthday on December 24, but was equally appropriate the next day). She and Wagner had married exactly four months previously, and were deliriously happy after the birth of their first son, and third child, Siegfried (a quick calculation here reveals that in life as well as music, Wagner was ahead of his time). The gestation of the child and Wagner’s opera Siegfried had proceeded concurrently, giving certain themes associated with its eponymous hero a double significance to the parents. By working those motives into his serenade, Wagner sent his wife a very personal musical greeting when he gathered thirteen crack musicians in the stairwell outside their bedroom that Christmas morning (this was one of those presents for which some assembly was required). She was as thrilled as a kid with a new iPod, and had the band repeat the performance several times throughout the day. Each subsequent Christmas the same players returned to the Wagner home to play the Idyll from memory.

Siegfried Idyll is performable either as a chamber or an orchestral work. There are two principal themes, the first in the strings at the opening, the second appearing in the clarinet after some mysterious violin trills. They are combined at the climax, leading immediately to the solo horn’s quotation of a jolly tune from the opera (where it symbolizes “Love’s resolution”), accompanied by reminiscences of the bird in the forest scene.

Béla Bartók (1881-1945): Rumanian Folk Dances

Folk music was the catalyst that transformed Bartók’s music from a generic 19th century evocation of Brahms, Liszt, and Wagner into a personal 20th century expression of Hungarian nationalism that transcended all borders. As so many things do, it began with a girl, who sang to him an unusual melody from her native Transylvania while both were vacationing in the country in the summer of 1904. Bartók began to realize that the gypsy music, hitherto believed to be the national music of Hungary, was in fact a later development influenced by German art music and commerce. He soon began travelling with his colleague Zoltán Kodaly to rough and remote villages in Hungary to record the songs of peasants, notating and arranging them for performance in versions designed to preserve their peculiarities of language, mode and rhythm.

Due to the historically fluctuating boundaries of the region Bartók encountered not only Hungarian folk music, but Slovak and Rumanian melodies as well. The Rumanian material, collected between 1909 and 1913, he found particularly engaging, and it influenced several of his works from 1914 and 1915, not only these six dances but the Sonatine for piano and two collections of songs.

Originally for piano solo, Bartók orchestrated the Rumanian Folk Dances in 1917, which version was premiered in Budapest in February 1918. The six dances are a ‘stick dance’, a faster ‘sash dance’, a slow dance with piccolo titled “In one place”, a ‘horn dance’ and two quick dances played without pause, a Rumanian polka and a ‘fast dance’, building to an exciting close.

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809): Symphony No.104 in D major, “London”

In the 1790s, the times were changing—and Joseph Haydn had the opportunity to change with them. After spending a lifetime as a servant of princes, the death of his employer Prince Nicolaus Esterházy in 1790 freed Haydn to experience what was becoming the new norm for composers, a freelance life in which income was derived from operatic gate receipts, subscription concerts, publications, and private celebrity lessons. In 1791 he made his first journey to London, during those Revolutionary years the musical capital of Europe. Never had the unassuming Kapellmeister been so lionized; never had he dreamt he could make so much money; and never was his inspiration at a higher level. He returned to Austria in 1792 even more famous than he had left it, with six new symphonies (Nos.93-98), to resume his former position with Nicolaus’ successor, Anton; but London was still calling. During a second stay in 1794/95 he produced his last six symphonies, later numbered 99 to 104. Together with Mozart’s final works they represent the apex of the 18th century symphony.

Mozart had died during Haydn’s first English sojourn. Haydn must have remembered his young colleague’s enthusiasm for the clarinet when he introduced them for the first time into five of these final symphonies. Though Haydn later credited Mozart with showing him how to write for winds, the clarinets in No.104 serve only to fill out the texture and add volume, perhaps to balance the large complement of strings in the orchestra for which he wrote it – 60 players in all. But where Mozart would likely have showcased the clarinets’ autumnal glow, for example, at the very end of the slow introduction, Haydn sticks to his oboes and bassoons.

This ominous introduction in the minor belies the symphony to come, Haydn’s last, believed to have been premiered April 13, 1795. It summarizes a style developed over a lifetime: a first movement in which a single theme does the work of two; a second movement in which masterly variation and dramatic invention alternate; and a minuet whose rustic cross-rhythm slyly refuses to be courtly. Other examples of the famous Haydn wit, manifested in unexpected pauses and instrumental ripostes, remind us that polished conversation was then an indispensable social attribute.

Customary British reserve was completely disarmed by the twelve ‘London Symphonies’, as they are now known (initially they were called the ‘Salomon Symphonies’ after Johann Salomon, the violinist/impresario whose commissions had brought Haydn to the city). The nickname London would have been appropriate for any of the dozen, but was attached to No.104 because its last movement was allegedly inspired by a London street-cry, “Hot cross buns!” The composer in fact found the noise of London an unbearable distraction to his work, and soon took lodging in the country; furthermore, this ‘capital’ theme, over a drone in the horns, has been identified as a Croatian folk tune. Still, the title is less irrelevant than many that serve as aides-de-memoire to Haydn’s large and variegated symphonic catalogue.

Haydn could have remained in England for the rest of his life; when Anton Esterházy died, Queen Charlotte offered the composer rooms in Windsor Castle to induce him to stay. That he chose to return to the service of the Esterházy family, with its aggravations as well as its security, is not surprising given Haydn’s age: yet in this he showed himself to be more thoroughly of the eighteenth century than Mozart, who died pioneering the lifestyle of a century he never saw.

©Jeffrey Wall 2015


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