Monday, 8 September 2014

Programme Essay for Mozart and Weill: 'Opera and the Symphony - Mutually Informing'

(This essay was originally published in a Salzburg Festival programme for a concert in which Marc Minkowski conducted the Salzburg Mozarteum Orchestra. The programme was slightly altered at late notice, owing to a change of soloist, but I have given the original version here.)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Symphony No. 33 in B flat major K. 319
‘Parto inerme’ from La Betulia liberata K. 118
‘Ombra felice’ – ‘Io ti lascio’ K. 255
‘Venga pur, minacci e frema’ from Mitridate, re di Ponto K. 87

Kurt Weill (1900–1950)
Symphony No. 2

Deviation and dialectic

Mozart’s Symphony No. 33, dating from 1779, would prove to be his penultimate Salzburg symphony. Initially it was a three-movement work, its Minuet and Trio added five or six years later, most likely for a specific performance in Vienna, where audiences tended to expect, and in this case therefore received, a symphony in four movements. Whereas the first of the symphonies written upon returning home from Paris, No. 32 in G major K. 318, very much bore the marks of Mozart’s experience in the French capital – its three sections in one movement clearly modelled after the overture style of opéra comique – this three-movement work conformed to the Italianate model most popular in Alpine Salzburg, though, interestingly, the later Minuet and Trio offer no hint of stylistic incongruity. (Hans Keller begged to differ, suggesting an element of undue contrivance in its ‘fit’, but that seems a dubious case of wisdom after the event.) Whether the smaller orchestra – no flutes and two horns rather than four – reflects a response to audience reaction, the orchestral forces available or simply a matter of the composer’s inclination remains, in the absence of documentation, a matter of conjecture.

Perhaps the most strikingly ‘forward-looking’ feature of a work which erroneously, if understandably in the light of ‘reversions’ such as orchestral size and number of movements – is the high level of motivic cohesion, not only within movements but between them too. The first, third and fourth movements all open with a downward octave leap, B flat to B flat, a unifying correspondence the least tutored of ears might readily recognize. This being Mozart rather than Haydn, the generative variety of melodic profusion following each of those opening statements is, however, more striking still. A familiar yet typically finely crafted balance between fundamentally diatonic harmonic rhythm and sinuous melodic chromaticism characterizes the first movement. So does the startling – with hindsight – appearance of a four-note contrapuntal tag which would make its most celebrated reappearance in the Finale of the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony. It is perhaps more immediately relevant to this Symphony, however, to consider its previous appearance in the Credo of Mozart’s Mass in F major K. 192 and more generally as reflective of an Austrian and South German contrapuntal tradition born of Johann Joseph Fux’s Gradus ad Parnassum.

Experimentation may not be so overt in this Symphony as in some of its immediate predecessors and is, in any case, rarely a prevailing characteristic of Mozart’s symphonism. Nevertheless, the reversal of events in the slow movement’s recapitulation, the second subject preceding the return of the first, offers a formal ‘deviation’, albeit one with precedent in earlier works, as satisfying as it is surprising. More noteworthy still however is the movement’s serenade-like grace, serenity and warmth. The ‘reduced’ wind section shows in a well-nigh perfect blend of the harmonic and contrapuntal that we need not wait for the Viennese Mozart to experience delights both sensuous and intellectual. Such a dialectic also informs the ‘Viennese’ third movement, the ready cliché of Trio ‘relaxation’ undoubtedly true in the brief serenade sandwiched between two hearings of the Minuet. The latter’s sternness in miniature seems almost to prefigure the neo-classicism of La clemenza di Tito, even Beethoven. In the Finale, we hear ebullience, contrapuntal mastery, hints of Parisian orchestral virtuosity allegedly left behind and, perhaps most important, an operatic sense of characterization, oboes and horns again taking a leading role, in which all the world is truly a stage. Indeed, in 1786, the year of Le nozze di Figaro, Mozart would sell a copy of this Symphony, together with Nos. 34 and 36 and three piano concertos, to the Donaueschingen court, attesting to a more extended after-life than was typical for his Salzburg symphonies.

Precocious dramatic sensibilities

It would generally take longer for the wider world to appreciate the charms and, in many cases, the profundities of Mozart’s early vocal works. Mitridate, re di Ponto gained considerable success with its 26 initial performances, but then went unperformed until the early 20th century. In the case of the 1771 oratorio La Betulia liberata, commissioned by Don Giuseppe Ximenese, Prince of Aragon, the music seems originally never to have been performed at all, notwithstanding Mozart’s unfulfilled idea over a decade later to rework material for a commission from Vienna’s Tonkünstler-Societät. This azione sacra, a setting of Metastasio’s 1734 libretto, drawn from the Book of Judith, is stylistically very much in the mould of opere serie such as Mitridate, written the previous year for Milan. Both castrato arias, the oratorio’s ‘Parto enerme, e non pavento’, sung by Judith herself, and the opera’s ‘Venga pur, minacci e frema’ speak of a dramatic sensibility belying the composer’s tender years. Some of the luxuriance of the Salzburg symphonies is present. So also, however, is considerable single-mindedness in pursuit of dramatic truth, doubtless partly born of Mozart’s admiration for and imitation of Gluck. The righteous determination of a biblical heroine may thus be understood, historically as well as in the context of this concert, to be informed by that of Mitridate’s treacherous son, Farnace.

