Program Notes: Mozart and Beethoven

Program Notes: Mozart and Beethoven

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Full program notes:

Wolfgang Amadè Mozart
Born: January 27, 1756, Salzburg, Austria
Died: December 5, 1791, Vienna, Austria

 

Symphony No. 36 in C major, K. 425, Linz

Mozart married Constanze Weber in Vienna in August 1782, and the following summer the couple undertook, with some trepidation, a trip to Salzburg so that Constanze could meet her father-in-law. The three-month visit was not wholly successful, and the young couple was doubtless relieved to head back toward Vienna at the end of October 1783. On the way they were guests in Linz of Count Thun, the wealthy father of one of Mozart’s students—and on arrival they discovered that the Count had scheduled a concert for only a few days later. Mozart wrote to his father: “On Thursday, November 4, I am going to give a concert in the theater, and as I have not a single symphony with me, I am writing at breakneck speed a new one…”

not the faintest trace of rush
Even Mozart, who could write at blinding speed, must have felt a little pressed this time, as he finished the new work on November 3 and premiered it the next day. Yet there is not the faintest trace of rush about this magnificent music, which is polished and complete in every way. In this, the first symphony Mozart wrote after moving to Vienna, some have heard the influence of Haydn—in the slow introduction, the singing Andante and the sturdy minuet. But the Linz Symphony, as it has come to be known, is pure Mozart, particularly in its perfect sense of form and expressive chromatic writing. The music glows, its sunny C-major energy propelled along at moments by dotted-rhythm fanfares.

adagio–allegro spiritoso. The thunderous slow introduction (the first in a Mozart symphony) instantly rivets attention. The movement leaps ahead at the aptly-named Allegro spiritoso, where the first violins’ opening theme has a rhythmic snap that will characterize the entire symphony; the second subject is one of those wonderful Mozart themes that changes key and character even as it proceeds.

andante; menuetto–trio. The Andante is a long flow of easy melody, so graceful that it is easy to overlook the fact that Mozart does something extremely unusual here: he uses trumpets and timpani in a slow movement, and their color, beautifully restrained, gives this music rare expressive power. The minuet is forthright (and somewhat foursquare), while the trio section, with its ländler tune in the winds, beautifully overlaps phrases in its later strains.

presto. The finale, in sonata form rather than the expected rondo, zips along with the unremitting energy of a perpetuum mobile. The movement’s three themes are interrelated, but the work is so dazzling that the subtlety is nearly lost in the rush. Throughout, Mozart’s chromatic writing allows the music to slide effortlessly through many different moods until the symphony is rounded off with a coda that is shining, heroic—and quite brief.

Instrumentation: 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings


Felix Mendelssohn
Born: February 3, 1809, Hamburg, Germany
Died: November 4, 1847, Leipzig, Germany

Concerto in E minor for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 64

"I would like to write you a violin concerto for next winter. One in E minor keeps running through my head, and the opening gives me no peace.” So wrote Mendelssohn to his lifelong friend, violinist Ferdinand David, in 1838, and that opening has given millions of music lovers no peace ever since, for it is one of the most perfect violin melodies ever written.

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto seems so polished, so effortless in its easy flow, that this music feels as if it must have appeared in one sustained stroke of his pen. Yet it took seven years to write. Normally a fast worker, Mendelssohn proceeded very carefully on this concerto, revising, polishing and consulting with David, his concertmaster at the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, at every step of its composition. He completed the score while on vacation in Soden, near Frankfurt, during the summer of 1844, and David gave the premiere in Leipzig on March 13, 1845. Mendelssohn was ill at the time and could not conduct, so his assistant, the Danish composer Niels Gade, led the first performance.

originality and endless beauty
We do not normally think of Mendelssohn as an innovator, but his Violin Concerto is as remarkable for its originality as for its endless beauty. It is deftly scored: he writes for what is essentially the Mozart-Haydn orchestra, and he keeps textures transparent and the soloist audible throughout. But he can also make that orchestra ring out with a splendor that Mozart and Haydn never dreamed of.

allegro molto appassionato. The innovations begin in the first instant. Mendelssohn does away with the standard orchestral exposition and has the violin enter in the second bar with its famous theme, marked Allegro molto appassionato and played entirely on the violin’s E-string; this soaring idea immediately establishes the movement’s singing yet impassioned character. Other themes follow in turn: a transitional figure for the orchestra and the true second subject, a chorale-like tune first given out by the woodwinds.

