Monday, 8 September 2014

Programme Essay for Mozart's Symphonies 39-41: 'A Drama of the Soul'

(This essay was originally published in the programme for a performance of these symphonies by Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Concentus musicus Wien, at the 2014 Salzburg Festival.)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Symphony No. 39 in E flat major K. 543
Symphony No. 40 in G minor K. 550
Symphony No. 41 in C major ‘Jupiter’ K. 551

Programming, properly understood, is fun but difficult. Thoughtful performers have long taken it upon themselves to present music by Mozart and Schubert in tandem with works by composers of the Second Viennese School. All-Mozart programmes have become rarer than they should; opportunities to hear Mozart’s last three symphonies in sequence, apparently a post-Romantic conception that would not have been his, are now infrequent. Yet, although we may draw comparisons and contrasts, perhaps even considering them à la Mahler as part of a greater meta-symphony, concentrated listening nevertheless continues to suggest, to eyes and to ears, tendencies pointing towards Mozart’s Austro-German successors (and back to his predecessors: the Bachs, Fux, and Handel).

Nikolaus Harnoncourt is not the only present-day conductor to wish to redress the balance. Simon Rattle and Daniel Barenboim have recently performed the hallowed final triptych in single concerts. Nevertheless, Harnoncourt remains different, avowedly wishing to present the symphonies as having been planned not just by him, but also by Mozart, as an intégrale, possessing its own architecture. Harnoncourt even considers the celebrated finale to the ‘Jupiter’ as a finale to all three works – which can certainly be our experience in performance. In the conductor’s view, this is an oratorio without words, a drama of the soul (he employs the German Seelendrama ),which in some senses may be understood to mirror, to dramatise the life of that soul, perhaps looking forward to Haydn’s The Seasons as well as to the works of CPE Bach and Handel, Mozart having re-orchestrated some of the latter’s essays in the genre. Perhaps liberated by the technical capabilities of instruments vis­-à-vis voices and indeed, by the lack of concrete words, such is the typically provocative conception of Mozart Harnoncourt wishes to present.

There remain surprising lacunae in our knowledge of Mozart’s life (not the least of temptations towards romanticizing). Little is known of the circumstances of composition and performance of these symphonies, in stark contrast to the acclaim received by the preceding ‘Prague’ Symphony. We know, even if we cannot quite believe the astonishing fact, that Mozart wrote all three within a six-week-period during the summer of 1788, yet have no certain evidence of performance. The old seductive idea that he therefore wrote them as a statement for posterity no longer garners acceptance. Perhaps they were written for subscription concerts ‘in the Casino’ on Spiegelgasse in Vienna’s Innere Stadt. The second version of the G minor Symphony (without clarinets), however, suggests a particular performing imperative, perhaps for a 1791 Tonkünstler-Societät concert, at which Salieri conducted an unidentified Mozart symphony. Or they may have been written with a visit to London in mind. Posterity has nevertheless made them its own. Brahms, keen to distinguish between novelty and ‘inner value’, remarked in 1896 that, although Beethoven’s First Symphony had offered a ‘new outlook […] the last three symphonies by Mozart are much more important!’ That once-heretical judgement now sounds uncontroversial. 

Unlike the famously minuet-less ‘Prague’, all three works are in four movements. The 39th Symphony is the only one to follow on from the ‘Prague’ in having a slow introduction, its E flat major grandeur presaging that of Die Zauberflöte, but all the opening movements are unsurprisingly in sonata form. Contrast between first and second groups remains an important guiding principle, yet so does dynamic propulsion, the tension between those principles providing part of an operatic, formal and musical drama. Indeed, the second group of the ‘Jupiter’ takes us unmistakably into the realm of opera buffa, incorporating a quotation from Mozart’s insertion arietta ‘Un bacio di mano’ (K. 541). It offers a perfect foil to the trumpets and drums of earlier material, replete with resonances of the traditional Missa solemnis figuraliter and the seria pomp-to-come of La clemenza di Tito. Dramatic tension of a proto-Romantic order is overriding in the 40th Symphony; its opening lower string throbbing presents an on-going scene of ‘accompaniment’ prior to the entry of the first subject above. (Harnoncourt points to the lack of a ‘beginning’ as such, comparing the movement to a Vivaldi Adagio.) Its nagging semitonal fall prepares us, if only slightly, for one of Mozart’s most disorienting chromatic explorations. The opening of the development shocks us by yanking first-group material into the remote key of F sharp minor and then attempting, though not succeeding, its Mephistophelian negation through harmonic and contrapuntal means. Not for nothing was Schoenberg drawn to its analysis in his Harmonielehre.

Slow movements now carry greater emotional weight than had generally been Mozart’s symphonic practice, perhaps influenced by his piano concertos. If the slow movement of Symphony No. 39 lacks a development section, at least as conventionally understood, that is only because development – hints of the ‘developing variation’ Schoenberg discerned in Brahms and his own music – continues throughout the recapitulation. All is transformed by what has come before. Chromaticism again haunts the slow movement of the 40th Symphony; if we are in the major mode, it is hardly at its most affirmative. Complexity, whether harmonic or formal, reaches a new level in the slow, sarabande-like movement of the ‘Jupiter’. It may not be lengthy but it is powerfully concentrated.

