“Prague” Symphony

In the 1780’s, Mozart’s fame was, amazingly, already fading in Vienna; but in Prague, then capital of Bohemia, Mozart was celebrated as a rock star would be today. He made a triumphant four-week trip in January of 1787, to be present at, and later conduct, performances of The Marriage of Figaro and also to perform on keyboard and conduct a symphonic concert, as well as generally just to be the toast of Prague.

So popular was Figaro that Mozart remarked in a letter that its melodies were all one heard played, even by the street musicians around Prague. Later that year, Mozart would undertake to write the opera Don Giovanni for production in the city, and his last opera, La Clemenza di Tito, would also be written for Prague.

The Symphony No. 38 has magic in every measure. His ability to retain both an overwhelming expression of his personality, plus classical stylistic grace, within a technique which allowed him to survey and synthesize influences even from different style periods, is nearly incomprehensible. In the Prague symphony, one can hear so many facets of Mozart’s musical expression and genius: total command of the symphonic style, elements of lyric and comic opera and vocally-influenced writing, a complete mastery of counterpoint, and on and on even a foreshadowing of the chromatic evolution of harmony.

The slow introduction of the first movement recalls Haydn-esque majestic treatment, but has also a developmental quality reminiscent of Mozart’s keyboard fantasias. The string color of the allegro reminds one of the opening of the beautiful symphony no. 29, but is suddenly interrupted by a spirited outdoor wind band playing a little fanfare reminiscent of “non piu andrai” from Figaro. The beautiful second movement has been said by one writer to have inspired the slow movement of Schubert’s first symphony, performed by the Broadway Bach Ensemble last year.

Unlike the late Haydn symphonies, Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 is only in three movements, as was early practice for Mozart and apparently still fashionable in Prague. Mozart’s last five symphonies are often grouped together and lauded as achieving new depth and accomplishment in the symphonic form. The wind instrument playing in Vienna at the time was said to be particularly advanced, and one can hear this in demanding passages and in the complex scoring of the symphony.

Zaslaw claims that symphonies had taken on a more serious role, that they were “expected to exhibit artistic depth rather than serving merely as elaborate fanfares to open and close concerts.” What reaches us so powerfully in the music of Mozart is perhaps his direct and disarming humanity: like many of the great ones, he had to deal with making money and relatives and on and on.

Nonetheless, his great accomplishments and proclivities in symphonic writing didn’t save him from some blunt fatherly advice. Leopold warned Wolfgang about writing at too difficult a level for orchestras. The “Father Knows Best” of his time told the composer that bad performances might result. “…for I know your style of composition — it requires unusually close attention from the players of every type of instrument; and to keep the whole orchestra at such a pitch of industry and alertness for three hours is no joke.” Well, dads will be dads, and what concerned Leopold just happens to be our delight.

Toy Symphony

Leopold Mozart, the father of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, was a well-known teacher and composer in his own right in mid-18th century Germany. Although he composed conventional orchestral and choral works, he also composed a number of programmatic pieces with peasant or rustic themes.

Of these, the best-known is the “Toy Symphony,” also known as the Kindersinfonie (Childrens’ Symphony) or “Sinfonia Berchtolsgadensis,” named after a village in the Bavarian Alps which was an important center for making cuckoo clocks and toy musical instruments in the 18th century.

This lighthearted 3-movement work features a small orchestra of strings, consisting of violins, ‘cellos and basses (but no violas). It also includes an assortment of “toy” wind and percussion instruments (the cuckoo, quail, nightingale, rattle, drum, trumpet and triangle), which are used with a good deal of melody, harmony and humor.

“London” Symphony

“London” Symphony

It is clear from the title that Joseph Haydn was a very prolific composer, and all of his symphonies are mature, brilliant and well-crafted works.

Haydn wrote this masterpiece in 1795 during his second triumphal visit to London. This symphony — his last — was one of twelve written for concerts given in London between 1791 and 1795. It is one of the great masterworks of the symphonic literature.

