The Greatest Hits of Bel Canto

I don’t intend to delve into more bel canto in future sessions, so let’s get the greatest hits out of the way here, even if most of these were composed during what I consider to be the Romantic Period.  To me, they sound purely classical in any event.

First up is Donizetti’s Fille de Regiment from 1840. The remarkable tenor Juan Diego Florez is still performing this, more than a decade after he set the opera world on fire with his Ah! Mes ami, a famous tenor arias that features nine high Cs. There is nothing like a high C, whether in the tenor or soprano line—they cut through the orchestra and the chorus like nothing else. Most tenors cannot sing that high; those who can, struggle to hit even one. This single song has nine of them in rapid succession (although the last one is traditionally interpolated for dramatic effect—it is not in the score).

This was the aria that Pavarotti sang in the 1960s that earned him the sobriquet “King of the High Cs”. But his remarkable gifts aside, Pavarotti’s voice showed considerable strain when he reached for those notes. Not so Florez. Musicologists liken him to the tenor Donizetti was composing for, hypothesizing that there hasn’t been a tenor like him for 100 years or more. If you are inspired to go to the opera—go see him. We will not see his like again in our lifetimes. When he sang this aria for the first time at the Met, he was given a rare standing ovation and was allowed to sing a reprise—18 high Cs in all. It was the first time the Met had allowed a reprise. La Scala followed suit, as did every major opera house in the world, breaking many long-held traditions. It was a major event. I was fortunate to be there for opening night—having been tipped off by the Met’s Jonathan Friend at a patron function the year before. The first two high Cs come at the 6:00 mark in the attached, with the interpolated ninth sustained at the 7:00 mark. Incredible.

Gaetano Donizetti, Fille du Regiment, Ah! Mes ami:

Next, we have Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma from 1835.  The soprano aria Casta Diva is one of the most famous arias in all of opera.  But it is not worth enduring sitting through Norma for—the paradigm of dull bel canto opera.  Every famous soprano, from Maria Callas to Joan Sutherland has sung Norma.  Here is one of the best sopranos of today tackling this aria, the epitome of bel canto:

Vincenzo Bellini, Norma, Casta Diva:

Live, and when sung correctly, the pianissimo notes seem to float above the orchestra to the furthest reaches of the house.  Incidentally, this is a perfect example what amplification completely destroys—the technique needed to sing so softly, yet project above a full orchestra and across a huge auditorium. I think I’ve talked myself into getting $25 rush tickets the next time Norma returns.  Mercifully, Casta Diva is in Act I.  I can leave at the intermission.

Finally, back to Donizetti for the famous “mad scene” that concludes the tragic tale of Lucia di Lammermoor, a rare gem of the bel canto period. A bit of background on this performance. The Russian soprano Anna Netrebko burst onto the scene in 2005, becoming within a few short years the top attraction at opera houses worldwide. Possessed of a crystal clear, luxurious soprano, she was made for bel canto. Better yet, she formed a partnership with young Mexican tenor Rolando Villazon, their voices as perfectly suited to each other as Sutherland and Pavarotti were half a century ago. Opera had found its new golden couple and the Met, eager to capitalize on this sensation, booked them for Lucia. Tickets sold out like a Rolling Stones concert.

Opening night was a patrons’ gala, which we attended.  The opening scene features Lucia strolling through the Scottish woods, happening upon Villazon’s Edgardo—resulting in one of the more beautiful duets in opera.  Immediately, I sensed that something was off.  I had been playing their disc of duets nonstop for weeks and knew their version of this duet extremely well.  Something wasn’t right.  What wasn’t right became apparent in the next scene when Villazon’s voice cracked.  Noticeably.  He soldiered on.  The third act, which opens with Edgardo alone in his castle, was the most painful experience I have ever had in art.  Villazon’s voice cracked several times, he was unable to sing most of the notes, and finally stopped singing altogether.

To put this into context, it is rare enough to hear a single wrong note in an entire production.  This was an aria made up of only wrong notes.  The Met’s director came out on stage to say that Rolando was ill and doing his best.  He should have allowed the cover to come on for him after Act I.  Whether or not the Met forced him on stage in hopes of avoiding a PR disaster of him cancelling on a gala night we will never know, but his voice was completely ruined and he never really recovered.  I recall in shame thinking that this was the first time I was happy that Lucia murdered Edgardo at the end.  Just tragic.

