October 17, 2019
Piano Concerto No.23 in A major, K488
Concertos for solo instruments and orchestra had been around for over 100 years by Mozart’s time, but in the late 18th century the development of the pianoforte, with its increased strength and sonority, provided an equal partner for the orchestra. This partnership enabled the interplay and dialogue between soloist and accompaniment that Mozart took to unprecedented heights – and to unprecedented emotional depths, as well.
During the winter of 1785-86 Mozart was living in Vienna, working on his opera Le nozze di Figaro. He managed to find time, however, to write a one-act comic opera (Der Schauspieldirector) and three piano concertos – No.22 in E-flat major K482, No.23 in A major K488 and No.24 in C minor K491.
At this point in his career Mozart was relying on performing to earn a living. Between 1782 – a year after moving to Vienna – and 1786 he produced an astonishing 15 piano concertos, and this was the period when he was most firmly established and successful as a keyboard performer. The three concertos from the winter of 1785-86 were almost certainly played by Mozart at the three subscription concerts that he organised at that time; indeed, they were almost certainly intended specifically for his own use, as they remained unpublished at his death and Mozart himself described them as “compositions that I keep for myself or for a small circle of music lovers and connoisseurs (who promise not to let them out of their hands).”
During this busy period there were, however, signs that Mozart’s popularity was waning. The eminent Mozart scholar Alfred Einstein felt that the K482 and K488 concertos in particular suggest that Mozart felt he had perhaps overestimated the taste and musical sophistication of the Viennese public, and that in the face of dwindling public favour he was seeking to win it back with apparently simpler works that he knew would be hugely successful.
Mozart entered the A major Concerto in his catalogue of his works as being finished on 2nd March 1786. The scoring – as in the E-flat Concerto – calls for two clarinets instead of the customary two
oboes, these two works marking the first time that Mozart used clarinets in a concerto orchestration. This relatively new reed instrument certainly added a gentle warmth to his instrumentation, and Mozart took full advantage of his friendship with the clarinettist Anton Stadler to produce two further A major masterpieces – the Clarinet Quintet K581 and the Clarinet Concerto K622.
Perhaps surprisingly, Mozart wrote only a handful of mature works in A major, but it was always a warm and sunny key for him, albeit imbued with moments of darker shading and introspection. All the more so in this particular case, as the Andante middle movement is in the relative minor key of F-sharp minor, an extremely unusual key in 18th century music and the only time that Mozart ever used it for a complete movement. Its simplicity merely heightens the air of resignation and even despair.
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125
The facts surrounding the genesis of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony are easily listed, but they do little to explain the towering position that the work occupies in the course of music history or its continuing appeal for musicians and audiences alike. A case can certainly be made for the Ninth not being the greatest symphony ever written, or even the best of Beethoven’s own symphonies, for that matter, but the emotions generated by its choral finale seem to make such considerations irrelevant.
Beethoven began serious work on the score in 1822, after a turbulent decade in which he had written relatively little, and which had been dominated by the protracted legal wranglings with his sister-in-law over the guardianship of his nephew Karl. Far from being a completely new venture, however, the symphony drew together several existing but disparate elements: Beethoven had just accepted a commission for a new symphony from the Philharmonic Society in London, having been unable to fulfill an earlier invitation by the Society to visit London in the winter of 1817-18; he had sketched what was to become the main theme of the Scherzo movement in several different forms in a notebook as early as 1815; and he had been considering setting Friedrich Schiller’s ode An die Freude since at least 1793.
The new symphony occupied Beethoven throughout 1823, although he was initially undecided about whether to write a vocal or instrumental finale. When he opted for the former, his main problem became how to lead up to the moment in which human voices would be featured in a symphonic work for the first time. His discarded sketches for a purely instrumental finale would become the basis for the last movement of the String Quartet in A minor Op.132 two years later.