Minuets (and Trios) retain their origins in dance, though are entirely symphonic in conception.  There is certainly an aristocratic grandeur to the Minuet of No. 39 that would not have been out of place in Vienna’s Redoutensaal, yet its woodwind luxuriance marks it out as something more. The Trio transports us to a ravishing serenade-like Elysium, pointing towards Così fan tutte. Mozart’s G minor daemon drives home cross-rhythms in the 40th Symphony that serve to demonstrate our distance from the ballroom. Perhaps most extraordinary of all is the chromaticism of the initially ‘simple’ if sinuous Minuet of the ‘Jupiter’. Ultra-chromatic subversion of the tonic results in a passage of just six beats which includes every pitch class save that of C. Yet however much that has us peer into the Schoenbergian future, Mozart’s chromaticism retains a great deal, though certainly not all, of its meaning by virtue of its relationship to a fundamental diatonic tonality. ‘Home’ remains a place to which Mozart returns, though who knows where a longer life might have taken him.

Thematic economy marks the E flat major Finale, the second theme a development of the first. The movement seems over in a flash, a quicksilver operatic resolution. Tragic complexity continues to rule in the G minor. One passage of chromatic and rhythmic disjuncture delineates a sequence of all 11 pitches, save for the tonic; this may in a sense be the most radical of all Mozart’s finales and meaning is again imparted partly through contrast between such exploration and the tonality of ‘home’, however uncomforting. In Georg Knepler’s words, this Symphony ‘clings relentlessly to the minor mode’. It was, Knepler noted, not an unusual practice for Mozart, though Mozart’s other G minor masterwork, the String Quintet K. 516, does turn to the tonic major. Tragedy is preferred over a Beethovenian-Romantic journey from ‘darkness to light’ or even the Classical dramatic happy ending. Mozart never confuses sentiment with sentimentality; catharsis shakes us to the core.
Simplicity and complexity

In his article on the Trio of the 40th Symphony, Leonard B. Meyer argued that the belief to which he had earlier subscribed that ‘complexity was at least a necessary condition for value’, was ‘if not, entirely mistaken, at least somewhat confused’, since what was crucial in music, as exemplified by this Trio, was ‘relational richness, and such richness (or complexity) is in no way incompatible with simplicity of musical vocabulary and grammar’. He proceeded to argue that it was possible for the listener to discern the Trio’s complexities ‘precisely because these arise out of uncomplicated, unassuming tonal means’. Meyer was certainly right to point to that possibility, though the issue of ‘relational richness’ quite rightly complicates – in his sense as well as others – given that the ‘relative’ simplicity of the Trio’s ‘tonal means’ may be understood to acquire some of its meaning from its contrast with complexity elsewhere. There would not be a sense of relaxation were it not for the nigh Schoenbergian extremity of some of Mozart’s writing beforehand. Harnoncourt speaks even of the ‘destruction’ of tonal melody and harmony.

Mozart’s compositional style, here and elsewhere, offers something quite extraordinary, akin to a dialectic in equilibrium, in which simplicity and complexity seem on the one hand to be held in balance and, on the other, dialectically to depend upon one another and to find themselves in dramatic conflict with each other. We may offer all manner of possible explanations for that. Mozart’s experience as an opera composer certainly informs his symphonic writing – sometimes to the chagrin of those who, like Wagner, wish that Mozart’s conception of sonata form had conformed more closely to expectations conditioned by Haydn and Beethoven. The composer’s historical position is another factor. The stage at which Mozart’s musical language finds itself is somewhat analogous to the world of Newtonian physics, then in its popular heyday, a tonal universe extending its bounds almost rationally, tonal relations, remote and close, almost yet not quite classifiable. And yet there remains a ‘progressive’ imperative, ineluctably urging him on towards chromatic dissolution.

Harmonic language is not the only element one may consider in such a fashion. One can learn a great deal from Mozart’s irregularity of phrase length. It is, however, perhaps the most important or at least the most readily apparent. Moreover, as with Schoenberg, the potential, if not yet the realization, of harmonic dissolution necessitated a more rigid form of musical organization. What could be more ‘organized’ than a fugue, or at least fugal writing, in the case of the Finale of the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony fused with sonata form?

The sense of a finale offering the culminating achievement of the work, its telos or goal, is not the least of Mozart’s legacies. For the ‘finale problem’ experienced by Beethoven and every German Romantic symphonic composer – a good few non-Germans too – may, with a little exaggeration, find its origin in Mozart’s tour de force. A requirement of Classical balance and the scope for throwaway finale humour – always more Haydn’s thing than Mozart’s – have been dealt a blow by a teleology throwing the greatest weight upon a climactic final movement. Lest that seem Romantic sentimentalism, there is a great deal of evidence to indicate that the Finale of the ‘Jupiter’ was understood as such at the time. Vincent Novello would recount a conversation with Franz Xaver Mozart, Wolfgang’s son: ‘he considered the Finale to his father’s sinfonie in C – which [Johann Peter] Salomon [the impresario who commissioned Haydn’s London Symphonies] christened the Jupiter – to be the highest triumph of instrumental composition, and I agree with him.’ Complexity is triumphantly reinstated, if ever it had gone away, yet the coda’s quintuple invertible counterpoint – all the movement’s themes are combined in mind-boggling combination and permutation – is all the more miraculous for how lightly-worn the learning is. Yes, there is triumph, but there is no sense of forcibly welding the themes together (as, say, in Wagner’s Meistersinger counterpoint). Mozart’s Finale is the product of an 18th-century art that conceals art, offering the apparent paradox of effortless climax. It is, moreover, difficult not to feel some sense of signing off, of culmination to more than a single work. Had Mozart lived longer, he would certainly have composed other symphonies longer, but he did not; Harnoncourt’s thesis of an ‘instrumental oratorio’ may yet shed new light upon the particularity of this climax.

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