Celebrating the Radiance, Wit and Humanity of Mozart’s Music
Benefit Concerts for CWB featuring
The Triple Helix Piano Trio
and special guest violist, Min Choi
Ann Moss, soprano
Orchestra Without Borders, Luca Antonucci, conductor
The musicians who organized our two concerts wanted to make the following notes available to those who attend. Many thanks to Lois Shapiro and Luca Antonucci for these notes, which add richness to our understanding of this beautiful music.
NOTES ON THE PROGRAM
Ernest Ludwig Gerber, a mid-18th century writer and musician, could well have been describing the effect of Mozart’s music on the receptive ear when he wrote:
“whoever makes men happy, also makes them better; and whoever makes them better is their benefactor.”
Piano Trio in C Major, K. 548
The summer of 1788 was a particularly fruitful one for Mozart. Despite acute financial distress, the death of his 6-month-old daughter Theresia, and the necessity of moving into cheaper lodgings in Vienna, he composed a series of major works in the space of just three months. These included the piano Sonata. K.545, his last three symphonies (Nos. 39-41), and two piano trios: the bold and jubilant C Major Trio, K. 548, and the sublimely radiant E Major Trio, K. 542.
Earlier piano trios belonged firmly in the tradition of keyboard sonatas with “ad lib” accompaniment of violin or flute, and occasionally, cello. Written for amateurs, the technical demands were intentionally minimized, and the music was simple, melodic, relentlessly diatonic and homophonic. In musical conversation of this sort, there was little to say, but the saying of it had to be polite and charming.
Mozart completed six piano trios for violin, cello and piano, of which five are mature works dating from the last ten years of his life. Despite a general consensus that these works are of lesser weight than his works in many other genres, there is no doubt that in Mozart’s hands the piano trio was indeed transformed.
Mozart wrote his C Major piano trio in July of 1788, between the symphonies in E flat major (No. 39) and G minor (No. 40). As usual with Mozart, the trio is conceived as a kind of scena, or opera scene composed for instruments. The opening orchestral fanfare would seem to prepare some kind of grand gesture, but–much to our delight and surprise–it is, instead, followed by a puckish Pappageno-like tune in the piano which sets the tone for a high-spirited romp in the comic vein. In addition to the charm of the tunes themselves, part of the wit of this music derives from Mozart’s re-interpretation of function and character, giving musical motives an entirely new significance by placing them in another context. When the opening fanfare returns as a closing gesture, for instance, the very phrase that seemed to embody some kind of absolute Will now seems questioning and vulnerable. Such continual and subtle changes of musical character stem from Mozart’s abiding fascination with the variegated hues of human experience, which led him continually and deftly to modulate the prevailing mood, creating an atmosphere of pathos and self-doubt in the development section, before– with the subtlest of chromatic touches– good spirits are restored for the recapitulation.
The andante cantabile is a marvel of vocal writing, for all three instruments, imbued with a fragile tenderness and directness of expression that masks the intellectual complexity of its form. In the outer sections, the musical dialogue–particularly the exchange between piano and cello–suggests a model for human interactions of the “I, thou” variety: each picks up on the other’s message and responds in a loving and considered fashion. The development takes a surprising harmonic turn as the strings appropriate the piano’s opening music for the first time. The ensuing heated discussion amongst the instruments finds Mozart using the formal process of a development section in the service of an interpersonal drama. Mozart’s uncanny ability to write music which mirrors real life is manifest in the nature of these exchanges.
Rather than the facile, pro forma “resolution” one might expect, he gives the music a kind of quite climactic “moment of truth” just before the return of the opening material. Here, an obstinate note that seemed to stand for a stolid insistence on a point of view, resulting in a sense of alienation, is seen in a kind of “new light” of commonality, and the tonic note of an A Major chord relinquishes its self-concept as a dominant of D, and finds a home in the F Major opening harmony after all. With this turning point, Mozart seems to be inviting us to look at those “stuck places” in a new way, and discover some new, latent possibility that allows for reconciliation or transformation.
The third movement’s rondo theme brings to mind Ravel’s characterization of Mozart’s genius as “the unity of symmetry and surprise.” It begins like the setup to a joke whose punchline we assume we can readily predict, given the four opening thematic bars of generic classical-period theme that seem to suggest a “square” response. However, its continuation Mozart endows with piquant charm, subverting our expectations with surprising accents and flourishes–all in a masterfully subtle way, in which simplicity belies inner complexity. You are invited to enjoy many moments of Mozart’s masterful wit–e.g., when the strings vs. piano “argue” about when “enough is enough” –as they continually interrupt each other’s attempt to achieve a final cadence.