Not, of course, that we may not discern in those arias a genuine delight in the capabilities of the voice as such. The same may be said of the contrasting, mostly tender scena ‘Ombra felice’ and aria ‘Io ti lascio’, wherein we hear what to us is a strikingly familiar Mozartian voice of compassion, prior to an ‘operatically’ brilliant conclusion. We also hear startling freedom of form within the rondeau structure of repeated refrain, not at all what Metastasian traditionalists would have expected. Perhaps some at least, though, were beguiled, even inspired. For already, without being entirely fanciful, we hear in all three arias intimations, if not yet fully formed, of the mature Mozart’s Shakespearean ability to abstain from judgement, to permit characters to speak for themselves rather than didactically to be commanded. Such is apparent in an ‘edifying’ oratorio, in a more overtly ‘dramatic’ operatic ‘entertainment’, and in this ‘insertion’ aria for Metastasio’s Arsace, an aria which seems in fact never to have been ‘inserted’ and was probably intended instead for castrato concert performance in 1776. At any rate, it offers Mozart’s sole example of a concert aria for alto, irrespective of gender.

Three night scenes

It may seem something of a distance to travel from Mozart to Kurt Weill, and it would in most respects be vain to pretend otherwise, especially with respect to the mature and ‘late’ Weill of Brecht and Broadway. Weill’s Second Symphony is no early work, hailing instead from the period immediately following his 1933 flight from Germany, of Die sieben Todsünden, that ballet-cantata interrupting the Symphony’s composition. The Symphony nevertheless seems in retrospect to hark back to a greater seriousness more readily associated with Weill’s teacher, Ferruccio Busoni, far from the least in his generation of Mozart’s disciples. Indeed a good deal of Weill’s melodic and harmonic language here is strikingly close to Busoni’s and would surely be more generally recognized as such, did Busoni’s music not continue to languish in such neglect. The first movement’s introduction, arguably more balletic, even operatic, than symphonic in the Classical-Romantic sense, leads into a sonata-form movement whose scurrying, fantastical qualities might almost have leaped out from a discarded sketch for Doktor Faust. A neo-Lisztian Mephistopheles certainly seems at work in the transformational techniques both within and between movements. Without labouring the point, and certainly without wishing to ascribe ‘influence’, we may also recall Mozart’s practice here.

Amidst the debris of the once all-conquering Neue Sachlichkeit, orchestral wind proffer a satirical edge, harsher, more ironic than Mozartian seduction. Hindemith’s Kammermusik may be a reference point here, but far from the only such point, or even, surface impressions notwithstanding, the most important one. For there beats, perhaps surprisingly, a heart not entirely distant from that of another great symphonist: Gustav Mahler. The second of the 1924 Violin Concerto’s three movements, Notturno – Cadenza – Serenata, has provoked comparisons with the central, three-movement sequence, Nachtmusik – Scherzo – Nachtmusik, of Mahler’s Seventh Symphony. The unhappy reception accorded Weill’s Symphony upon its 1934 Amsterdam premiere by the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Bruno Walter even drew from the composer an alternative title, Drei Nacht-Szenen (Three Night Scenes), recalling Mahler’s example, enduringly strong with Willem Mengelberg’s orchestra. That said, as ever with Weill, as with Mahler, things are not so simple. If we consider the central Largo funereal, then it can only be so in a markedly detached sense: certainly not without wit and difficult to describe as tragic in a Mahlerian or indeed any other sense (even, that is, when we invoke the nocturnal ambivalence of the Mahler of the Seventh Symphony). Hints, sometimes more, of jazz, even of show tunes, permeate the whole, most of all in the Finale, which seems concerned as much to step aside from as directly to combat grandiloquent, Romantic expectations of symphonic climax and fulfilment.

And yet, even though Weill’s speaking at times both of a ‘symphonic fantasy’ and of a ‘nocturne’ reveals important truths, this is no anti-symphony. The recurrence and questioning of the first movement’s march rhythms in the Finale imparts a degree of conventional cyclical unity even as its expectations undergo a degree of deconstruction. Weill, like Mozart, was above all a musical dramatist and such in a sense was the deconstructive drama of his exile: more defiant, perhaps, less sardonic than that of his Weimar-era coming to maturity, but the Verfremdungseffekt (distancing effect) was always more Brecht’s conception than that of his sometimes uneasy collaborator. The composer’s final orchestral work is now, alongside the Violin Concerto, generally and rightly considered as significant in their way as Weill’s collaborations with Brecht. Perhaps it is helpful to think of the composer as analogous to Prokofiev: enamoured with the stage, not always the most ‘natural’ of symphonists, but an interesting symphonist nonetheless, the interest of his contribution being partly a consequence of a more oblique relationship to this weightiest of forms and traditions.