Gaetano Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermor, The Mad Scene:

Classical Music III: Gioacchino Antonio Rossini (1792-1868)

I really am not a Rossini fan, but I include him here because of his importance in the development of bel canto opera. The trinity of great bel canto composers are Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. As my tastes have evolved, I find myself avoiding the entire bel canto genre absent a singer that compels attendance or the rare opera of true genius from this genre (such as Lucia). These composers largely looked backwards, to Figaro, rather than picking up where Mozart left off with Don Giovanni.

Rossini is the rare composer to have retired in mid-career. Rossini’s operas were largely composed between 1812 and 1829, ending just before the Romantic Period began (at least according to me). But he would live for nearly another 40 years, during which time he composed next to nothing. What caused his withdrawal? That mystery has never been fully explained. Ill-health is prominently mentioned, but the man lived another 40 years. Was he simply out of ideas? That seems inconsistent with Rossini’s talent, both for technical composition and his all to rare ability to conjure memorable tunes. Perhaps he just got caught out by changing tastes (or the changing French regime after yet another revolution).

Although some like to paint Rossini as a Romantic, his music is fundamentally classical and Rossini’s decision to call it quits in 1830 is telling. The Romantic Period did not emerge overnight, but the first city is consumed was surely Paris in 1830, exactly where Rossini was living at the time. My view is that he could see the way the winds were blowing and they were blowing away from his aesthetic–the grand operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer were now garnering the rave reviews. So instead of evolving as a composer, he simply laid down his quill, buttressed by a small fortune he had earned and returned to Italy.

So, on to the music. First up is a song that you know as well as I do. It comes at the start of Il Barbiere di Siviglia when we first meet Figaro—before he became the Duke’s butler in Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro, he was a simple barber plying his trade and seducing the ladies. The baritone Peter Mattei is the best I’ve seen in this role.

Gioacchino Antonio Rossini, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Largo al Factotum:

Did Rossini flirt with Romanticism? Sure. Here’s a popular and great example: The Overture from his William Tell.

Gioacchino Antonio Rossini, Guillaume Tell: Overture

As we will see next week, bel canto soldiered on without Rossini at its head, existing somewhere between the classical and the romantic. Where would Rossini have taken his music in this new era? Unlike Mozart, we actually do have some music to give us some clues.

Before leaving for his self-imposed exile, Rossini completed a Stabat Mater, which owes more than a few debts to Pergolesi’s version.

Gioacchino Antonio Rossini, Stabat Mater:

Late in life, Rossini returned to Paris, holding weekly salons for which he composed original songs. Rossini, laying bare his influences, personally chose all the other music to be presented at the salon–the works of Mozart, Haydn and Pergolesi most notably among them. Many of the great and thte good of the music world attended these salons–Liszt and Gounod were frequent attendees, the former praising Rossini’s skill at the piano. He also composed a final mass–the Petite Messe Solenelle, which is perhpas our best guide as to what Rossini would have sounded like in the Romantic Period–that is with at least one foot firmly planted in the past.

Gioacchino Antonio Rossini, Petite Messe Solenelle

Mozart died at 35; Rossini essentially stopped composing at 37, while living into his mid 70s. The gods are cruel indeed.

Interlude: A Bit of History

This unassuming building in Florence, just south of Santo Croce and a block off the Arno doesn’t even have a plaque to commemorate what transpired here. While it appears to be simply subdivided into apartments today, back at the dawn of the High Renaissance, this was the Palazzo Bardi. Designed in the 15th century by no less a persona than the great architect Filippo Brunelleschi, the Palazzo was the real cradle of the Renaissance. Here, members of the 16th century Florentine intellectual community debated the arts, searching for inspiration from the classical period. One group proposed to recreate true Greek drama in which the chorus part was sung (the music for these dramas did not survive, much to our loss).

The result? Dafne (1597) by Jacopo Peri. By all accounts, it was not a great success. But as recounted here some months back, his second opera, Eurydice, was presented on October 6, 1600 at the Palazzo Pitti. The occasion? The wedding of King Henry IV of France to Maria di Medici.

