Monday, 8 September 2014

Programme essay for Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Beethoven: 'Tributes to Mozart: Misunderstanding and Development'

(This was originally published in the programme for a 2014 Salzburg Festival concert, performed by the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra and Vladimir Fedoseyev.)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Symphony No. 28 in C major K. 200

Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893)
Orchestral Suite No. 4 in G major ‘Mozartiana’ op. 61

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770–1827)
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major ‘Eroica’ op. 55

An expansion of symphonic scale

Mozart’s 28th Symphony, ambitious by the standards of his earlier Salzburg symphonies, was most likely written in 1774 for the Archbishop’s Hofkapelle, or at least with that orchestra in mind. Alongside the 25th or ‘little’ G minor Symphony K. 183 and Symphony No. 29 in A major K. 201, it signals an expansion of symphonic scale in the composer’s oeuvre. Alfred Einstein went so far as to describe it as a milestone in Mozart’s development. In the ‘Viennese’ four movements rather than the Italianate three generally favoured in Salzburg, the Symphony, or rather its composer, also takes advantage of a thriving musical life belying Salzburg’s (partly Mozart-induced) provincial reputation, employing, in addition to strings, two oboes, two horns and two trumpets. Mozart may have longed for clarinets – he certainly soon would, following his experience of Mannheim and Paris – but Salzburg served him far from poorly, not least concerning prospects for performance. Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart, visiting the city at this time, remarked upon ‘especially distinguished’ instrumentalists.

The first movement is strikingly motivic in its construction, its very opening setting up contest and interaction between opening full-orchestral chords – what could be simpler than a descending C major arpeggio? – and a trill-based sequence. Although there is the expected move to the dominant for a more lyrical second subject, blessed by delightful oboe colouring and ornamentation, the movement takes its leave as much from that initial motivic tension as from any subsequent contrast. In the F major Andante, muted strings lend a veiled, intimate note to its serenade-like progress. Trumpets are silent throughout; now is not the time for rejoicing, but for whispering of nocturnal confidences, repeated trills especially noteworthy. Minor-mode colouring in the brief development section heightens a sense of quasi-operatic emotion: for Mozart, the imaginary stage is never far away. A courtly Minuet, its solo horn call particularly delightful, offers anticipated yet never routine contrast with an initially delicate Trio, whose sudden unison chromatic turn offers a surprise in miniature that looks forward to the composer’s ‘late’ preoccupations, such as in the ‘great’ G minor Symphony K. 550. The scintillating Finale shows the young composer at the height of his powers, its scurrying figures – again, a trilling motif proves crucial – capable both of yielding to a subsidiary, lyrical theme and, ultimately, a traditionally festal C major climax.

Within a Fabergé egg

Tchaikovsky esteemed Mozart above all other composers and Don Giovanni above all other of Mozart’s compositions. ‘The most beautiful opera ever written’, he averred to his patroness, the unconvinced Nadezhda von Meck. For the work’s 1887 centenary, he offered tribute in the guise of his Fourth and final Orchestral Suite, entitled ‘Mozartiana’. Tchaikovsky orchestrated four works by Mozart, at least three out of four unlikely to have been known to fellow Mozart lovers, let alone to the general concert-going public. The three connoisseur’s works were all for solo piano: the Gigue in G major K. 574, the D major Minuet K. 355 and the Variations on ‘Unser dummel Pöbel meint’ K. 455, also helpfully written in G major, ensuring that the Suite would finish in the key in which it had opened, without need for transposition. The third movement, ‘Preghiera’, is based upon the late motet Ave verum corpus, albeit via a transcription by Liszt, who had also used the work as the transfiguring culmination of his Evocation à la Chapelle Sixtine.

As so often, one learns more about the composer offering ‘tribute’ than its recipient. The Gigue is for listeners today perhaps most remarkable for its 12-note flirtations and its similarly Schoenbergian adoption of one of Bach’s forms. Here it simply sounds graceful, innocuous even; its chromaticism is suave and charming, hardly radical. Tchaikovsky’s attitude was not at all unusual for the 19th century: Schumann had pointed to the ‘Grecian lightness and grace’ of Mozart’s ‘great’ G minor Symphony, rather than to its tragic drive and extreme chromatic dislocations. Moreover, though Tchaikovsky could hardly have been immune to the daemonic strains of Don Giovanni, he nevertheless referred to it, as we have seen, in terms of ‘beauty’. Orchestral colouring has nothing in common with Mozart’s symphonies; despite the scaled-down orchestration by late Romantic standards, the wind writing might have leaped from the pages of any of Tchaikovsky’s essays in the genre. The Minuet is treated with similar, sugarcoated affection; Mozart is safely, nostalgically treasured within the cocoon of a Fabergé egg. Springing from Liszt rather than directly from the ‘source’, the third movement employs Liszt’s introduction and conclusion. Tchaikovsky’s harp arpeggios and the swelling strings of the orchestral climax contribute to a distinctly 19th-century conception of the ‘celestial’: sentimental, perhaps, but undoubtedly sincere.

