WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1759 – 1792)
PIANO CONCERTO in D Minor, K. 466
PREMIERED: Vienna, 1785
III: Allegro assai; alla breve
This curiously dark work is one of only two of Mozart’s 27 piano concerti to be written in a minor key. That the first performance could barely be heard over the background noise in the Mehlgrube Casino probably contributed to the gloom, as did the fact that Mozart had barely finished it when he took his seat at the piano. The premiere was, in fact, a scramble. As his father wrote to his daughter Nannerl:
I heard an excellent new piano concerto by Wolfgang, on which the copyist was still at work when we got there, and your brother didn't even have time to play through the rondo because he had to oversee the copying operation.
Mozart conducted frantically from the keyboard, nodding occasionally to the terrified concertmaster, whose suspicion that the only full score was still in Mozart´s head was entirely justified. There would be similar scenes nearly 150 years later, as George Gershwin nodded to Paul Whiteman to tell him the (improvised!) piano solo sections were about to end during the first performance of Rhapsody in Blue. Mozart’s audience consisted of what his obsessively class-conscious father called “a vast concourse of people of rank,” hovering between his son’s music and the gaming tables. Only the previous evening, Joseph Haydn had told Leopold that Wolfgang was “the greatest composer known to me, either personally or be reputation,” yet here he was now, struggling for attention.
A month earlier, the Mehlgrube’s star attraction had been the blind pianist Maria Theresia von Paradis (for whom Mozart wrote a concerto); the month before, there had been a conjurer. As always, the composer’s social standing teetered between very shaky popular adulation and the wow-but-so-what feeling that now (briefly) meets the denizens of American Idol. This hovering between the worlds of the courtly flunky and popular stardom (no problem at all for musicians only fifty years later) was an important factor in his ultimate impoverishment and early death. It’s therefore all the more surprising that Mozart chose an occasion like this to launch one of his darkest, most searching works.
The first movement opens with – no, not the first subject of the inevitable sonata form opener. Instead, we hear motifs – fragments that together add up to thematic material, an astonishing foreshadowing of the gigantic mosaics of Wagner, set over nagging, syncopated string chords. Instead of the usual setting out of the structural shop that we expect at the opening of a Classical concerto, we instead are offered what can only be called mood-setting. It is only when the piano enters that our old friends A and B become clearly audible. There would be nothing like this again until the concertos of Beethoven, who revered this work and played it in public several times. Indeed, it is Beethoven’s cadenzas that we are hearing this evening in the first and last movements.
Like Beethoven after him, Mozart often carried out his more outrageous formal experiments in his slow movements, and this concerto has a vivid example in its rondo structure - easily the least likely form to be expected here (not least because this movement is followed by another one). Even less likely is the dramatic lurch into G minor towards the end. Beethoven would often challenge himself (and us) with sudden plunges into distant keys, as though daring himself to find a way home; he may well have been inspired by Mozart’s leap into the tonal darkness here. The music is always civilized and precise, of course (it’s Mozart, after all), but there are the faintest cracks and shadows in the porcelain. Nor should we forget that Mozart reserved his darkest thoughts (think of the fortieth symphony) for the key of G minor.
The Finale is the rondo we might expect – but, once again, G minor lurks in the tonal forest. It is not hard to believe that Mozart looked at that Casino audience and saw, not the career-saving Fairy Godfather that his father saw that day, but the Wolf. The concerto’s optimistic D major ending barely dissipates the darkness. Only seven years later, Mozart would be in an unmarked grave barely ten blocks from the Casino.
GUSTAV MAHLER (1860-1911)
SYMPHONY No. 1 in D
Composed: 1887-8 with many revisions
Premiered: Budapest, Austria-Hungary, 1889
Mahler was so unsure of what shape his first Symphony should take (or even what it was) that it was first billed as a symphonic poem, then a “tone poem in symphonic form.” It was only in 1896 that he took the plunge and called it a symphony; Mahler knowing that Brahms was on his deathbed may have had something to do with this. For exactly two performances, he gave it the subtitle Titan (the title of a book he was reading that month), then changed his mind again. For a while, it had two movements, then four, then five, then four again, leaving a trail of different versions (and their accompanying tales of emotional woe) that has fed generations of Mahlerologists. He finally stopped tinkering with it in 1899.
Looming over the symphony is Mahler’s very messy love affair with the soprano Johanna Richter, whom he met while directing the Kassel Opera. The affair inspired (or caused) Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer, a cycle of lost-love misery written while he conducted another affair with the wife of Carl Maria von Weber, who was his employer at the time (and who tried to shoot him as a result). Two of the songs turn up in the Symphony, and give a strong clue as to what the music “means”.
The first movement begins with a mysterious five-octave-wide pedal on A, under which a slow falling chain of fourths is answered by a fanfare figure first from the clarinets, then from offstage trumpets – Mahler’s first use of this effect. A simple falling-fourth “cuckoo” motif sets up the arrival of the main subject – the melody of Ging Heut’ Morgen, one of the Songs of a Wayfarer. There follows a surprisingly straightforward sonata workthrough of the song. A five-note figure associated in the song with the phrase “Ei, du – gelt?” (“Hey, how are you doing?”) comes to dominate, with the “cuckoo” looming over all.
At one stage, the second movement was Blumine, a piece recycled from Mahler’s music for an unsuccessful play and dedicated to the then-beloved Johanna. A slightly odd trumpet solo with a different, smaller orchestra from the other movements, the obviously-interpolated Blumine was the understandable target of derision from the critics, and Mahler withdrew it; unfortunately, he left behind references to it elsewhere in the symphony. The actual second movement is a faux-rustic Ländler, a triple-time country dance, in the unsurprising dominant key of A. There is even a classical-style Trio, in the unlikely (but explainable) key of F.
The slow movement is the most characteristically “Mahlerian” of all the movements, where multiple styles and references hint at an unstated “program” behind the music. It is based on the minor-key folk tune Bruder Jakob (Mahler calls it “Bruder Martin” and is simply wrong), far better known in its major key version as Frère Jacques. Mahler claimed to have based the movement on a woodcut he saw of a hunter’s funeral, attended by all the creatures of the forest. The melody is first heard in a double-bass solo (the first in any symphony), then handed around the orchestra before being confronted with a radically different subject arranged for a Klezmer ensemble within the orchestra – clarinets, oboes, trumpets and drums - in an unusually explicit reference to Mahler’s Jewish origins. Just before this appears, we hear the melody of another of the Songs of a Wayfarer – “Die zwei blaue Augen” – “The two blue eyes” – and have to wonder if there is a personal narrative behind the musical irony. Of course there is.
The finale begins in the very unlikely key of F minor. Theory buffs will be glad to know that this is the parallel minor of the relative major of the parallel minor of the symphony’s key. The movement is in a surprisingly orthodox sonata form (once one has got over the shock of its key), with a soaring second subject appearing in D flat major – again, theoretically explainable given sufficient willpower – before a vertiginous modulation to D major and the blazing return of the falling fourths, and finally the fanfares, of the first movement. On the way, Ging Heut’ Morgen and even Blumine make their farewell appearances – in poor Blumine’s case, unrecognized. Mahler should have thought of that.
About the Concert
What a way to celebrate Mahler’s 150th! We pull out all the stops in Mahler’s most popular symphony, an emotional crown jewel in the Romantic tradition. But first, Gemini Trio pianist and Howard Community College faculty member Hsiu-Hui Wang captures both the stormy and profound moods of one of Mozart’s most cherished works.