The first movement begins with a grand, dramatic introduction, played in unison, and intended to have the audience take notice. The graceful Allegro that follows is a complete contrast in mood. It starts very simply but soon builds tremendous momentum and excitement.

The second movement Andante is a series of contrasting variations, full of grace and wit. The singing Minuet and lilting Trio are typical of Haydn at his very best.

The final Spiritoso movement is based on a Croatian folk-dance, and builds to a rousing finale. The “London” symphony is a fitting climax to Haydn’s lifetime of symphonic achievement.

With works like this Haydn set the course of Austro-German symphonic tradition which would continue through Mozart and Beethoven to Brahms, Mahler and beyond.

Symphony No. 1 in D Major

Franz Schubert grew up in the most important symphonic center of his time, Vienna. Schubert’s teachers, Salieri and Holzer, were primarily opera composers; but Schubert’s inner drive propelled him to an amazing and early symphonic output.

Schubert composed nine symphonies before he was thirty. Beethoven was already thirty before he wrote his first symphony. (Like Mozart when he wrote the A major violin concerto, Schubert was a teenager when he wrote the first symphony, a mere lad of 16.) Schubert, also like Mozart, was an accomplished violinist and played concertmaster in his school orchestra.

One can see the influence of the Viennese symphonic models his school orchestra rehearsed and performed — Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven — especially in the rhythmic drive of the first movement. The second theme, particularly, carries an almost Eroica-like character.

The second movement is truly a bridge between the customary elegance of Mozart and the beginnings of a new consciousness in art of the time: a certain heavier, darker mood permeates this movement, whose depth is so startling for having been written by an adolescent. The third movement shows more of the experimentation in moving into remote key areas for which Schubert became known, particularly in his chamber music and songs.

The symphony comes to a close in a vibrant movement which also shows the young composer’s emerging formal innovation. Yet, the personality of the master makes an unmistakable impression at the beginning of the last movement: it reminds one much of many of Schubert’s joyous song ideas.

Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major

The fifth concerto for violin, K. 219, is one of a series of great works for Mozart’s “other” instrument. We associate Mozart, and rightly so, with the keyboard. But Mozart’s skills on the violin were quite accomplished. Scholars believe Mozart performed his own violin concertos.

This concerto was written in 1775, while Mozart was in his less-than-happy tenure in his home town of Salzburg. This period of Mozart’s output saw early successes in opera and a massive output of concertos — all five recognized violin concertos were written in 1775, in addition to the first of the great piano concertos.

The concerto begins with a fast orchestral introduction. The violin solo, however, enters in a more Haydn-esque, adagio tempo. What is unusual is that not only is the tempo momentarily changed, as if the violin solo entered suspended in time, but instead of the grand, pompous slow introductions of Haydn, this is almost like inserting a slow concerto movement right into the beginning of the piece. Everything picks up again quickly, and the violin solo plays a new theme, overlaid exactly on the material of the first orchestral introduction. This ability of Mozart’s reminds the listener of Bach, where the composer can have a complete musical idea or create an entire pre-existing movement, then add still another layer of music to this music, the final product working just as well as the original. (Mozart dramatically demonstrated this concept in his own arrangement of Handel’s Messiah.)

The slow movement of this concerto contains impossibly genial, nearly polyphonic textures and harmonic treatments, all within a framework of seemingly effortless, sublime “galant” grace.

The third movement carries the idea of sections with contrasting moods and tempi further. The easy triple meter gives way to an “alla turca” section, which some believe to be actually more Hungarian-inspired than Turkish.

Trumpet Concerto in Eb Major

This is one of Haydn’s best-known concerti, and one of the most famous works for trumpet. Haydn composed it in 1796, and made full use of the solo ability of the chromatic trumpet, which had just come into its own.

The concerto is scored for large orchestra and displays the full panoply of Haydn’s mature orchestral style. An opening stately allegro gives the trumpet full reign to display melodic and technical prowess. The short slow movement features a beautiful opening melody in A-flat played by the strings and repeated by the trumpet, and displays an astonishing variety of harmonic invention.

The witty last movement, in rondo form with running passages by soloist and orchestra, closes out this work in dramatic style.