– Lois Shapiro
Concert Aria “Ch’io mi scordi di te?” K. 505
Known as the greatest of the concert arias he ever wrote, Mozart composed “Ch’io mi scordi di te?” in 1786 for the farewell concert of the Anglo-Italian soprano, Nancy Storace, who created the role of Susanna in his Le Nozze di Figaro. The prominent piano part was written for Mozart himself to play. His concert arias, modeled after Italian opera and the libretti of Pietro Metastasio, consisted of a recitative followed by an aria in which the dramatic flow mirrors the psychological unfolding.
The text of this aria was taken, in part, from a revised version of his 1781 opera Idomeneo, based on the Trojan War and its aftermath. At the beginning of Act II, the captive Trojan princess, Illia, begs Idamante—son of the Cretan King Idomeneo who has fought alongside Agamemnon to reclaim the kidnapped Helen—to forget her in favor of Elettra, the woman his father has chosen for him. In the ensuing aria, Idamante refuses, proclaiming his steadfast love for Illia, and expressing his anguish and frustration over the untenable situation in which he finds himself.
If the role of Idamante in Idomeneo is played by a man, WHY would Mozart choose this particular text as the basis for a special concert aria for a woman? Even taking into account the not-uncommon 18th century practice of having a female play a heroic man’s role, can we find any suggestion of evidence in the work itself, and in the circumstances surrounding it, to make sense of this choice?
Nancy Storace was obviously someone dear to Mozart’s heart. Later writers alleged that the couple was romantically involved. Although this cannot be substantiated, it does seem true, in the words of the eminent musicologist Alfred Einstein, that this aria represented “the transfiguration of a relationship that could not be realized except in this ideal sphere.” It is no wonder that Nancy’s imminent departure from Vienna would evoke from Mozart a strong emotional response which he would then so touchingly express in K.505!
The piano functions as a second voice here, thus providing a unique link between Mozart’s great piano concerti and his operas. Entering at the beginning of the love duet, after the recitative—during which the singer is alone with the empathic orchestra, giving instrumental representation to Idamante’s expression of horror and grief at the mere suggestion of abandoning his beloved Illia for another woman, to satisfy his father—the piano pours forth the initial statement of tender love, with simplicity and eloquence. Mozart presents here a physical and spiritual closeness; the piano line is often literally intertwined suggestively with the vocal line, as if in intimate embrace—a perfect musical metaphor for attunement.
– Lois Shapiro
Concert Aria (Words and translation)
Ch’io mi scordi di te?
Che a lui mi doni puoi consigliarmi?
E puoi voler ch’io viva?
Ah no, sarebbe il viver mio
Di morte assai peggior!
Venga la morte!
Ma, ch’io possa struggermi ad altra face,
Ad altr’oggetto donar gl’affetti miei,
Ah! Di dolor, morei!
Non temer, amato bene,
Per te sempre, il cor sarà.
Pìu non reggo a tante pene,
L’alma mia mancando va…
Tu sospiri? O duol funesto!
Pensa almen che istante è questo!
Non mi posso, oh Dio! Spiegar
Stelle barbare, stele spietate!
Perché mai tanto rigor?
Alme belle, che vedete
Le mie pene in tal momento,
Dite voi s’egual tormento
Può soffrir un fido cor?
To forget you?
To give myself to him is your advice?
And then you expect me to live?
Ah, no. Such an existence
Would be worse than death!
If death comes,
I shall face it with courage.
But to be kindled by another flame,
to give my heart to another man,
how could I do that?
Ah, I should die of grief.
Do not fear, beloved,
My heart will always be yours.
I can bear such pain no longer,
my soul grows sick and faint.
You sigh? Oh, what anguish!
Think how significant this moment is!
I cannot, dear God, express it..
Cruel, pitiless stars!
Why are you so harsh?
Tender souls, who perceive
my present suffering,
tell me if such torment
can be borne by a faithful heart..
-Lois Shapiro and Sarah Pelletier
Divertimento in D Major, K. 136 (“Salzburg Symphony No. 1”)
Mozart was a mere sixteen years old when he penned his Divertimento in D Major, K. 136 in 1772 after returning from a concert tour of Italy with his father Leopold. The young Mozart was already an accomplished virtuoso performer, and his set of three Divertimenti K. 136-138, known affectionately as the “Salzburg Symphonies,” show compositional finesse far beyond his tender years. Cast in the customary three movements of the early Symphonies, the Divertimento in D was originally written without an independent contrabass part and can therefore be performed by a string quartet or a string orchestra. The designation Divertimento refers to a piece that is light in character and intended to divert or entertain; modeled after the Symphonies of Italian composers such as Sammartini and Padre Martini, K. 136 is full of wit, radiance, and good spirits, though–much like the C Major Trio–it also has its darker moments.
The Divertimento opens with a strong tutti passage that evokes the premiere coup d’archet common to early Classical symphonies, and the exposition that follows features brilliant passagework and playful antiphonal writing between the violins. Unlike many of early symphonies, whose development sections are short and limited in their harmonic and melodic interest, the allegro here shows an extended development section that makes several forays into minor keys. One of its more striking moments includes a passage in the parallel key of D minor that features a slowly-unfolding melody high in the first violins. above a bed of murmuring second violins and pizzicato lower strings, creating an atmosphere of mystery and suspense that is operatic in its drama. After the grandeur of the opening theme, the movement’s close seems almost cheeky, with a little wriggling gesture that recedes into the distance like a wink and a wave.
