Mozart completed Don Giovanni in 1787, and the opera was premiered in Prague on October 29, 1787. Don Giovanni is one of the three operas that resulted from Mozart’s collaboration with the great librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte (the other two operas being Le nozze di Figaro and Cosi fan tutte). Mozart himself called his opera dramma giocosso (literally “merry drama”) and here in the overture we can see how drama and comedy shift as quickly and as unpredictably as only one man – Mozart – could do.
Overture to Don Giovanni
The overture begins with the Commendatore theme. The tragic chords of the very beginning, the following ostinato rhythm, as well as the ascending and descending lines in the first violins and flutes create the impression of something fateful to follow. Contrasting with the general dark mode of the introduction of the overture is the sonata allegro with its typical Mozartean wit and energy.
The second theme of the sonata allegro deserves special attention: its forte–piano contrast clearly represents the Don Giovanni–Leporello tandem. Originally Mozart designed the overture to lead directly to the music of the first act, showing that the overture is an inseparable part of the entire drama.
It is a well known fact that it took only one day for Mozart to complete the overture to the opera (and that day happened to be the day before the opera’s premiere). After the death of Mozart, Johann Andre adopted the end of the overture for concert performance, and it is Andre’s version that you will hear today.
Born in Venice, Domenico Dragonetti (1763-1846) was the pre-eminent double-bass virtuoso of his time. Early on, he displayed his remarkable musical gifts on the violin and guitar before turning to the double bass, at which he excelled.
Appointed to the orchestra at San Marco in Venice at the age of 18, he became famous and sought after as a performer in Italy, Russia and England. He took up residence in London in 1794 where, except for occasional trips, he resided for the rest of his life. He made the acquaintance of both Haydn and Beethoven, whom he favorably impressed with his playing.
In addition to his performing career, Dragonetti composed many works for the double-bass, with this concerto being among the best-known. It is a three-movement work in the classical style, and displays the full range of the double bass, with much of the work in the high register. There are pyrotechnics galore, including passages consisting entirely of harmonics, which indicate the technical brilliance of which Dragonetti was capable.
Oct. 27, 1783, 9:30 a.m: Mozart (then twenty-seven years old) and his wife, Constanze, leave Salzburg, where they had been visiting Mozart’s father. Heading back to their home in Vienna, they spend the first night of their journey in Vögelbruck.
Oct. 28: They arrive in Lambach in time for Mozart to play organ during the morning Mass.
Oct. 29: Opera and party in Ebersberg.
Oct. 30, 9:00 a.m: After three busy days on the road, they arrive in Linz, where they stay with Count Johann Joseph Anton Thun-Hohenstein.
Oct. 31: Mozart dashes off a quick note to his father: “….On Tuesday, November 4th, I am giving a concert in the theater here. And, as I didn’t bring a single symphony with me, I’ll have to write a new one at breakneck speed, since it has to be finished by that time. I must close now, because I have to get to work.”
Nov. 4 (four days later): Mozart conducts the premiere of his new symphony with Count Thun’s orchestra.
Mozart’s one-act comic opera “der Schauspieldirektor”, or The Impresario, was originally composed in 1786 as a “Singspiel” – a German type of play interspersed with various musical numbers – at the request of Emperor Joseph II for a private performance at the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. Mozart wrote The Impresario at around the same time as The Marriage of Figaro.
It contains marvelous music – a well-known overture, and four vocal numbers. The original libretto, however, presents a number of challenges in mounting a full-fledged production. For this performance, we are fortunate indeed to have an English adaptation authored by William J. Brooke, who also happens to be our stage director and play the title role of Impresario (all at once!). In his adaptation, the first two solo arias are largely sung in the original German; the trio and finale are done in English, as is the dialogue.