Peri’s opera was successful only in that it inspired one of the wedding guests, the Duke of Mantua, to ask his court composer to create his own work based on the Peri model. That composer? Claudio Monteverdi. And the opera he created, L’Orfeo, was the spark that lit the grand flame of opera that has burned brightly for 400 years.

And this is where it all began, unmarked and unremarkable. Next time you are in a Florence, pay your respects.

Palazzo Bardi, Via do Benci 5

Mozart’s Coda: The Clarient Concerto

Most musical histories leave Mozart with his Requiem (Mozart’s last words were reported to be “I was composing this for myself”), but that I think is a mistake. In fact, Mozart’s final complete composition was his Clarinet Concerto. I tend to ascribe much importance to final works, but I don’t think Mozart really had cause to believe he was dying when he wrote this. He was very sick, true, but was receiving medical care. In fact, it was the medical care that probably killed him—leeches, and too much of them.

The Clarinet Concerto is pure Mozart and as much a guide as to where he was going musically than anything else. Mozart was not going to abandon his Golden Mean, but his music was growing in complexity, both in terms of his ever lengthening melodic lines and novel harmonics. There is a deeper emotional urgency here than in his earlier concertos and I think that is the best guide as to what Mozart was planning to do next.

In the attached video, clarinettist Michael Collins performs on a modern version of the Basset clarinet, an instrument that until quite recently had completely disappeared. It is, however, the instrument for which Mozart scored his concerto. Anton Stadler, a close friend of Mozart’s and fellow Freemason, had commissioned the concerto for his Basset clarinet. In fact, Stadler’s love of the instrument likely also influenced the orchestration of his later operas Cosi fan tutte, La Clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte, which are also scored for a Basset clarinet.

Wofgang Amadeus Mozart, La Clemenza di Tito: “Parto, parto, ma tu, ben mio”

Why does this matter? As you can see from the video below, the Basset clarinet is a much longer instrument than its modern counterpart and was capable of playing in the lower registers that Stadler loved. When the concerto was adapted for the modern clarinet on its first publication in 1802, those lower parts had to be transposed an octave higher. And this produces an interesting effect, much to the detriment of Mozart’s composition. In contrapuntal music theory, there are four types of motion, that is four ways that two lines of music can move in relation to each other. First is parallel motion where the two lines move in the same direction (that is progressively higher or progressively lower) in parallel to each other. This sort of composition was common in the early forms of chant where boys’ voices were added to a male chorus singing exactly one octavie above the mens’ voices. Second is similar motion, where the two lines move in the same direction, but at different intervals (e.g., one line moves up by a third and another by a fifth). Third is oblique motion, where one line is held at a contstant pitch while the other moves up or down. Oblique motion was common in the early music with which this blog began and which featured a drone. Finally, there is contrary motion, in which the two lines move in opposite directions.

Contrary motion produces the most satisfying and interesting music and therefore is the dominant form of motion in nearly all compositions. Yet because modern clarinets cannot reach the lower registers in Mozart’s original score, by transposing the music up an octave, the new score also transforms the contrary motion in Mozart’s score into similar motion. The clarinet, playing with, rather than against, the orchestra’s line, gets lost–despite Mozart’s careful orchestration that omits other woodwind instruments that could compete with the soloist. The end result is decidedly less satsifying.

Restored to the original, the Clarinet Concerto takes flight and justifies Mozart’s observation that it is “the instrument best capable of imitating the human voice.” I especially love the second movement Adagio, which might be the closest Mozart ever came to uniting operatic composition with instrumental composition. In it, the clarinet seems to sing about loss and anticipates the songs without words that would become popular in the next century.

Of Stadler, Mozart remarked that “your instrument has so soft and lovely a tune that no one can resist it.” His music prowess notwithstanding, Stadler proved to be quite the rogue. While he claimed to have invented the Basset clarinet (or Basset horn as it was known then), this does not appear to be the case–certainly Stadler’s own instrument was made by Theodor Lotz and does not appear to have been made according to any instructions from Stadler. Stadler also claimed to have lost the autograph score in a robbery; Costanze Mozart never believed a word of it and insisted that Stadler had pawned the manuscript. He certainly needed the money–Stadler owed Mozart 500 florins (roughly $75,000 today) at the time of his death. Regardless, all of the original individual parts survived so the music we hear is all pure Mozart, especially where period instruments are used.