Concertino No. 5 in Bb Major

This is one of 6 famous concertini originally attributed to the Italian composer Pergolesi. These works were first published in Holland in 1740, but without mention of a composer. Recent scholarship has discovered that all of these works, far from being the work of an Italian, were actually composed by a Dutch nobleman, Unico Wilhelem Graf Van Wassenaer. He had permitted his court violinist, Carlo Ricciotti, to publish them, but only on condition that he (Van Wassenaer) was not associated with them. (Perhaps he did not wish his noble reputation to suffer by being so closely associated with the music profession.)

This concertino, like all of the others, is Italianate in style, with richly worked-out counterpoint and lush 7-part string writing (including 4 separate violin parts in Neapolitan style). The movements are alternately slow and fast, with a stately introduction, a fast alla breve second movement, followed by a slow third movement in “sicilienne” style.

Stravinsky adapted the last movement, in fast 6/8 time, as the basis for the “Tarantella” movement in his Pulcinella Suite.

“Jupiter” Symphony

“Jupiter” Symphony

In an astonishing burst of energy, Mozart composed his last 3 symphonies (Nos. 39, 40 and 41) in 1788 in a space of just six weeks.

The last of these three, the “Jupiter,” is grand and majestic in style. Written in C Major, it is complex in structure and form, as well as in its exploration of keys and harmonies. An imposing 5-note initial theme opens the work, setting the stage for rich musical development, alternately elegant and impassioned.

The poignant Andante cantabile opens with a lyrical rising theme by the muted violins. It is taken up in turn by the other instruments and interspersed against running scale-like passages.

After a refined Menuetto and Trio, the magnificent last movement opens with a transparent four-note theme in the violins. From this seemingly simple beginning, other themes are introduced, all of which in turn Mozart weaves into a complex tapestry of musical counterpoint. The total effect is at once grand, elegant, extraordinarily complex, and musically fulfilling.

Symphony No. 101 in D Major

In 1790, just two months after the death of Haydn’s employer, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy (for whom Haydn served for more than 40 years, with only brief interruptions), the violinist and impresario Johann Peter Salomon arrived in Vienna to convince Haydn to travel with him to London.

Haydn, now without permanent work and living as a freelance artist, agreed and made the first of two visits to London, composing six symphonies for this event. He paid a second visit for the 1794/1795 season, and again the principal event was a series of concerts with six new symphonies.

In contrast to his small orchestra at the Esterházy estate, the London orchestra of Salomon was a full-sized orchestra, providing Haydn with new possibilities. As a result, he composed the 12 symphonies (nos. 93-104) that count among the best he had ever written: The London Symphonies.

When Haydn finally returned to Vienna, in 1795, it was as a financially and artistically successful composer.

First performed in 1794, Symphony No. 101 is part of these famous London Symphonies, composed for his second stay in London. The second movement is responsible for the symphony’s nickname, “The Clock”: you can hear the clock-like tick-tack, introduced by the bassoons and string pizzicato, throughout the movement.

Symphony in D Major

Arriaga, who lived from 1806 to 1826, showed an early talent for a musical career. Known as “the Spanish Mozart,” he was born in Bilbao in northern Spain, and composed his only opera (Los Esclavos Felices) at the age of 14.

Arriaga’s talent so impressed Bilbao’s notables that they sent him to study in Paris in 1821, where he composed three string quartets and this symphony before his untimely death from tuberculosis at age 19.

Arriaga wrote his Symphony in D Major in 1824-5. It is a work with decided influences reminiscent of Schubert and Mozart, especially in its use of keys and harmonies. The opening adagio intersperses solo wind passages with brooding string motifs; this segues into an impassioned allegro, dramatically in the minor key. The andante is conventionally classical in form, but shows an inventive use of woodwinds and unusual string passagework. A minuetto and trio follows, the latter with solo flute and guitar-like string pizzicato effects.

The last movement opens again in the minor key, with an Italianate violin theme. A delightful second theme follows (again in the violins). A return to the major key heralds the triumphant finale.