The poet Johann Christian Friedrich von Schiller had written An die Freude (To Joy) in 1785, and published it the following year in his own literary journal, Thalia. He revised it in 1803, and apparently didn’t think too much of it, regarding it as a failure and “detached from reality.” It had, however, held a constant attraction for composers, having been the subject of at least seven settings before Beethoven’s. Beethoven certainly had no qualms about editing and altering the poem and moulding it to his needs, selecting some passages, deleting others, and changing the order of the words.
Once the score was finished in February 1824, the focus shifted to the preparations for the first performance. Beethoven, never too enamoured of the Viennese public, seriously considered Berlin instead of Vienna as a possible venue, but was persuaded otherwise by his colleagues. Then there were the issues of venue, performers and programme, all of which affected the budget and the ticket prices.
The premiere took place at the Karntnerthor Theater on 7th May 1824. Thankfully, plans to also perform the complete Missa Solemnis were abandoned, and the symphony was preceded by the Consecration of the House overture and three sections of the Missa Solemnis – the Kyrie, Credo, and Agnus Dei – the latter being billed as Three Grand Hymns to circumvent a Church ruling that banned the performance of liturgical music in public theatres.
The question of Beethoven’s own participation in the concert was not an easy one; his deafness was almost total, and he had not conducted in public for 12 years. Moreover, he had already experienced a humiliating personal and musical disaster by attempting to conduct a dress rehearsal of his opera Fidelio eighteen months earlier. It was eventually agreed that for the symphony Beethoven would stand on stage with a score, although Michael Umlauf, the concertmaster who was actually to direct the performance, instructed the performers to ignore the composer completely.
There were only a couple of rehearsals for the 45-piece orchestra. Of the four vocal soloists, the two women seem to have fared particularly well, despite their youth: soprano Henriette Sontag was only 18, but had already created the title role in Weber’s Euryanthe; mezzo Karoline Unger was just 20, and was to become a firm favourite of both Bellini and Donizetti. The tenor, Anton Haitzinger, was 28, and would enjoy a successful career; the bass singer, Joseph Seipelt, although only a third choice compromise for the part, apparently had only one major problem during the performance, his voice giving out on a high F sharp.
Although the concert was a financial disaster for Beethoven, the public reception was extremely enthusiastic. The story is often told of Beethoven, hunched over his stand and oblivious to his surroundings, continuing to beat time and turn the pages of his score after the symphony had ended and being gently turned around by Karoline Unger so that he could see the response of the audience.
Despite the work’s tremendous public reception, however, some of the critical reviews were surprisingly negative. One stated that in view of the players’ and singers’ inadequacies “it is surprising that the piece made an impression at all”; another described it, astonishingly, as “the ravings of a deaf lunatic.” Even the composer Louis Spohr went on record as saying that “its first three movements … are inferior to all the eight previous symphonies, and the fourth movement is monstrous and tasteless.”
The Ninth Symphony was extremely long for its time – well over an hour – and was the first step on the road to bigger symphonies that culminated in the huge works of Gustav Mahler. Its “Brotherhood of Man” message of hope and unity is not surprising, given that Beethoven was born and grew up in the Age of Enlightenment. Despite many critics’ rejection of this message as naïve and simple the work continues to engage listeners to a remarkable degree.
Certainly, it continues to resonate through the years, naïve and simple or not. The Ode to Joy has been used in opening ceremonies for the Winter and Summer Olympic Games and was adopted as the official anthem of the European Union in 1985. On Christmas Day 1989 Leonard Bernstein and a multi-national cast performed the full symphony in Berlin to celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall. For this performance, the word Freude in the finale was changed to Freiheit – Freedom.
One can’t help but feel that Beethoven would have whole-heartedly approved.
Orchestra Toronto will perform Freude! 30 Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall on Sunday, October 27, at 3:00 p.m., in the George Weston Recital Hall.
by Terry Robbins
Writer and reviewer Terry Robbins has written the OT programme notes since 1989. Terry has a monthly CD review column, “Strings Attached” in the WholeNote magazine, for whom he also writes the occasional article on the community musical theatre scene. He also plays violin and fretted instruments (guitar/banjo/mandolin etc.) for community musical theatre productions for groups across the GTA, and plays or has played in numerous orchestras in Toronto as well.