Program Notes: Mozart Sinfonia Concertante

Program Notes: Mozart Sinfonia Concertante

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Full program notes:

Witold Lutosławski
Born: January 25, 1913, Warsaw, Poland
Died: February 7, 1994, Warsaw, Poland

A pretty tough story lurks behind this gentle little piece. Witold Lutosławski graduated from the Warsaw Conservatory in 1937, but his plans to study in Paris were thwarted by the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. Lutosławski served as a radio operator in the Polish army but was captured by the Nazis. He escaped, walked 250 miles back to Warsaw, and went underground. The Nazis banned concerts during the war, and Lutosławski supported himself by playing the piano in nightclubs until the Warsaw uprising in 1944 forced him to flee that city—he lost all his early compositions when part of the city was destroyed. After the war, Poland fell under the domination of the Soviets, who enforced a rigorously-simplistic artistic doctrine: all art must be accessible to the masses, inspiring and uncomplicated. When Lutosławski’s First Symphony was premiered in 1948, Russian critics walked out, the Polish vice-minister of culture remarked that Lutosławski should be thrown under a streetcar, and further performances were banned.

Serious composers found that any thought of developing according to their own ideals was impossible. Lutosławski’s good friend Andrzej Panufnik fled to the West in 1954 and made his career in England, but Lutosławski chose to remain in Warsaw, where he found his options limited: he was free to compose film scores, patriotic choruses and children’s songs. A further possibility was music based on folk songs, and here Lutosławski turned to the model of a composer he greatly admired, Béla Bartók (though ironically, Bartók’s music was banned by the Soviets for its “formalism”).

a suite from folk tunes
In 1950, two years after the debacle of his First Symphony, Lutosławski had a request from Warsaw Radio for a piece based on folklore. For that commission he composed his Little Suite, and it was premiered the same year by what the official catalog of his works describes as “a light-music chamber orchestra.” The Little Suite proved a success, and the following year Lutosławski arranged it for full symphony orchestra. This version was successfully premiered by the Polish Radio Symphony Orchestra under Grzegorz Fitelberg on April 20, 1951.

Lutosławski’s model for the Little Suite may well have been Bartók’s charming Romanian Folk Dances of 1915, in which Bartók orchestrated and briefly extended folk dance tunes. Lutosławski chose folk tunes from around the village of Máchow in the far southeastern corner of Poland and used them to compose his Little Suite, whose four movements span barely ten minutes. Fajurka (that title translates as “fife”) opens appropriately with the bright sound of piccolo stamping out the principal theme; this is developed energetically, and the opening melody returns to close out the movement. The curious thing about the Hurra Polka (Hurray Polka) is that it dances in a triple meter rather than the duple meter we expect of the polka. A melancholy clarinet solo opens Piosenka (Song), but this quiet opening quickly builds to a strident climax before the music subsides to its quiet close. The vivacious concluding Taniec (Dance) does indeed dance brightly before giving way to a singing, surging central episode; the opening material returns, but Lutosławski rounds off the Little Suite with a brisk and emphatic coda.

What are we to make of this gentle and apparently well-behaved piece of music? Is it the work of an obedient servant intent on satisfying repressive authorities? Or is it perhaps something more significant? When he wrote the Little Suite, Lutosławski was working within tight strictures, but he recognized—just as Bartók had before him—that there were possibilities within folk music. In Little Suite he refines his technique carefully: he presents the folk tunes, develops them crisply and subtly, and orchestrates them cleanly and brightly. Lutosławski’s use of folk material would culminate in his Concerto for Orchestra of 1954, in which folk tunes are broken down into component intervals and bits and used as the basis for a brilliant orchestral work. The Concerto for Orchestra was a sort of break-out work for Lutosławski. Its success, and gradually relaxing government control, allowed him to compose serial music and later music based in part on chance. By the time he reached an authentic voice as a composer, Lutosławski had left his early folk-inspired pieces far behind. But the Little Suite remains one of the most popular of his early works.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.