Mozart’s variations on a theme from Osmin’s aria in La Rencontre imprévue, Gluck’s opéra comique, offer Tchaikovsky plenty of scope, well taken, for orchestral fantasy. Whether syncopated cymbals in the second variation, magical flute solo work in the third, balletic glockenspiel doubling in the eighth, concertante violin in the expansive Adagio ninth, such inspirations – and there are many more – have no interest in ‘authentic’ fidelity and emerge all the more winningly for that. The first performance was given in St Petersburg on 26 November 1887, the composer conducting: the only such case amongst his orchestral suites. It is no coincidence that this very personal tribute has been frequently performed as a ballet.

Everything that is truly human

Beethoven’s tributes to Mozart (and Haydn) were of a very different nature: more a matter of extending his predecessors’ symphonic explorations into new territory than of direct homage. The Third Symphony presents an expansion of scope that would transform symphonic writing forever. If the story behind its subtitle, in shortened version the ‘Eroica’, is well known, the intended dedication to Napoleon furiously rescinded when the First Consul became Emperor, there is a broader point to be made. The generic idea of a heroic symphony composed to celebrate the memory of a great man suits Beethoven’s broader humanism far better than any specifically named example. To quote Donald Tovey: ‘In order to be literary, it is not necessary to be unmusical. Beethoven does not think a symphony a reasonable vehicle for a chronological biography of Napoleon; but he does think it the best possible way of expressing his feelings about heroes and hero-worship.’ Or, as one of Beethoven’s most distinguished interpreters, Richard Wagner, wrote in a ‘programmatic explanation’ of 1851, sincerely if subjectively prefiguring his own conception of the ‘purely human’:

The term “heroic” must be taken in the widest sense, and not simply as relating to a military hero. If we understand “hero” to mean, above all, the whole, complete man, in possession of all purely human feelings – love, pain and strength – at their richest and most intense, we shall comprehend the correct object, as conveyed to us by the artist in the speaking, moving tones of his work. The artistic space of this work is occupied by […] feelings of a strong, fully formed individuality […] which contains within itself everything that is truly human.

We should also, however, consider that expansion of symphonic scope in terms closer to what has, for better or worse, become known as ‘absolute’ music. The sheer scale of the first movement is unprecedented. Contrast it, for instance, with the first movement of the Mozart Symphony to hear how far symphonic form had developed – always a crucial word with Beethoven – in only 30 years. And remember that Haydn was still alive, if no longer able to compose. It is difficult to know at what one should marvel most. The generative simplicity of the opening E flat major triad, or its decisive occlusion by the cellos’ descent, E flat–D–C sharp? The use to which that melodic chromatic turn is put in the recapitulation, facilitating symmetrical modulation to the supertonic and subsequently to the flattened seventh degree, or the masterly resolution in the tonic thereafter, balancing yet extending further that tension?  The scale of the development section proper or the ‘second development’ in the coda? Thankfully, it is never a case of either-or; with Beethoven, it is all or nothing.

The Marcia funebre is also on the grand scale, harking back to French Revolutionary ceremonial, its rondo form permitting of episodes for which ‘episode’ sounds too incidental: for instance, a double fugue. This is an oration to which Felix Weingartner understandably attached the word ‘Aeschylean’. Funeral games follow in the Scherzo, memorializing the hero’s deeds: again on a scale which, although concentrated, extends in dramatic as well as musical scope far beyond the Classical minuet. The three horns of the Trio mark another broadening of orchestral horizons. It is difficult, probably undesirable, not to consider the Finale’s novel form as a set of variations, but it is certainly of a more complex variety than the Mozartian example we heard in Tchaikovsky’s orchestration. There are worse ways of thinking about it – more to the point, of experiencing it – than Tovey’s directive to ‘identify its material under three headings, a Bass, a Tune and a Fugue’. The coda offers another example of Beethoven’s method of perpetual development, modulation suggesting yet never quite achieving a further ‘variation’, preparing rather for a conclusion which both returns to the material of the movement’s introduction and passes beyond it. Perhaps this is the realm of Wagner’s ‘everything that is truly human’.

For what unfolds is a musical drama as much as an ‘abstract’ form; Beethoven’s reach and humanity are greater than any single analysis could conceive of, let alone tell. We should permit movement and Symphony as a whole to tell their own tales rather than preoccupying ourselves with what it ‘is’ or ‘is not’; formal codification comes after the event. The presence of fugal elements throughout the Symphony is not the least of its unifying characteristics and processes. Perhaps the greatest, however, is the claim to thoroughgoing, organicist development and, latterly, to the requirement for mediated understanding. In the words of Joseph Kerman, ‘astonishing is the quality of “potential” that informs the main themes of the three fast movements. Two of them require (and in due course receive) horizontal or vertical completion, and the other is presented in a state of almost palpable evolution.’ Such was an inheritance and a challenge Berlioz and Mendelssohn, Liszt and Schumann, Wagner and Brahms could readily accept, and in any case could not avoid.

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