Program Notes for July 21st, 2012

Program Notes By Ed Rutschman

 

Symphon y #40 in G Minor , KV 550 (1788)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (b. Salzburg, 1756; d. Vienna, 1791)

For eighteenth-century composers, the key of a composition was part of a code that composers knew their audiences could read. As one might expect, a major key and a minor key carried different connotations, though it was not quite so simple as the popular adage that “major is happy and minor is sad.” Works with a sung text already contained an extra layer of information that could convey the mood that the piece should incite in the listener; aesthetician’s published lists of keys and their corresponding “affects,” as the system came to be known, show that the principle went much deeper and extended to instrumental music as well.

The poet-composer Christian Schubart, who died in the same year as Mozart, published a catalog of the effects that individual keys should have on the listener. For Schubart, G minor, the key of Mozart’s Symphony #40, could be used to represent for worry, resentment and discontent. For Mozart, this was also a special key, suggesting an aura of lament or of tragedy. Mozart gave it to Pamina for her great lament in The Magic flute, and he used it for two of his greatest chamber music works: his Piano Quartet, K. 478 and the String Quintet, K. 516. Of Mozart’s forty-one numbered symphonies, only two are in minor keys, the early Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) Symphony #25 and the Symphony #40, known respectively as the “Little” and the “Great” G Minor Symphonies.

The spirit of G minor pervades the first and last movements of the Symphony #40 in a particularly strong way. Whenever major-key themes relieve the general mood, such themes are crushed into G minor when they return. The effect is poignant in the first movement, devastating in the final movement. The inner movements of the symphony, an agreeable Andante and a diabolical G minor minuet, provide contrast.

When Mozart composed his final three symphonies in the summer of 1788, his compositional career was near its peak. Seemingly all of Prague was humming tunes from Le nozze di Figaro, and the success of Don Giovanni was even more spectacular. An aspiring teenage composer named Beethoven had recently undertaken the long journey from Bonn to Vienna, hoping to study with Mozart. Mozart’s personal affairs, however, were another matter. While composing the symphonies, Mozart was balancing bill paying with freelance concertizing and intermittent publishing, all the while pestering a close friend with a series of increasingly desperate letters describing financial woes.

Since Mozart usually composed for specific occasions and often for particular performers, the question of whether Mozart ever heard a performance of the symphony has been widely debated. One branch of speculation suggests that his plans for the symphonies included a subscription concert in order to raise cash. A more recent view, supported by a newly discovered letter, allows for a private performance at the home of a Viennese nobleman. Circumstantial evidence suggests the possibility of one or more public performances as well. Fortunately for posterity, Mozart could consistently produce works of genius, no matter what the circumstances.


Mass in C Minor , KV 427, “The Great ” (1783)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (b. Salzburg, 1756; d. Vienna, 1791)

s a practicing Austrian Catholic composer, Mozart composed liturgical music in Latin throughout his life, starting at the age of nine. His Salzburg duties required sacred choral music as well as instrumental church sonatas. While Mozart composed fewer sacred pieces after moving to Vienna, two of his towering masterpieces are among them. One of these, the incomplete Requiem, was his swan song; the other is the “Great” Mass in C Minor, also incomplete, a composition that he began in Vienna in 1782 and then brought with him on an extended visit to Salzburg in 1783. And thereby hangs a tale.

Mozart had married Constanze Weber in July of 1782, despite his father’s objections, and he was anxious to introduce his new wife to the Salzburg family. Constanze came from solid musical stock, with a musician-father and a composer-cousin (Carl Maria von Weber). She and her three sisters were accomplished singers, particularly Josepha, who created the role of the Queen of Night in The Magic Flute, and Aloysia, who also sang important Mozartian roles in Vienna. The Mozarts’ Salzburg sojourn included the first performance of the completed sections of the new Mass, in St. Peter’s Abbey. Here the music took the customary function of supplying words for parts of the Eucharistic ritual.

Mozart’s Mass in C Minor, like those of Haydn and other composers active in the Viennese orbit, is a “mash-up” of elements from several important genres. The chorus frequently carries the burden of the text, in a monumental style looking back to the heritage of Bach and Handel but also glancing forward to Mozart’s mature style of the Requiem. There are operatic arias and ensembles, symphonic development techniques and orchestration, and concertotextures that pit soloists against a group. In the remarkable Laudamus Te for example, the soprano’s bravura style is operatic, the form is symphonic, and the texture is concerto-like.

Mozart followed a practice that had been in place for centuries: lightening the musical texture in order to shed a reverential light on certain portions of the text. A case in point occurs in the first movement of the Mass. The central section of the movement, Christe eleison (“Christ, have mercy upon us”), features a softer dynamic level, lighter orchestration, a thinner texture and a soloist (Constanze Mozart in the first performance). This contrasts with the two flanking Kyrie eleison sections (“Lord, have mercy upon us”), which are more contrapuntally rambunctious.

The operatic style of Constanze’s major solo, Et incarnatus est, contains premonitions of a future Mozartian character, the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro. This was the final section of text composed by Mozart. Thus, in the Salzburg performance, Constanze sang the first and the last solo sections, perhaps a calculated effect on the part of her composer-husband to gain the approval of her father-in-law, who was also by now the grandfather of the Mozarts’ first child. The ploy did not work, but the C Minor Mass has attained its own immortality.

Tonight’s performance uses an edition by the Mozart specialist H.C. Robbins Landon. It includes those portions of the Mass that Mozart finished, with some reconstruction, but it does not attempt to provide a musical setting of the entire Mass text..


Ed Rutschman’s musicological articles have been published in the U.S. and Europe, and his compositions have been performed on three continents. A member of the Music Department faculty at Western Washington University, he is a recipient of the Bellingham Mayor’s Arts Award and Western Washington University’s Excellence in Teaching Award. He holds academic degrees in musicology, composition and piano performance.