The concerto was premiered by Stadler in October 1791. Mozart died seven weeks later. My heart breaks for the music that we will never have.

W.A. Mozart, Clarinet Concerto in A:

That Day of Tears and Mourning

Mozart famously received a commission from a secret patron to compose a Requiem in 1791. Mozart had been ill for a year and was laboring under the strain of producing two other major compositions—The Magic Flute and La Clemenza di Tito, his return to opera seria—as well as on several other notable works. Surely, composing a Requiem had been too much and was therefore often left on the back burner. Incidentally, the mysterious patron was not Salieri—he was an Austrian nobleman who had recently lost his daughter to illness. This nobleman had a history of commissioning works in secret and then passing them off as his own. In any event, he never got his hands on the Requiem. Mozart died leaving at least a third of it unfinished. Sussmayr, Mozart’s student, completed the work. Other composers have taken shots at re-working the Sussmayr bits, but for all their merit, the Mozart-Sussmayr score remains authoritative.

Here is the bitter end, late into the night of December 4, 1791. Mozart is in bed, feeble from illness and near death. Surrounding him are Sussmayr, several of the singers from The Magic Flute, which was playing to packed houses, and his wife Costanza. The singers worked through the score, with Mozart frantically giving instructions on how to complete the Requiem from his bed. Bits of the notes and scraps that comprised the original score keep turning up, but we will never know what Mozart fully intended here. In fact, even the parts that Mozart unquestionably composed smack of someone cutting corners—more than any work previously, Mozart borrows bits wholesale from other composers, Handel and the Haydn brothers in particular (Michael Haydn’s earlier Requiem greatly influenced the structure and harmonics). You could see Mozart instructing his student to “listen to this bit of X” and rework it accordingly. While it is often said (and indeed I just said above) that the Requiem was 2/3 complete, the fact is that only the first Introit had been fully orchestrated at the time of Mozart’s death. The balance was left in some degree of sketch form. Sussmayr was not nearly as good as Mozart in disguising his influences or otherwise hiding the bits Mozart was borrowing. So what we are left with is something truly fascinating—a clear window into how Mozart composed.

So, let’s dive into the Requiem.  Not surprising, it is one of my favorite works of music, warts and all.  That big brooding sound he developed for Don Giovanni returns in force, right at the start, and barely lets up for the entire piece.  As previously mentioned, Mozart’s hand was solely responsible for the Introit—with a serious assist from Handel.  Mozart takes the source material, lengthens the line, and adds trombones to up the dramatic tension.  And tension is where he leaves us, holding an unresolved dominant triad at the end, leaving the audience waiting for what comes next.  Here is the Introit and two source materials from Handel.  For the Requiem, I am turning to the very famous recording by Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir.  For my money, it is the best out there.  There are links in the comments to jump to the relevant sections, but I can think of no better way to spend 45 minutes than to crank this all the way up and drown in Mozart’s grief at his impending mortality. 

The first part of the Introit borrows heavily from Handel’s The Ways of Zion Do Mourn, part of his Funeral Anthem for Queen Caroline.  The Kyrie section echoes back to the Messiah, particularly the “And With His Stripes” section.  There are links in the file to take you directly to those parts.

W.A. Mozart, Requiem:

George Frideric Handel, Funeral Anthem, The Ways of Zion Do Mourn: (use the links to skip to the second track)

George Frideric Handel, Messiah: “And with his stripes”

The Kyrie ends with an open fifth, which resolves the tension created at the end of the first part.  This also previews the end of the Requiem itself (also unquestionably composed by Mozart).  This is Mozart at his best. 

As for the rest, we are now firmly in compromised territory, with the master’s hand being supported if not supplanted by his student.  There is much great music left.  The tears of the Lacrymosa are among the most famous bits of the Requiem, as are the Rex Tremendae and Confutatis sections.  To see the difference Mozart makes, contrast the Domine Jesu Christe at the start of the Offertory (pure Mozart invention) with the Sanctus, which is mostly Sussmayr.  The Sanctus is a hot mess, with Sussmayr failing to find a way back to D Major for the second Osanna.  This lack of balance is decidedly un-Mozartian.  Use the links in the above video to jump to the relevant parts.