Wolfgang Amadè Mozart
Born: January 17, 1756, Salzburg, Austria
Died: December 5, 1791, Vienna, Austria

In 1778-79, Mozart became intensely interested in the possibilities of concertos with more than one solo instrument. Earlier, in May 1774, he had written what he called a Concertone, literally “a big concerto,” for two solo violins and an almost equally prominent oboe part, but now there suddenly appeared a whole run of such works.

More precisely, we have three completed works—the Concerto for Flute and Harp from April 1778, agreeably Rococo but a bit perfunctory; the delightful Concerto for Two Pianos, written in the early part of April 1779; and the present Sinfonia concertante; also two that were abandoned part way through (the concerts for which they were intended were canceled) and one puzzle, one which has not come down to us in any form that can be authenticated as being by Mozart.

In the middle of these experiments and accomplishments, the Sinfonia concertante for Violin and Viola stands out as one of Mozart’s most seductively rich works and surely as the finest of his string concertos. He probably wrote this work in the summer of 1779.

Mozart and the viola
Excellent violinist though he was, when Mozart played chamber music he liked best to take up the viola. He enjoyed being in the middle of the texture, besides which there is surely an affinity between the viola’s dark and somehow pent-up sonority and the element of melancholy that tends to invade even the most festive of Mozart’s compositions. The viola is the Mozartian sound par excellence. Mozart’s chamber music attains its highest point in those quintets where he adds a second viola to the standard string quartet.

Here, in this Sinfonia concertante—the title suggests a symphony that behaves like a concerto—he stresses that characteristic color by dividing the violas into two sections. As for the two solo instruments, Mozart is more interested in the distinction of color than in the difference of range. He sends the viola clear up to the high E-flat above the treble staff, an altitude it never comes near approaching in his chamber music. To allow the viola to be more penetrating, Mozart writes the part not in E-flat but in D, a more sonorous and brilliant key for the instrument because it takes better advantage of the open strings and their overtones.

Indeed, everything about the sheer sound of the Sinfonia concertante attests to the richness of Mozart’s aural fantasy: the piquant wind writing, the delightful and serenade-like pizzicatos in the orchestra, the subtle interaction of solo and orchestral strings beginning with the very first emergence of the two soloists from the tutti, and, not least, the way so sumptuous and varied a sonority is drawn from so modest a complement.

the music: opening doors we didn’t know existed
The splendid and majestic first movement, Allegro maestoso, is followed by an operatic Andante of deep pathos: one can almost hear the Italian words as the two singers vie in passionate protestation. In Symphonie concertante, the ballet George Balanchine created in 1947 for Taaquil Le Clercq and Maria Tallchief, Balanchine rendered these conversations visible, the gay and spirited ones of the first and last movements no less than the darkly impassioned ones of the Andante.

The way this Andante begins is a glorious instance of how Mozart can surprise us by opening doors whose very existence we never suspected. The music begins with regular questions and answers, but the third time—I always think of Tamino finding the right door—something opens, the barriers come down, formality and symmetry are gone, and we witness and share in raw pain.

The finale, after that, is all high spirits and virtuosic brilliance. Mozart includes cadenzas in the score.

Instrumentation: solo violin and solo viola, with orchestra comprising 2 oboes, 2 horns and strings

Program note excerpted from the late Michael Steinberg’s The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press, 1998), used with permission.


