Handel: Scherzano sul tuo volto from Rinaldo

Scherzano sul tuo volto: Rinaldo (1711), was Georg Frideric Handel’s first London opera with a specially-written libretto partially derived from Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Gerusalemme liberata (1581). The drama is set during the siege of Jerusalem at the time of the First Crusade around1099.

Almirena, the daughter of the general of the Christian forces, has been promised in marriage to Rinaldo once the city of Jerusalem has been taken. In “Scherzano sul tuo volto” Rinaldo and Almirena celebrate their mutual devotion, but their happiness turns out to be short-lived as the enchantress Armida will soon abduct Almirena in an attempt to take Rinaldo for herself. The scene is a pleasant garden grove as Almirena sings:

The charming graces
Play in your face in their thousands.
The little Cupids
Laugh on your lips in their thousands.

In the lovely fire
Of your eyes
Love adds sweet sparks
To his powerful dart

Mozart Overture to Der Schauspieldirektor (The impresario), K. 486

It was a bleak, late winter day when the well-heeled citizens of Vienna mounted their coaches for the four mile drive to Schönbrunn Palace, the summer residence of Emperor Franz Joseph. They were heading for a “Spring Festival on a Mid-Winter’s Day,” as Franz Joseph called it, a party to honor Duke Albert von Sachsen-Teschen, Governor-General of the Austrian Netherlands, and his wife, the Archduchess Maria Christine, on February 7, 1786.

The site chosen for this Spring fling was the Orangerie at Schönbrunn Palace, a spacious greenhouse used for wintering over citrus trees and other plants from the gardens of Schönbrunn Palace. The preparations for the banquet included elaborate decorations of exotic flowers, blossoms and fruits, a service of excellent food and for entertainment two stages were erected, one at each end of the long glassed-in building.

PIC The Orangerie at Schönbrunn Palace. Note the stages at opposite ends of the room.

The Orangerie at Schönbrunn Palace. Note the stages at opposite ends of the room.

The Emperor had issued special orders for the evening’s entertainment, which was to consist of a newly composed, one-act opera buffa by Court Composer Antonio Salieri (Prima la musica e poi le parole — “First the Music and then the Words,” a theme treated again 150 years later by Richard Strauss in his last opera, Capriccio) and a one-act farce by the playwright Gottlieb Stephanie the Younger (Der Schauspieldirektor — “The Impresario”) with an overture and a few interpolated musical numbers by Mozart. Stephanie and Mozart had worked together four years earlier, when they produced The Abduction from the Seraglio.

Mozart was frantically busy composing music for his own Lenten concerts but most pressing were the preparations for The Marriage of Figaro, which was scheduled for its premiere at the Burgtheater on May 1st. He put Figaro briefly aside, however, and composed an overture, two soprano arias, a trio and an ensemble finale for The Impresario between January 18th and February 3rd.

Mozart lavished great care on his little overture, which would have been impressive enough to introduce a much grander work.

Mozart Piano Concerto No. 17 in G Major, K. 453

The year 1784 was a banner year for Mozart piano concerti. In that year he composed six of them not all for his own performances. The Piano Concerto in G, K. 453 was written for one of his most accomplished students, Barbara von Ployer, to be played in a concert at her father’s house in a Viennese suburb on June 10.

Mozart wrote to his father Leopold: “Tomorrow Herr Ployer is giving a concert in the country at Döbling, where Fräulein Babette is playing her new concerto in G…” I am fetching Paisiello (a prominent Italian composer whose opera Il barbiere di Siviglia was having a very successful run in Vienna) in my carriage, as I want him to hear both my pupil and my compositions.” Wolfgang reported that he was paid very well for this concerto.

European starling

European starling

According to Mozart’s expense book, on May 27, 1784, he paid 34 Kreutzer for a pet starling adding it to his beloved personal bestiary that already included a canary, a dog, and a horse. Sturnus vulgaris, European starlings, are virtuoso mimics, and Mozart taught his to sing the variation-theme from the finale of this concerto, though he was amused to find that the bird always held the sixth note (G) too long, and always sang the ninth and tenth notes (both also G) as G-sharp. When the bird died in 1787, Mozart administered last rites, read a poem he had written in its honor, and buried it with great solemnity in his garden at Alsergrund.

The orchestral exposition of the first movement of this concerto is made of an extravagance of melodies, an elegant parody of a military march. Where a traditional classical concerto would give two contrasting themes, this exposition offers no less than six, each one evolving out of the one previous. Contemporary Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf said of Mozart: “I have never yet known any composer who possessed such an astonishing wealth of ideas. I wish he were not so lavish in using them. He does not let the listener get his breath back…” Our soloist will be playing Mozart’s own cadenzas.