The story itself is about the woes of an opera company director (Scruples). His scheming assistant (Bluff), who longs to sing bass roles on stage, engages a banker (Mr. Angel) to financially “rescue” the opera company’s upcoming season. In return, Mr. Angel merely requests Scruples to showcase Mr. Angel’s two paramours (Madame Goldentrill and Miss Silverpeal) each of which happens to be an opera singer, and each of which thinks she should be the prima donna for the upcoming opera season!
Of course theatrical and musical fireworks ensue, before leading to a most unlikely (yet satisfactory) conclusion.
Rossini composed his opera based on the Cinderella story in 1817, one year after writing the Barber of Seville, at the age of 25. Rossini “borrowed” the music for this overture from one of his unperformed operas – standard practice at the time – and it works remarkably well in this context.
Overture to La Cenerentola
As with most Rossini overtures, it opens with a slow section in which one can almost imagine the scolding stepmother and the heroine scrubbing the floors. The following allegro is light and lively. It prominently features the winds (particularly the clarinet, his favorite instrument), as well as two versions of the famous long “Rossini crescendo” presaging a happy ending to the story.
No Haydn symphony is as well-known to the general public as the “Surprise” symphony, with its dramatic “wake-up call” chord in the second movement.
Even beyond that, though, this symphony is musically noteworthy. Haydn composed it during one of his visits to London in the early 1790s (as part of his “London Symphonies”), and it shows the full flowering of Haydn’s mature symphonic style.
A singing opening Adagio, with alternating wind and string choirs, gives way to a light-hearted Vivace, starting with an unassuming melody in the violins which rapidly changes into a full-throttle orchestral gallop. The winds are prominently featured, with numerous solo passages.
The famous second movement Andante is actually a series of variations on a simple theme, alternately set in the major key (C Major), minor key (C minor), and its relative major key (E-flat), before making its way back. Beyond the technical mastery shown, the movement evokes many moods – in turn “simple,” elegant, tragic, impassioned, humorous, heroic, and (last) mysterious. The following minuet and trio are elegant in style, with the trio prominently featuring the bassoon.
The final Allegro di molto is a romp featuring florid string passages, especially in the violins.
Mozart’s twenty-seven piano concerti represent the absolute apotheosis of the form: in the same way that Haydn perfected the string quartet, Mozart took the piano concerto and brought it to its peak.
His later works in this genre, written in Vienna under increasingly difficult conditions of financial worry and illness, seem to reach for ever greater heights of expression and classical grace. They are at once brilliant and impressive, yet never border on being shallow or superficial; indeed, they explore the entire range of human emotion. The balance between orchestra and soloist is nothing short of miraculous, and the intensity of expression that is achieved with astonishingly simple means is unsurpassed in the literature. In a way, perhaps these concerti can be called the most ‘Mozartian’ music of all.
The C minor concerto has justly become a perennial favorite. One of Mozart’s most personal creations, it is forceful and tragic, full of shadows and darkness. He completed the work in March 1786, premièring it in April, when he conducted from the keyboard. Perhaps most remarkable is the richness and complexity of the woodwind writing throughout, interacting with the soloist in a perfect partnership usually only found in chamber music.
The first movement, uncluttered and completely lacking in embroidery, never once sacrifices musical expression for sheer virtuosity. After such drama, no one else could have written such a transcendently beautiful larghetto, cast here in crystalline rondo form of almost divine simplicity. The work finishes with a set of variations, rushing to a dramatic close with a crushingly tragic coda in 6/8 time.
As part of his vast musical output, Mozart wrote numerous works for use in church services. Among them were 17 short pieces, none more than 4 minutes long, known as “Church Sonatas” or “Epistle Sonatas.” They were meant to be played during Mass, and were composed by Mozart as part of his duties for the Archbishop of Salzburg. These charming works display Mozart’s customary elegance and grace. Most of them are scored for violins, bassi (‘cello, bass and bassoon) and organ. This includes K. 69, which we’re performing today – and which Mozart composed in 1772 when he was just 16 years old.