Mozart died after composing the Lacrimosa—the last words he set to music were “that day of tears and mourning.”  Indeed.

An Ode to True Love

By 1788, Mozart had fully mastered Classical composition, exceeding all of his contemporaries.  With Figaro, Don Giovanni and the Jupiter fully in the rear view mirror, where could he take his art?  Mozart, ever the restless genius, was not one to stand still, churning out endless versions of the same thing.  By now, he had ascended to the very heights of intellectual society in Vienna.  He was a freemason and was absorbing everything the Age of Enlightenment had to offer him.  Again, he would use opera as the means to convey his politics and philosophy through music. 

Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute) was written for the popular theater, a German singspiel. But Mozart had quite a lot more up his sleeve than just music. Nakedly deploying freemason mythology and incorporating the higher mysteries of Egyptian cults into his work, Mozart crafted a brilliant opera that is fittingly for a composer who brought so much joy to so many people, who was beloved by his wife and family, an ode to true love.

The plot, such as it is, is outrageously silly. A prince, Tamino, is saved from a fell beast by three witches who work for the Queen of the Night. A cowardly birdcatcher, Papageno, falsely claims credit and is muted by the witches. The Queen tasks the prince with rescuing her daughter, Pamina, from the evil priest Sarastro. The Queen gifts Tamino a magic flute (and Papageno, magic bells) to help him on his quest. On his way, Papageno meets Papagena (clever, that Mozart) and the Prince begins to suspect that he might be working for the wrong side. Eventually, the two couples must prove their love through tests of virtue before being reunited in the end. The opera presents deep philosophies told through a silly story, but set to some of Mozart’s most virtuosic and enduring compositions.

The Queen of the Night’s two arias comprise the sum total of her appearance in the opera.  Maybe 6 minutes in total.  But, inevitably, she brings down the house each time.  These arias are among the most difficult songs in all of opera.   Here is Diana Damrau singing the second of these marvels.

Mozart, Die Zauberflote, Queen of the Night Aria:

The greatest modern Queen of the Night is the French soprano Nathalie Dessay, who is now at the end of her career. She possessed one of the most flexible high soprano voices in memory and could tackle this role with ease. On our honeymoon, we booked tickets for Die Zauberflote in Paris, with Dessay as the Queen of the Night. Naturally, being France, the Opera musicians went out on strike several weeks earlier and we spent more time than we should have during the first two weeks of our honeymoon obsessing about whether they would be back at work by the time our date arrived. As it turned out, the parties reached an accord and our night was their first performance back. There were only two problems. They hadn’t given the staff enough notice to get the costumes and sets in place, so the performance was done entirely in stage blacks. And Dessay, diva that she is, had returned to the South of France and was unwilling to return before Christmas. Her understudy was a bit of a train wreck, but, as I said, the Queen of the Night is on stage for only about 6 minutes. And the rest of the cast, chorus and orchestra were so jazzed to be back, that the entire performance crackled: An old warhorse of an opera was a fresh as a daisy.

I was happy to find a complete video from that 2000 Paris production, which was obviously taken later in the run.  The video and audio quality leaves much to be desired, but I’ve included it here for folks who want to see more.

W.A. Mozart, Die Zauberflote:

The 100th Entry: Don Giovanni

Well, I couldn’t have planned this any better. This is, quite unbelievably, my 100th entry in this blog. And what a subject to feature today.

On any given night, Don Giovanni can be the greatest opera ever written, at least in my opinion. It is hard for us, in the 21st century, to really appreciate what Mozart unleashed on his audience in 1786. This is really dark stuff—the story tells the tale of the Don, a serial rapist and murderer, who is dragged down to hell in the finale by the ghost of a man he had killed and whose daughter he had seduced. We’ve come a long way from operas about gods and Roman emperors.

Let’s start with the overture. Opening in that familiar Mozartian key of D Minor, the music turns, a third of the way in, to D Major as if to say, while some of this will be fun, don’t forget that this is really a tragedy. It’s gorgeous–Mozart at his zenith. And, yes, the legend is true: Mozart wrote the overture the night before the premiere in Prague. Must have stayed at the local Holiday Inn.

