Rediscovering Mozart

Often tempting to dismiss as the kitch before Beethoven or the guy who opened the door to the Romantic aesthetic while declining to walk through it, the music of Mozart is both inviting and, distressingly, easily dismissed. Even by those who are quick to recognize his genius. One of the great surprises for me in writing this history has been to rediscover Mozart, not as the genius who could spin out memorable tunes like a proto-Beatle, but as a master craftsman. His music is just incredibly well-made.

Let’s take a look at a few examples. First up, the second movement of the Sinfonia Concertante that featured in my brief biography of the real Mozart a few entries ago. Written when Mozart was entering his maturity, this movement is a paradigm of Classical balance and proportion. It is a Palladian villa on a rainy day.

How does Mozart achieve this effect? He introduces the melody, which is taken up by the orchestra at the start in mournful C minor, Mozart’s go-to key to connote sadness. Halfway through, the soloists bring the melody to the fore in E-flat major. The effect is as if sunlight is trying to poke through the clouds. The two keys are related: C minor is the relative minor key to E-flat major. But the effect is short lived, as the music returns to C minor by the time the melody returns at the end. Balance and proportion.

A quick refresher on some theory. The “relative” key refers to the fact that it is the same key signature (here, three flats), but represents a different mode (that is, a different scale). Returning to the medieval modes which were the dominant structure of compositional techniques at the dawn of Western music, the “major” key is really just the “Ionian” mode, while the “minor” key is the “Aeolian” mode. This relationship between relative keys makes both for easy modulation between them, both musically and emotionally.

The Sinfonia Concertante was composed at or around the time of the death of Mozart’s mother and some scholars have postulated that this middle movement reflects Mozart trying to cope with her death. Whether true or not, the music does reflect for me the process of mourning–coping with the depressing realization of loss, flecked with the memories of happier times.

W.A. Mozart, Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola: II. Andante

Mozart is also the unquestioned master of form. His Symphony No. 40 is rightly held up as the archtype of the sonata form (also known as the sonata-allegro form, since it is ususally played quickly). The structure of a sonata form is quite easy: Exposition, Development and Recapitulation. But let’s take a closer look to see what Mozart is doing here, at the very hight of his compositional powers.

Symphony No. 40 is written in the very dark key of G Minor, which means the sombre G minor chord will be the “home” or “tonic” chord throughout the work. The first 30 seconds of the Exposition presents the first theme–the classic theme that just about everyone knows–in G minor. At about the 30 second mark, Mozart transitions to the second theme–this is the bridge, which connects the two key themes, but also serves to modulate to the relative major key, B-flat Major. The second theme concludes about 20 seconds later and Mozart wraps up the Exposition with a closing theme. The roughly three minutes of Exposition are then repeated.

The Development begins at around the 3:30 mark, starting in F# minor, which Mozart begins to develop chromatically: Bits of both themes return here, in fragments and in different keys, finally modulating back to G minor. After about a minute, Mozart brings the opning theme back in its original G minor. An expanded bridge, leveraging some fugal techniques, leads back to the second theme–which now remains in the tonic (G minor). Mozart takes the final 20 seconds to tie everything up in a nice bow.

There are, of course, further layers to appreciate. Mozart’s functional harmony is based on chords I, II, IV, V and VI, with the melody largely carried by the strings and the woodwinds providing the harmonic (homophonic) texture.

It is extraordinarily well-made music and, beyond its extremely memorable tune, worthy of its inclusion among Mozart’s masterpieces.

W.A. Mozart, Symphony No. 40 in G Minor:

Finally, just as Mozart stood on Haydn’s shoulders, Beethoven’s admiration of Mozart knew no bounds. There will be much to say about the many Conversations between the two great composers in time, but for now, here is a playlist to demonstrate that Mozart was more than just the pretty face in the crowd–this is powerfully emotional music that anticipates the Romantic Period as much as anything Beethoven wrote.

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