The quiet timpani strokes in the first few seconds, which subtly energize the orchestra’s swirling textures, show the hand of a master. Another innovation: Mendelssohn sets the cadenza where we do not expect it, at the end of the development rather than just before the coda. That cadenza—a terrific compilation of trills, harmonics and arpeggios—appears to have been largely the creation of David, who fashioned it from Mendelssohn’s themes. The return of the orchestra is a masterstroke: it is the orchestra that brings back the movement’s main theme as the violinist accompanies the orchestra with dancing arpeggios.

andante. Mendelssohn hated applause between movements, and he tried to guard against it here by tying the first two movements together with a single bassoon note. The two themes of the Andante might by themselves define the term “romanticism.” There is a sweetness about this music that could, in other hands, turn cloying, but Mendelssohn skirts that danger gracefully. The soloist has the arching and falling opening melody, while the orchestra gives out the darker, more insistent second subject. The writing for violin in this movement, full of double-stopping and fingered octaves, is a great deal more difficult than it sounds.

allegretto non troppo—allegro molto vivace. Mendelssohn joins the second and third movements with an anticipatory bridge passage that subtly takes its shape from the concerto’s opening theme. Resounding fanfares from the orchestra lead directly to the soloist’s entrance on an effervescent, dancing melody so full of easy grace that we seem suddenly in the fairyland atmosphere of Mendelssohn’s own incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Several other themes appear along the way, some combined in ingenious ways. But it is the sprightly opening melody that dominates as the music seems to fly through the sparkling coda to the violin’s exultant three-octave leap at the very end.

Instrumentation: solo violin with orchestra comprising 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings


Ludwig van Beethoven
Born: December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany
Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria

Symphony No. 2 in D major, Opus 36 Premiered: April 5, 1803

Beethoven liked to get away from Vienna during the summer, and in April 1802 he rented rooms in the village of Heiligenstadt, which had fields and forests where he could take long walks. He remained there a long time, not returning to the city until October, but his lengthy stay had nothing to do with the beauty of the setting. That summer the composer finally had to face the dark truth that his hearing was failing, that there was no hope, and that he would eventually go deaf; evidence suggests that he considered suicide that summer.

dark despair, sunny music
Yet from these depths, Beethoven wrote some of his most genial music, a fact that should warn us not to make easy connections between a creator’s life and his art. The Symphony No. 2, chief among the works he completed that despairing summer, is as sunny a piece of music as he ever wrote, with an atmosphere of non-stop energy that made it seem audacious to those who first heard it.

adagio molto–allegro con brio. The slow introduction begins with a great explosion: the orchestra has a unison D, marked fortissimo, and then moves through an unexpected range of keys, its rhythms growing increasingly animated as it proceeds. At the Allegro con brio, Beethoven introduces as his main theme a figure for lower strings that seems almost consciously athematic: there is nothing melodic about this motif, which rushes ahead, curving around a 16th-note turn as it goes. Yet built into it is a vast amount of energy, and much of the development will grow out of the turn. The second subject, innocent and good-natured, arrives in the wind band. Beethoven develops both these ideas, but the turn-figure dominates the movement, including a muttering, ominous modulation for strings at the end of the development. The movement drives to a wonderful climax, the sound of trumpets stinging through a splendid mass of orchestral sound, and the turn-figure propels the music to a close on the same unison D that opened the movement.

larghetto. The second movement is not really a slow movement in the traditional sense, but a moderately-paced sonata-form movement built on a profusion of themes. Beethoven develops these lyric ideas at luxurious length: this is the longest movement in the symphony.

scherzo: allegro. The Scherzo erupts with another unison D, and out of this explosion leap three-note salvos. Beethoven seems unusually alert here to where these sounds are coming from: the three-note cannonades jump up from all over the orchestra. By contrast, the trio brings a gentle tune, but the remarkable thing about both scherzo and trio is that each opening statement is quite brief, while the second strains are long and take the music through unexpected harmonic excursions.

allegro molto. The finale opens with an abrupt flourish, and from this brief figure Beethoven generates most of the last movement, deriving much of the music from the flourish’s opening F-sharp/G slide and its concluding drop of a fifth. Full of boundless energy and good spirits, this rondo offers a flowing second theme for lower strings (Beethoven marks it dolce) and a genial tune for woodwinds over chirping string accompaniment. But the opening flourish always returns to whip this movement forward and to give the music its almost manic character, and the symphony drives to a conclusion that is—one last time—a ringing D for full orchestra.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings

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