Born: November 16, 1895, Hanau, Germany
Died: December 28, 1963, Frankfurt, Germany

Mathis der Maler, Symphony

In 1933, the year Adolf Hitler came to power, Paul Hindemith set to work on an opera based on the life of the German painter Matthias Grünewald (c. 1475-1528), whose masterpiece is the altarpiece he painted for St. Anthony’s Church in Isenheim from 1515 to 1518. The events of Grünewald’s life are almost unknown (even his last name appears to be an invention by a later biographer), so Hindemith, who wrote his own libretto, was free to imagine the details of Grünewald’s participation in the Peasants’ War in Mainz in 1524.

artist or activist?
The actions of Hindemith’s hero are curiously ambiguous. At work on his altarpiece, he is swept up in the peasants’ cause and throws aside his painting to become a man of action, in the process falling in love with Regina, daughter of Schwalb, leader of the revolt. The peasants suffer a disastrous defeat, Schwalb is killed, Regina dies, and Matthias is left to reassess his commitment to the cause. At the climax of the opera, he has a nightmare in which he imagines himself undergoing the temptations of St. Anthony (one of the principal paintings of his altarpiece) and concludes that he must remain true to his individual talents. He sets aside his activism and returns to painting.

The moral meaning of such a story is unclear. Is Hindemith’s painter a symbol of heroic artistic resistance to tyranny—or is he the symbol of artistic disengagement?

The new Nazi government was quite certain where it stood on the subject of a popular revolt against a government in power. When Hindemith drew a three-movement symphony from the music of the opera (premiered by Wilhelm Furtwängler in Berlin on March 12, 1934), it came under prompt attack. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment (how suffocating, how deadly that title sounds!), wrote an article denouncing the “Cultural Bolshevism” of Hindemith’s music, which was labeled “degenerate.” Furtwängler, who had planned to lead the premiere of the opera and who now defended Hindemith, was forced to resign temporarily as director of the Berlin Philharmonic, and the opera was not produced until 1938, when it was given in Zúrich. By that time, Hindemith, perhaps more committed to action than his hero, had already left Germany.

the symphony
The opera Mathis der Maler (Matthias the Painter) is rarely produced today, but the symphony that Hindemith drew from it has become his most popular work. The symphony was assembled before the opera was completed, and listeners should not expect it to be an instrumental précis of the opera or even to present its excerpts in the order in which they occur in the opera. All three movements are named after specific panels in the Isenheim altarpiece, and Hindemith consciously creates an “archaic” quality in much of this music by quoting old German folksongs and chorales.

angel concert. The first movement is the overture to the opera and is based on the painting that depicts a heavenly consort serenading the Virgin and Child. A slow introduction built on broadly-spaced chords creates an impression of great space, and out of this the old German song Es sungen drei Engeln (There Sang Three Angels) is announced by all three trombones in unison over gently-rocking string accompaniment. The main body of the movement is based on busy thematic material (Hindemith marks it Ziemlich lebhaft Halbe: “Rather lively half-notes”) and is generally in sonata form. At the climax, Es sungen returns, singing in 3/2 as the rest of the orchestra continues in 4/4, and the movement drives to a resounding close.

entombment. In the second movement, just 45 measures long, muted strings lay out the halting main theme, which in the opera accompanies the burial of Regina, the hero’s love. Solo oboe sings the jagged second subject; the music rises to a climax and falls away on a coda that treats both themes.

the temptation of St. Anthony. For the final movement Hindemith selected the music that accompanies Mathis’ climactic nightmare, during which he imagines himself undergoing the hideous torments depicted in the Isenheim altarpiece. In the score, Hindemith prefaces the finale with the line Mathis sings during this nightmare, which also appears on Grünewaldt altarpiece: “Ubi eras bone Jhesu / ubi eras, quare non affuisti / ut sanares vulnera mea?” (Where were you, good Jesus? Why have you not come to heal my wounds?) The movement opens with a free recitative for strings that leads to the main body of the movement, marked Very lively, and this drives ahead on music appropriate to torment. A quiet and beautiful central section leads to a fugal coda, where—over all the busy contrapuntal activity—the old Gregorian chant Lauda Sion Salvatorem is intoned by the winds. The symphony drives to a triumphantclose as brass blaze out the concluding Alleluia.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes (1 doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, triangle, glockenspiel and strings

Program note by Eric Bromberger.

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