The C major slow movement is harmonically dramatic with several powerful modulations and extensive chromaticism giving weight to music of great transparency. The opening statement from the piano swerves from major to minor, and from simple expression to passionate outburst.

The finale is a set of variations on the tune the starling sang. The variations grow in complexity and ingenuity until the fourth, which plunges headlong into the minor mode, laden with chromaticism. The final variation leads straight to a comic-opera finale, the official coda. Surely Paisiello, whose talent seldom ventured beyond the opera house, would have marveled at what seems to be a ready-made opera finale.

Mozart Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551 “Jupiter”

In June of 1788 Mozart moved his family from his apartment in the centre of Vienna (now called the Figaro House, near St. Stephen’s Cathedral) to a more spacious suburban residence at Alsergrund 135 (today Währingerstraße 26), a seven-room apartment with a garden attached. The rooms were spacious and it is speculated that Mozart intended to use the large rooms for rehearsals of music he was about to compose.

In making this move and finding himself a bit short of cash, Mozart quickly wrote a letter to his friend and fellow Mason, Michael Puchberg on June 17, 1788, asking for a loan:

“In case you couldn’t part with such a sum [one or two thousand Gulden] at the moment, I beg you to lend me at least a couple of hundred Gulden until tomorrow, because my landlord on the Landstraße (a previous suburban rental) was so importunate that (to avoid every inconvenience) I had to pay him on the spot, which put me in a messy situation! Tonight we will sleep in our new quarters for the first time, where we will stay both summer and winter; – on the whole I don’t mind this, I even find it preferable; I haven’t much to do in the city anyway and because I’m not exposed to so many visitors, I will have more time for work; – if I have to go into the city on business, which will not often be the case anyway, any fiacre will take me there for ten Kreuzer, moreover the apartment is cheaper and more pleasant during the spring, summer and autumn, because I also have a garden.”

It was in this house that Mozart would compose his last three symphonies (Nos. 39, 40, and 41, all from 1788), and the last of the three Da Ponte operas, Cosi fan tutte, premiered in 1790.

Evidently the music for Symphony 39 was already in Mozart‘s head as he made the move to Alsergrund and he finished it on June 25; No. 40 followed on July 26 and No. 41 on August 10. That’s two months give or take a few days, a compositional speed record for such masterpieces. We have no direct evidence as to why Mozart wrote the symphonies since he had never composed music without a specific performance and specific performers in mind, but in succeeding years he made long journeys hoping to improve his fortunes: to Leipzig, Dresden, and Berlin in the spring of 1789, and to Frankfurt, Mannheim, and other German cities in 1790. The symphonies may have been shown or played then.

For many years the origin of the nickname “Jupiter” for Mozart’s last symphony was unknown. Musicologist H.C. Robbins Landon has found mention of Mozart’s symphony in the diaries of Vincent and Mary Novello, a nineteenth-century English couple who travelled widely and interviewed the composer’s widow Constanze in 1829. According to them, the name was bestowed by Johann Peter Salomon, the entrepreneur responsible for Haydn’s two visits to London in the 1790s.

The opening theme of the first movement follows one of Mozart’s favorite patterns, one he had learned from Johann Christian Bach (London Bach) and had begun using as early as his First Symphony: an energetic gesture, followed by a soft, almost pleading phrase. Also of note toward the close of the movement is Mozart’s self-quotation from an arietta he had written a year earlier to be inserted in Pasquale Anfossi’s opera Le gelosie fortunate.

The other-worldliness of the slow movement is brought about partly by the use throughout of muted strings and the absence of trumpets and timpani. It was Mendelssohn who discovered that the masterstroke of the main theme reappearing just before the final cadential section was an afterthought. Mozart had added an extra leaf in the autograph score at that point just to include it.

Mozart’s graceful minuet is almost completely derived from its opening theme, a graceful sigh, which develops a contrapuntal life of it‘s own as the movement progresses. Mozart bases the little melodic figure in the more lightly textured trio on the same figure, now slightly embellished. The loud outburst in the trio’s second half seems to preview the main motive of the finale.

The finale’s opening four-note motive (C-D-F-E), having originated in Gregorian chant, was well known in Mozart’s day as the start of the hymn Lucis creator. Mozart employed it in several earlier vocal and instrumental compositions as did numerous other composers. Mozart takes this motive along with a wealth of other ideas and combines them in a contrapuntal tour de force which at one time includes quintuple counterpoint (five tunes fit together to play simultaneously) and that concludes with a magnificent fugal coda.

The quintuple counterpoint

The quintuple counterpoint

Beethoven Symphony No. 3 “Eroica”

When Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) arrived in Vienna in 1796, he began a rapid rise to fame as a performer and later as a composer.  Roughly concurrent with his arrival he started to experience trouble with his hearing, a condition that worsened with time.