W.A. Mozart, Don Giovanni, Overture:

The Don, as we know, is a rake. His buddy Leporello has a famous aria in which his catalogues the Don’s hundreds of conquests. It’s fun and always good for a laugh when the audience knows Italian or pays attention to the subtitles. But since we have limited space, let’s go right to that great seduction scene where the Don sets his sights on Zerlina. This is their duet, “La ci darem la mano.” Yeah, I want to hold your hand indeed.

Here is the baritone Erwin Schrott, who fancies himself a bit of a Don Giovanni outside of the opera house, turning on the charm. It is as classic a Mozart duet as you will find.

W.A. Mozart, Don Giovanni, “La ci darem la mano”:

Mozart warned us from the opening notes that this opera will not end well.  Fate is coming for the Don, who gets it at the end when the Commendatore, who was murdered by the Don in Act I, returns as a statute and sends the Don to hell.  How much to I love that scene? My living room is dominated by this painting–you can just make out the Commendatore unde the arch, standing in the ruins of the Don’s castle. 

Alain Senez, Don Giovanni

Before Don Giovanni, opera had been beautiful and moving. What Mozart did here was totally new—complete with a deeper, more emotional score. I think it is fair to say that composers would not catch up to Mozart until Verdi and Wagner, 75 years later. Even Beethoven broke on the shoals of the mighty Don Giovanni, abandoning opera after one solitary (albeit glorious) attempt. And just because we are tracking this sort of thing—a lothario is seized by the ghost of the father of the woman he wronged and dragged down to hell? Let’s just put a pin in 1786 and say that this is where the first seed of the Romantic Period was planted.

Here is Mariusz Kwiecien, a singer I’ve followed closely since his Met debut, pleading for his life as the curtain comes down on his Don. Luca Pisaroni, who we heard earlier as Figaro, returns as Leporello. And, yes, I was there in the house when this was being recorded. The set leaves much to be desired, but boy was the singing great.

W.A. Mozart, Don Giovanni, The Commendatore Scene:

The Jupiter

We are now quickly coming to the end.  But before grief, utter brilliance. 

Mozart wrote his 41st and last symphony at the age of 33.  He had no idea it would be his final symphonic statement, but he could leave no greater legacy.  Again, there is too much to say about the remarkable “Jupiter” Symphony to do it real justice, so let’s focus in on the remarkable final movement—a farewell of sorts.  Here, Mozart fuses contemporary sonata form with Baroque fugue.  This “fugato” originated with Haydn—but not the one you think.  Haydn had a brother Michael, whose compositions have largely been lost to history.  But he was a significant influence on Mozart, who was forever asking his father to send him Michael Haydn’s most recent scores to study.  Tellingly, Michael Haydn’s 28th Symphony concludes with a fugato.

The four note melodic tag that repeats in Mozart’s finale (C-D-F-E) is one of the most famous in history, so it is hard to know where Mozart drew that inspiration from.  Josquin des Prez used it in his 1515 Mass, for example.  I’m sure I could dig out something from Bach too.  But Mozart likely got this from the Haydns.  Like so many of his greatest creations, Mozart took an idea pioneered by others and took it to places only he could reach.  Let’s take a look at this somewhat contemporary Conversation in greater detail.  First up, the finale from Joseph’s 13th, which features the same C-D-F-E progression to great and very similar effect.

Joseph Haydn, Symphony No. 13 in D Major, IV. Finale-Allegro molto (use the link in the comments to skip directly there):

Now we have brother Michael’s 39th, which ends in a fugato, with prominent use of brass and timpani, sounding much more like Mozart.  Again, you can use the link in the comments to skip to the finale.

Michael Haydn, Symphony No. 39, III. Fugato:  Molto vivace:

Finally, we have the finale of the Jupiter Symphony, one of the truly glorious passages in music history and Mozart’s crowning symphonic glory.  Wow—serious déjà vu at the start, but then, oh boy.  The genius overflows. Again, the links in the comments allow you to skip to the finale.

W.A. Mozart, Symphony No. 41, IV. Molto Allegro:

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.

