Program Notes for July 6th, 2012

Program Notes By Ed Rutschman


Overture to La clemen za di Tito , KV 621 (1791)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (b. Salzburg, 1756; d. Vienna, 1791)

Mozart’s opera La clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus) was a commission for the celebrations in Prague to invest Leopold II , Holy Roman Emperor By the Grace of God, with additional titles: “King of Germany, Hungary, Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia and Lodomeria, Rama, Serbia, Cumania and Bulgaria, Archduke of Austria, etc.” Once enthroned, Leopold faced dangerous political pressure from Russia, Prussia and France, and he dealt harshly with his serfs. He held his grandiose new titles for only two years before his sudden death.

La clemenza di Tito, which recounts an act of benevolent statesmanship on the part of the Roman emperor Titus, was an appropriate subject for a coronation. Mozart was not the first composer to set the libretto to music; more than three dozen previous settings are extant, and he was offered the Prague commission only after the court composer Salieri turned it down. Still, the contract paid extremely well, and it made the composer visible as a court figure of importance. Accordingly, Mozart left off work on The Magic Flute for a couple of months and only returned to it after the premiere of La clemenza di Tito. The first performance took place at the Estates Theater in Prague, where Don Giovanni had been wildly successful a few years before.

Since Salieri had turned down the offer to compose an opera, Mozart got a late start and had to work in extreme haste. He conducted the premiere, on the day of Leopold’s coronation, less than two months after signing his contract. External evidence suggests that he might have retrofitted some of his previous work for use in the opera, and that he farmed out some of the recitatives to his friend Franz Süssmayr (who later completed Mozart’s unfinished Requiem). Legend has it that the overture to La clemenza di Tito was composed last, on the night before the premiere.

The overture to this opera set in ancient Rome begins with a fanfare-like announcement that creates an impression of a story-in-progress, just as Roman drama might begin in medias res (“in the middle of things”). Though the composer had written his last symphony by this time, the overture does contain symphonic echoes. Perhaps it even points to a future that Mozart never got to explore in his symphonies, since the opening fanfare does not reappear when expected; it is withheld until near the end of the piece. When it does come back, it initiates a rousing passage where the entire orchestra gathers energy and storms to the conclusion. Such a passage is known as a “Mannheim crescendo,” and Mozart had once traveled to Mannheim to hear the orchestra there demonstrate such virtuoso techniques.

Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito became popular, and it nearly eclipsed Don Giovanni in frequency of performance. It fell from favor early in the 19th century, and it was not until late in the 20th century that it regained its status as one of the composer’s most monumental works. In a review of a 2008 revival of the work at the Metropolitan Opera, Anthony Tommasini called the opera “musically ravishing,” “dramatically complex” and “of great immediacy.”

Piano Concerto #21 in C Major , KV 467 (1785)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (b. Salzburg, 1756; d. Vienna, 1791)
Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C Major dates from a remarkable period in the composer’s life, when he was consumed with the twin genres of the piano concerto and the opera. On March 24, 1786, the composer’s proud father, himself a respected composer, posted a letter from Salzburg. In it, Leopold Mozart effused over the recent Salzburg performance of his son’s Piano Concerto in D Minor, which had been premiered thirteen months earlier in Vienna. That very same day, in Vienna, Wolfgang entered into his running catalog of completed works a new Piano Concerto in C Minor. Between the composition dates of these two anchor-point works, Mozart composed three more piano concertos, including the Piano Concerto #21. Meanwhile, he would soon be writing his great comic opera on the controversial play The Marriage of Figaro.

Operas and piano concertos were intricately related in Mozart’s compositional life. In a letter to his father, the composer once likened a concerto movement to an operatic scene, where distinctly defined characters (Mozart’s operatic specialty) interact. Furthermore, it was during the ecclesiastical season of Lent, when the staging of operas was prohibited, that Mozart rented an opera theater and organized subscription concerts in order to premiere his newest piano concertos. Often the music was composed at breakneck speed; for the first and last of his Lenten concerts in 1785, Mozart offered two new piano concertos, each completed the day before the scheduled concert. One of these was the Concerto in C Major.

In his piano concertos, Mozart famously used the old Baroque orchestral practice of introducing thematic material in an elaborate orchestral ritornello, after which the soloist might enter with new material. In Mozart’s up-to-date use of new Classic era practices, these individual themes often exhibit separate, unique moods. Sometimes, as here, there are enough themes that it becomes a contest to see which ones will prevail by the end of the movement.

In Mozart’s day, individual tonalities carried suggestions of particular moods. According to one tradition, the key of C major could connote martial splendor, but it might also represent innocent simplicity. While Mozart did invoke the former in the C major beginnings of all three works on tonight’s program, he also tended toward the latter at important interior moments in each of these works.

On the middle movement of the three-movement Piano Concerto #21, an aura of calm prevails, with a dream-like melody that was used as background music for the 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan. A cheerful final movement concludes this profoundly comic work. In keeping with the practice of his day, Mozart allowed space for the soloist to improvise cadenzas. The composer preserved several representative cadenzas for his concertos in musical notation, to serve as teaching examples for his students, but no cadenza in his hand has survived for this concerto.

Symphon y #41 in C Major , KV 551 (1788)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (b. Salzburg, 1756; d. Vienna, 1791)
RWhen Mozart completed his final symphony in August of 1788, his compositional career was near its peak. Seemingly all of Prague was humming tunes from The Marriage of Figaro, and the success of Don Giovanni was even more spectacular. In a particularly active creative period, he composed three symphonies in less than three months, while working on other pieces as well. Meanwhile, he was strapped for cash, and his trilogy of symphonies may have been intended for a proposed entrepreneurial venture, a series of subscription concerts. In early June, Mozart sent his friend Michael Puchberg a letter, in which the composer not only apologized to the textile merchant for being in arrears on a previous loan but also asked for an additional sum “until next week, when my concerts at the casino will begin.” Two weeks later, in another letter, he was asking Puchberg to float him “for a year or two.” Mozart did send Puchberg a pair of tickets for the projected concert, but there is no documentation that the event actually materialized.

The popular subtitle “Jupiter” did not stem from Mozart, but it has been in use since shortly after Symphony #41 first appeared in print. The title was perhaps provided by the musical entrepreneur Johann Peter Salomon in order to market a piano arrangement of the score. Such arrangements allowed middle-class households to have ready access to afterdinner music making, just as upper-class families could listen to their own hired household wind musicians play arrangements of the latest popular scores. The moniker “Jupiter” has stuck, and it does convey the Jovian attributes of power, command and stateliness. At the same time, this music gives a sense that Mozart’s operatic characters are never far offstage. Some listeners have detected the Count and Countess from Le nozze di Figaro at the opening of the symphony, and for the closing material of the first movement Mozart actually borrowed a theme from an opera aria that he had dashed off to supplement another composer’s work earlier in the year.

If the Jupiter of myth is powerful, he is also amorous: witness the grace, sighs and nervous fluttering of the Andante cantabile movement. In the middle of the Minuetto there is a foreshadowing of a theme that will begin the finale. This connecting of two movements was unusual for composers of Mozart’s day, and the technique had a great influence on composers of the next (Beethoven’s) generation. The end of the last movement provides an astonishing show of contrapuntal skill, as five previously heard themes are gathered together and presented simultaneously. Then each theme takes its turn at being the bass line. If great skill lies in composing such a passage, even greater astonishment results from the realization of how easy the composer makes it sound. However, even Mozart, who frequently thought out finished compositions in his head, required pen and ink to sketch this particular passage. Here, at the conclusion of his final symphony, is music of Jovian or, better yet, Mozartian scope.

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