Under the guidance of Haydn, Albrechtsberger, Förster, Salieri and others, he quickly mastered the classical style and his early works were well received.  Despite this success, he began to feel that he had absorbed everything his teachers had to offer.  The decision facing him was whether to devote his life to emulating the Viennese classicists or to seek a new avenue of expression.  To those close to him, he spoke of a ‘new path’.  To many others, he didn’t speak at all.  His hearing, by then, had deteriorated to the point where he was avoiding social contact.

In the autumn of 1802, while resting in Heiligenstadt, Beethoven drafted a tortured letter in the form of a will that has come to be known as the Heiligenstadt Testament.  In this document, he bequeaths his belongings to his brothers but writes mostly of his realization that his hearing was worsening and would likely leave him completely deaf in time. Though he struggled for the words, his fears were eventually laid to rest and his determination led him in the direction of a new, revolutionary style of musical expression.

Soon after his return from Heiligenstadt, Beethoven approached his work with renewed energy.  His philosophy and style of composition underwent a transformation and his music from that point on possessed a new expressive dimension.  Within weeks of returning to Vienna, he began his first sketches for the Eroica.  Clearly, the Testament had been a means of exorcising his fears but the Eroica would became an impassioned codicil to that will, a yearning to strike out on a new path. Self-determination and triumph over adversity may well be the program of the Eroica with Beethoven as hero.

Much is made of Beethoven’s intention to dedicate his symphony to Napoleon and his change of mind when he learned of Napoleon’s assuming the title of Emperor. Beethoven did indeed scratch out the name Napoleon on the title page of his symphony. It seems that Beethoven was making plans for a move to Paris and thought that this dedication would ease his introduction. When it became apparent that this move would not materialize but that Prince Lobkowitz was interested in licensing the symphony for a period of time, Beethoven removed the so called dedication and renamed the symphony “Eroica.”

One of the most perplexing issues of the Eroica-Napoleon connection has been: why did Beethoven include a funeral march followed by a joyous scherzo and finale?  Nineteenth century commentators were at a loss to explain the seeming contradiction of death and celebration in the context of an homage to Bonaparte.

Additionally, early writers noted thematic similarities between the Eroica and Beethoven’s own ballet, Die Geschöpfe des Promethus (The Creatures of Prometheus) Op 43 as well as his Variations, Op 35 and 12 German Contradances WoO 14.  They were able to trace, passage by passage, the parallels to be found in the music but never touched upon the deeper kinship between the Eroica and Prometheus.  The distinguished Beethoven scholar William Kinderman, citing the work of Constantin Floros, has now proposed the possibility that the whole of the Eroica symphony is an allegory for the Promethus legend.  That is to say, the Prometheus legend as portrayed in Beethoven’s ballet.

In the various Greek versions of the legend, Prometheus is punished by being chained to a rock where upon an eagle eats his liver every day only to have it regenerate each night.  After years of suffering Prometheus is finally freed.  In the version staged by Beethoven and the dance master Salvatore Vigano, Prometheus is put to death for his transgression and is later re-born.

Tracing the sequence of certain events in the ballet and comparing the resulting scenario to the progression of movements in the Eroica we arrive at a convincing fit.  Kinderman:

“Floros’s work has shown that the links between the ballet and the symphony are more substantial than has usually been assumed. Floros traces various rhetorical and formal parallels between the opening Allegro con brio of the symphony and, in particular, the eighth piece of the Prometheus music, the ‘Danza Eroica’. Still more important is the affinity of the two following pieces of the ballet, the ‘Tragica scena’ (no. 9) and ‘Giuocosa scena’ (no. 10, in which the dead Prometheus is restored to life), to the progression from the Marcia funebre to the scherzo in the symphony.”  Beethoven, William Kinderman; Oxford University Press, 1997

That the Eroica could be a symphonic expansion of the Prometheus ballet, with the main character symbolizing the tortured and misunderstood artist, is more than plausible.  The scenario – heroic, tragic, joyous – seems to be more than a coincidence.

Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in E minor

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn was born on February 3, 1809, in Hamburg, then under Napoleonic rule, and died in Leipzig, Saxony, on November 4, 1847. Carrying out a plan that went back to 1838, Mendelssohn completed his Violin Concerto in E minor on September 16, 1844, and it was played for the first time on March 13, 1845, at the Leipzig Gewandhaus by Ferdinand David with the Danish composer Niels Gade conducting.

When Felix Mendelssohn founded the Leipzig Conservatory in 1843, one of the first faculty appointments he made was Ferdinand David, a violinist held in the highest regard as soloist, as a model concertmaster, as quartet leader, and teacher.