Mozart, Innovator of Advanced Harmonics

The sheer impossibility of doing justice to Mozart is beginning to show—so much great music has been ignored here. But as we gather steam on Mozart’s influence on the Romantics, half a century later, let’s take a look at one of his most daring compositions, the Quartet No. 19 in C Major. In or around 1781, Mozart heard Joseph Haydn’s recently composed Op. 33 quartets, perhaps even at their premiere. Mozart was also deep into the study of Bach at the time and the combination pressed Mozart to even greater heights as he started to reincorporate counterpoint into his compositions. In the coming years, Mozart would write scores of string duos, trios and quartets, including six quartets dedicated to Haydn. Returning the favor, Haydn attended the premiere of these works (Mozart played the viola!), leading Haydn to observe that Mozart was without question the greatest composer of the age. Haydn, master of the obvious.

There is so much to say about the 19th, the last of these six, so let’s just focus on its brilliant first movement, which earned the composition the name “Dissonance.”  This is brooding, anxiety-ridden music, where the contours of the harmony are so distorted that it is a shock to learn that this is in fact Mozart and not Beethoven (who was surely aware of and inspired by this work), if not something composed in the 20th century.  The story is that Mozart’s publishers were so sure that there were errors in the composition that they sent the score back to him for correction.  As if. 

This is one of Mozart’s most radiant scores, fully exploring the harmonic possibilities of the C major key, while remaining ever loyal to the principles of the Classical Period—sonata form, counterpoint and development.

W.A. Mozart, Quartet No. 19 in C Major “Dissonance”, I. Adagio-Allegro:

Here an excellent live recording of the Hagen Quartet doing the entire quartet.

Be for us a foretaste

Mozart’s brief motet, Ave Verum Corpus, was one of the springs that fed the Romantic period.  Written in the last year of his life as a gift to a friend to thank him for a kindness, it is hard not to consider the prophetic words of the prayer: “Hail, true body born of the Virgin Mary, who truly suffered, sacrificed on the Cross for man, whose pierced side overflowed, with water and blood, be for us a foretaste in the test of death.”

The Ave Verum Corpus is one of the great Conversation in history and ground zero for the lasting influence of Mozart throughout the generations, even though it is not among his most popular or most performed works.  The great Romantic composer Franz Liszt (more about him later), transcribed this work—the best Romantic composer (in my view) giving direct credit for his inspiration.  Mozart’s harmonic innovations, subtle as they are, would influence composers for the next hundred years.  The opening is presented in a simple D major progression, a “happy” key for the birth of Christ, before the tonal center changes to A major and with its three sharps, more chromatic lines are added to create a density in describing the significance of the crucifixion and of Christ’s suffering.  The passion itself—the line “on the cross”—is presented in a perfect fourth by the soprano, rising above everything else in the music, before the Christ’s death and the implications of our own mortality are presented in Mozart’s favorite key of D minor. 

And all of this in about 3 minutes of music. Genius indeed.

W.A. Mozart, Ave Verum Corpus:

W.A. Mozart, (arr. F. Liszt), Ave Verum Corpus:

And, of course, Liszt wrote his own version, in 1871, demonstrating how small the step it is from Mozart to the height of the Romantic Period.

Franz Liszt, Ave Verum Corpus:

Mozart the Virtuoso of the Piano

Mozart’s virtuosity was often and best expressed at the insturment he is most closely associated with–the piano. His series of piano concertos, Nos. 20-24, rank among the greatest music ever written. 

First up is the Andante of the 21st, which is one of Mozart’s most famous tunes, popping up in movies with stunning regularity.

W.A. Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major

Next up is the 23rd. This was, if you can believe it, Stalin’s favorite piece of music, famously ordering it to be played on the day he seized power.

W.A. Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major:

My favorite, however, is the 20th in D Minor. D Minor is without question Mozart’s favorite key–Don Giovanni and the Requiem are also centered around they key of D Minor. It’s also perhaps my favorite key—a shocking percentage of my selections in this blog have been in D Minor, far more than would be statistically probable.

Here, in the 20th, we can hear a preview of Don Giovanni being dragged to hell at the end of the opera. The music is dark, brooding and proto-romantic. This is the Mozart I love most, trying to break free of convention and let the music in his head truly take flight. In fact, the 20th is yet another example of how Mozart delayed putting music down on paper. His father noted in a letter that the copyist was frantically trying to finish even as the concert began, with Mozart, as was his custom, conducting from the piano. Perhaps his delay in transcribing the work did not allow him sufficient time for editing.