Where the first movement is energetic and declamatory, the andante is all graceful tranquility. Cast in a moderate triple meter, this movement evokes a stately minuet. Indeed, the instruments of the orchestra seem to dance with each other, first the violins as a pair opposite the lower strings, and later, the second violins and violas playing together over a gently revolving bassline, with the first violins spinning out a delicate thread of melody high overhead. A short developmental interlude features beautiful arioso writing for the first violin above a gently rippling Alberti bass, before the opening returns with its mood of serenity, infused at the ends of phrases with expressive appoggiaturas like wistful sighs.
The presto finale shows a young Mozart at his most ebullient. Both first and second violin parts are full of musical acrobatics, and the sudden dynamic changes — from piano to forte and back again — leaven the seeming regularity of the music, keeping us guessing. As in the trio, one hears clearly Ravel’s “unity of symmetry -Luca Antonucci
Piano Quartet in G minor, K. 478 (1785)
While Mozart’s colleagues and associates recognized him as a risk-taker who excelled in the exploration of “difficult” musical ideas, even his father Leopold encouraged his son to keep the desires of his public in mind and write “easier” music. While writing this piece, his first piano quartet, the younger Mozart decided to forge new musical territory, and his commercial aspirations for the piece paid the price. The early critics of this work, realizing how unusual it was, deemed it more of a curiosity than a crowd-pleaser.
Indeed, it was the popular failure of this piece that led to his publisher’s 1786 withdrawal from a contract for two more quartets. But the problem lay not with the quality of Mozart’s work per se; rather, the issue seemed to have been the quartet’s sheer novelty. Compounding the quartet’s defiance of conventional expectations was Mozart’s refusal to compromise his writing to suit the tastes and abilities of an amateur clientele, for whom the work was supposedly written. Instead of the lightness and humor of his other chamber works–including the Trio and Divertimento on tonight’s program–Mozart chose for his G minor quartet a tone of gravitas. In addition to this unexpected seriousness, Mozart’s use of irregular phrases likely jarred early audiences, who preferred their chamber music regular and symmetrical. Thus ill-suited to the audiences for which it was intended, the work was often poorly performed. No wonder contemporary critics found themselves stymied in the efforts to assess the music!
Fortunately, subsequent generations have vindicated Mozart’s boldness, with critics unanimously proclaiming the G-minor piano quartet a masterwork by any standard. In 1956, Hans Keller wrote that the Quartet “furnishes conclusive proof, more than any other single masterpiece of his, that Mozart’s was the only true omniscient ear of which we know.”
For Mozart, the key of G minor reflected a somber mood, and a quality of existential angst somewhat similar to Beethoven’s C-minor works. Mozart’s two minor-key symphonies (No. 25 and No. 40) are also both in G minor, and both recall the Sturm und Drang passion of Haydn’s middle period. The bold, passionate, and at times even threatening first movement of this piece is symphonic in emotional range and written in a grand-scale manner not normally found in Mozart’s chamber music. At the outset, the instrumental writing also evokes the groundbreaking writing for piano and strings of his piano concerti. By setting the piano — as musical protagonist — against the tutti strings — representing the surrounding society — Mozart creates a metaphor for a vast range of complex human interactions every bit as compelling as those enacted in his operas.
The opening is pregnant with suspense as the strings confront the piano with a stark unison proclamation of the movement’s emblematic, obsessive motif. We feel the individual met head-on by an intransigent force, and we are strongly drawn into a drama in which each is affected and changed by the other in remarkable and unexpected ways.
The andante that follows is built on a vocally conceived melody in the relative major key of B-flat, overflowing with tenderness and lyricism. Following the violence and desperation of the first movement, it is a kind of soothing balm, attempting to assuage the pain wrought in the unfolding of the preceding drama by capturing the fragility of a yearned-for moment of peace.
Then, after Mozart has dispelled the tensions and troubles of the first movement with that exquisite and songful middle one, he brings us the sublimely witty rondo finale, whose joyous vitality is truly captivating. Here, in the Quartet’s last movement, Mozart’s fecund melodic invention operates at full tilt as he unfurls an abundance of jovial themes. These include one, in the middle of the movement, that was borrowed from J. C. Bach, and another that would see repeated use in his Rondo for Piano in D, K. 485. There is a pseudo “tempest in a teapot” in the mock-serious argument between the strings, as a group, and the piano; but this is, after all, Mozart—the supreme master of comic opera—and so ultimately, everyone must kiss and make up, bringing the work to its delightful and life-affirming conclusion.
– Lois Shapiro