Ferdinand David

Ferdinand David

Ferdinand David was more than the first violinist to play the Mendelssohn Concerto; the work was intended for him from the beginning. David and Mendelssohn had been friends since 1825.

In the development of Mendelssohn’s Concerto, David played a role parallel to that taken a generation later by violinist Joseph Joachim with the Brahms Concerto. Mendelssohn’s Concerto is in fact the first in the distinguished series of violin concertos written by pianist-composers with the assistance of eminent violinists.

In his G minor and D minor piano concertos, Mendelssohn gives us just enough of an orchestral accompaniment to propel the soloist into action. In the Violin Concerto, he reduces the orchestra’s initial participation still further. There is only a backdrop for not as much as two seconds by the quietly pulsating drums and plucked basses before the violin sings its famous melody.

A couple of years earlier, in his Scottish Symphony, Mendelssohn experimented with the idea of going from movement to movement without a break. Here he takes the plan a step further, not merely eliminating the pauses but actually constructing links. The second movement Andante emerges mysteriously from the close of the first movement and between the Andante and the finale there is a wistful connecting intermezzo, only fourteen measures long. Only strings accompany the violin, setting the stage for the fanfare that announces the finale.

Viktor Ullmann Sonata No. 7

Viktor Ullmann (1898-1944) was born in a part of Silesia that now is part of the Czech Republic, growing up and taking his education in Vienna. There he participated in Schoenberg’s advanced courses in 1918-19, and at Schoenberg’s recommendation, became one of Alexander Zemlinsky’s conducting assistants at the New German Theatre in Prague in the 1920s. How highly Zemlinsky regarded him is seen in his having entrusted Ullmann with the preparation of Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder, as well as operas by Mozart, Strauss, Wagner, Berg and others, which he also conducted on occasion in place of Zemlinsky. In the 1930s Ullmann composed, taught and wrote articles for German musical publications in Prague.

Ullmann, was raised a Catholic and later converted to Protestantism before returning to Catholicism. His Jewish parentage, however, consigned him under Nazi racial laws to a fate that sent him from Prague first to Terezín and then to his death at Auschwitz.

Viktor Ullmann

Viktor Ullmann

When Czechoslovakia came under Nazi control, the performance of Ullmann’s works was banned, and a public musical life became impossible for him. He tried unsuccessfully to emigrate to London or South Africa but finally found himself trapped in Prague. He was able to arrange places for two of his children on a Kindertransport to Sweden and then England. Ullmann was deported to Terezín on September 8, 1942.

During his two years of incarceration there, he was at the center of the camp’s intellectual and artistic life. There he composed over twenty musical works, and perhaps others that have been lost. This extraordinary output includes a string quartet, piano sonatas, song cycles, choral works, incidental music for a play, and an opera libretto. Rediscovering his family origins, he composed a number of works based on traditional Jewish themes, including a set of haunting Yiddish and Hebrew songs.

Instead of being given a customary work assignment, Ullmann was asked by the Freizeitgestaltung (Leisure time authority) to occupy himself with music, serving as critic and concert organizer (including the Studio for New Music, which he founded, and the Collegium Musicum) as well as assisting on other performances.

Ullmann’s seven Piano Sonatas were written between 1936 and 1944, the first four while he free-lanced in Prague, the last three while incarcerated at Terezín. In totality one sonata leads inexorably to the next, and one can trace the arch of his momentous life through these pieces. He starts with a young man’s homage to Mahler, and ends with a sonata motivated by his imprisonment – masterful and deeply expressive.

“In my work at Theresienstadt, I have bloomed in musical growth and not felt myself at all inhibited: by no means did we sit weeping on the banks of the waters of Babylon, and our endeavor with respect to Arts was commensurate with our will to live. And I am convinced that all who have worked in life and art to wrestle content into its unyielding form will say that I was right.” – Viktor Ullmann

Sonata No.7 (1944), dedicated to three of his children Max, Jean and Felice (Pavel, born in 1940 had already died in the camp) was the last of Ullmann’s works written before he was transported to Auschwitz. It is almost akin to a musical autobiography in which through the five movements he quotes his obvious loves in the shape of quotations and allusions to such composers as Bach, Mahler, Schoenberg and Wagner. Into this mix he adds echoes of Slovak hymns, Lutheran chorales and even a Hebrew folksong in the final movement. The opening Allegro movement which we will hear, reflecting the late German Romantic style, is exhilarating and life-affirming. The orchestration is by Ronen Nissan.

Ullmann was deported to Auschwitz on 16 October 1944, in one of the last transports, where he died in the gas chamber.