Although my usual preference is for historically informed performances, there are exceptions to all rules and this is one for me. The great Argentine pianist Martha Argerich ignores all sense of history here, bringing her singular romantic focus to Mozart. It works brilliantly. Before turning to the music, a few words about Argerich. I’ve seen her about half a dozen times live and have booked tickets for her concerts far more often than that. She is notorious for cancelling: Only opera divas have a greater cancellation rate. Argerich’s career is legendary. Arguably (and in my view) the greatest living pianist, Argerich burst onto the scene in spectacular fashion when, at I believe 23 years of age, she went into Abbey Road Studios (yes, that Abbey Road Studios) and laid down Chopin tracks that, if translated into heat, would have started the second great fire of London. More on that later. Here she is doing Mozart, as if he were Lizst or Chopin. Bring the heat!

W.A Mozart, Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor:

Mozart the Virtuoso of the Opera House

At the peak of his powers during the 1780s, Mozart’s ability to weave a mesmerizing spell of music remains pretty much unrivaled in music history. There are hints of something darker and wilder lurking behind this music, but those doors would remain closed for the time being. Ever the businessman, Mozart was concerned about alienating his audience—in other words, leading them down a musical path where they would not follow him. So instead, we got this—Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, a truly perfect opera.

This is Figaro’s great aria, sung by the bass Luca Pisaroni. His Figaro is one of the best on the world stage today.

W. A. Mozart, Le Nozze di Figaro, “Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso“:

Of course, every one of us has heard this opera before. It figures in one of the most memorable scenes from The Shawshank Redemption, which effectively sums up why Mozart retains his immense popularity today, nearly 300 years after his birth.

I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a grey place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away. For the briefest moment every last man in Shawshank felt free.


I don’t think anyone has better described the effect that great music has on the human soul. Get busy living, Red, wherever you are.

Breaking Away

The entry from last week left off with Mozart freshly returned to Salzburg from his disastrous trip to Paris. Mozart again found himself, at 24, chaffing under the twin yokes of his father Leopold (who had decidedly not forgiven his son for allowing his mother to die in Paris for want of medical attention) and his employer, the Archbishop. Although the Archbishop surely relished having a monopoly on the “genius that God allowed to be born in Salzburg”, he did allow Mozart to accept a commission from the Elector of Bavaria for a new opera. To date, Mozart’s operas had been largely Italianite in style, dating back to and influenced heavily by his studies during his teenaged visit to Italy.

But in Paris, Mozart had seen Gluck’s operas and had been inspired. Finding Italian opera wanting, Gluck had sought to amp up the drama by making the music subservient to the plot. But if Gluck had been good at this, Mozart was an entirely different thing altogether. The opera that Mozart created, Idomeneo, ushered in a new phase of Mozart’s life and career. A huge success at its debut in Munich, Mozart’s ambitions could no longer be satisfied in Salzburg. Freeing himself at last of his employer and, to great extent, his father, Mozart headed to Vienna, bouyed by the gusts of Idomeneo’s success in his sails.

This is Mozart in 1780. The boy is no more. He is now, without a doubt, the very real deal.

W.A. Mozart, Idomeneo (excerpts)

Special Birthday Edition

Happy birthday to me. And on my birthday, I will choose to be serenaded, by Mozart, through the magic of Jascha Heifetz.

If you are curious, this is the fourth movment of a much larger work, composed by the 20-year old Mozart in 1776 for the wedding of Marie Elisabeth Haffner (the same family commissioned one of Mozart’s best known symphonies, which is also dedicated to them). The Rondo of the Haffner Serenade was a staple encore piece for Heifetz, whose total control over every element of technique can be seen here. He makes the technically precise look routine.

Mozart played the violin and there are many accounts of the child prodigy being placed on a stool to play so he could be seen by everyone. While Mozart’s public performances shifted to the piano as he got older, this composition betrays his deep familiarity with the instrument. There are no uncomfortable fingerings here and the music lends itself to interesting coloration through bowing choices.

Here is the full verison of the work:

W.A. Mozart, Serenade for Orchestra in D Major “Haffner”: