Les Violons du Roy Program Notes

Pianist Alexandre Tharaud

Pianist Alexandre Tharaud

Overture to Olympie (1792)
by Joseph Martin Kraus (Miltenberg am Main, Electorate of Mainz, 1756 – Stockholm, 1792)

Joseph Martin Kraus was born the same year as Mozart, whom he outlived by barely a year.  German by birth, he spent the bulk of his career in Sweden, where he served as vice-Kapellmeister of the Royal Swedish Opera and director of the Royal Academy of Music.  King Gustav III was an accomplished writer, and he personally drafted the plot outlines of several of Kraus’s operas.

The King was a great admirer of the French Enlightenment and especially Voltaire, whose tragedy Olympie (1763) was adapted for the Swedish stage by the eminent writer Johan Henrik Kellgren.  The Olympie of the play is the daughter of Alexander the Great, with whom two kings, fighting over the deceased Alexander’s legacy, are in love.

Kraus supplied seven pieces of incidental music for the play, of which the first is the present overture in D minor.  The overture is a splendid example of the so-called ‟Sturm und Drang” (‟storm and stress”) style in 18th-century music, characterized by frequent dramatic syncopations and a melodic writing that expresses great emotional turmoil.  It opens with a slow introduction that returns at the end, following an agitated Allegro.

Piano Concerto No. 9 (“Jenamy”) in E-flat major, K. 271 (1777)
by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Salzburg, 1756 – Vienna, 1791)

The age-old enigma surrounding the dedicatee of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 was resolved by Austrian musicologist Michael Lorenz just over a decade ago.  It was always known that the concerto was written for a female pianist referred to in the Mozart family correspondence variously as ‟Jenomy,” ‟Jenamè” or ‟Genomai.”  The name ‟Mademoiselle Jeunehomme” first appears in an early 20th century French biography of Mozart; subsequently, ‟Miss Youngman” became a fixture in writings about Mozart, even though there was never any record of anyone actually having that name.

In 2003, finally, Lorenz found the right woman:  she was Victoire Jenamy (1749-1812), daughter of Jean-Georges Noverre, the most famous ballet master of the time.  (Maybe we should now call her ‟Mademoiselle Jeuneami,” or ‟Miss Youngfriend?”)

We still don’t know very much about the artistic career of Victoire Jenamy, yet the fact that she inspired one of Mozart’s greatest piano concertos—definitely a milestone in his career—speaks very highly of her.  Mozart himself considered it one of his most important works.  He performed it in Munich in October 1777.  His sister Nannerl also studied the work, and in 1783, Wolfgang sent her some short cadenzas to be inserted at certain points.

In the great piano concertos written in subsequent years, Mozart developed certain structural patterns that are clearly recognizable despite the great individuality of each work.  The “Jenamy” concerto follows no such patterns.  One of the longest Mozart concertos, it has many unique features in tone, structure, and design.

The irregularities start at the very beginning.  This is the only concerto by Mozart where the soloist enters right away, in the second measure of the work.  Nor is this gesture a mere whim on the composer’s part.  The combination of two motifs—one for orchestra, the other for piano—is the central idea of the movement and will recur several times.  In the later concertos, themes tend to have longer breaths and more complex, many-layered phrase structures.  In the “Jenamy,” the units are shorter, changes of direction more frequent and more sudden, giving the music a special sense of vibrancy and excitement.  The brief development section (most of which is for piano with only two oboes accompanying) includes a series of modulations anticipating Mozart’s later style and the technique of hand-crossing Mozart was particularly fond of.  In the recapitulation, the opening motif becomes enriched by the addition of a new chromatic figure that darkens the horizon for a brief moment, before the return of the cheerful mood that has characterized the entire movement.

The second-movement Andantino, in a somber C minor, is another Mozartian rarity as it sounds more Baroque than Mozart’s music usually does.  Modern listeners may find it hard not to hear echoes from J. S. Bach’s concertos—works that Mozart couldn’t possibly have known at the time.  The striking unison phrase ending and the ornate keyboard melody unfolding over a repeat of the same string phrase are very similar to what happens in the middle movements of J. S. Bach’s D-minor clavier concerto.  One delicate phrase Mozart wrote for the piano parallels a phrase from Bach’s E major violin concerto.  The close imitation between the two violin sections also looks back to the Baroque, which, by the way, was still quite recent history in the 1770s.  (It is interesting that Mozart has the violins play with mutes for all but the last few measures of the movement.)

In addition to Baroque concerto elements, Mozart also introduced some operatic touches into this movement.  The ending of the movement’s primary theme sounds like a recitative from an opera seria (18th-century tragic opera).  From all these different elements, however, Mozart created an entirely personal synthesis.

The finale begins with a bubbly, perpetual-motion piano theme.  (It has not often been remarked that this theme, too, has a parallel in the violin-viola concertante:  compare the openings of the two finales.)  The movement is, in essence, a Rondo, where a main theme alternates with various episodes.  But it also has some sonata-like tendencies, since one of the episodes, first heard in the dominant key (B-flat), later returns in the tonic, as second themes do in sonata movements.  Finally, the movement has a central episode that explodes the Rondo framework:  a slow minuet in A-flat major that almost develops into a separate movement within a movement.  The accompaniment of this section was written with special care:  first violins and basses pizzicato (plucked), second violins and violas con sordino (muted).

The slow A-flat major minuet interrupting a fast movement was an idea that stayed with Mozart for a long time.  The very same thing happens in the middle of the finale in his last E-flat major concerto (No. 22, K. 482), written in 1785.   Finally, in the finale of Così fan tutte (1790), yet another lyrical minuet in A-flat major occurs as a sudden interruption amidst more hectic goings-on, at the precise moment where Ferrando (disguised as an Albanian) and Fiordiligi drink to their love.  (And, of course, we know that Ferrando is engaged to be married to Dorabella.)  In all these instances, the slow minuet calls into question the normal course of events:  could it be that a fast movement doesn’t always have to be a fast movement, and that things can (or could) be different from what they are?  The ‟normal course of events” then resumes (in both concertos as in the opera where Ferrando weds Dorabella); in each case, the ending is perfectly regular and in harmony with the demands of the real world.

Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550 (1788)
by Mozart

Several things went wrong in Mozart’s life around 1788, the year the last three symphonies were written.  The concert series where the composer had presented his great piano concertos had been discontinued; Mozart seemed to have lost much of the audience support he had previously enjoyed.  In 1786-87, he had had an immense success in Prague with his operas The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni (the latter was written specifically for that city), but back home in Vienna, things were going downhill financially.  Mozart’s appointment to the relatively minor position of “Kammer-Kompositeur” at the imperial court did little to improve matters.  The composer’s family life was also extremely difficult:  four of his children died in infancy, three of them between 1786 and 1788.  This left Mozart and his wife Constanze with only one surviving child, Karl Thomas, born in 1784; a second son, Franz Xaver Wolfgang, who would become a composer, was born in 1791, a few months before Mozart’s death.  Among the further reasons that may have contributed to the deterioration of Mozart’s situation, researchers have cited the composer’s gambling habit, household mismanagement by Constanze, and a general tendency of the Mozarts to live beyond their means.

What is certain is that during the summer of 1788 Mozart started writing heart-rending letters to his friend and fellow Freemason, Michael Puchberg, imploring him for rather large sums of money.  In one of these, he was asking Puchberg for “a hundred gulden until next week, when my concerts in the Casino are to begin.”  Since the letter was written at the time Mozart was working on what would prove to be his last three symphonies, there is reason to believe that they intended them for some concerts that were being planned; yet we don’t know whether these concerts ever took place.

The opening of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40—the second of this famous set of three—is, in its quiet way, nothing short of a revolution.  In the 18th century, symphonies usually started with a forceful downbeat whose function was somewhat similar to that of the rising curtain in the theatre:  “Ladies and gentlemen, stop talking, the piece has begun!”  The French had a special name for this downbeat:  premier coup d’archet (“first bowstroke”).  More than a simple custom, this way of opening a work became one of the defining elements of symphonic style.

Dispensing with the premier coup d’archet, Mozart started his G-minor symphony with a lyrical melody.  What is even more unusual is that this lyrical melody is preceded by almost a full measure of accompanying eighth-notes in the divided violas, something quite unheard of in the 18th century.  Later, such accompaniment figures without melody became more frequent:  one may think of the openings of Schubert’s Gretchen at the Spinning-Wheel or his String Quartet in A minor, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto or many opera arias by Italian composers.  The example they all followed was Mozart’s G-minor symphony which may be seen as the symbolic origin of musical Romanticism.

Many writers have felt this symphony—not only its first measure—to be Romantic in spirit.  The symphony contains dissonances, modulations and chromatic progressions that were extremely bold for their time, and revealed new worlds of expressivity that had not previously been known to musicians.  Individuality, bold innovations and heightened expressivity—all three concepts were to become central to the Romantic aesthetics.  At the same time, the symphony preserves a clarity of form and a balance among its constituent elements that is entirely Classical.  We could not find better examples for sonata form than the first and the last movements; Classical rules and symmetries are respected throughout.

One of the most exciting parts in the first movement is the development section, where the famous opening melody undergoes dramatic transformations and its segments taken apart, a technique later adopted by Beethoven.  In the course of about 90 seconds, there is ample counterpoint, a great deal of contrast in dynamics and orchestration, and key changes every four bars or so.  The section begins and ends with a short descending scale scored for woodwinds only, making for seamless yet noticeable transitions.

The theme of the second-movement Andante is played by the string instruments in successive entries (almost, though not quite, like in a fugue).  At the repeat of this theme, the woodwinds add a descending scale motif in thirty-second notes separated by rests:  this particular masterstroke was quoted almost literally by Haydn in the “Winter” section of his oratorio The Seasons.  But Mozart develops the idea differently, using it for another great buildup of tension in the middle of the movement, before the recapitulation brings back the initial feelings of peace and serenity.

The third movement is one of the most metrically irregular minuets ever written.  Intricacies such as the hemiola (two 3/4 measures rearranged in three 2/4 units) are combined with dissonant clashes in the harmony and a pungent chromaticism in the melodic motion.  The Trio, in which the tonality changes from G minor to G major, is more relaxed, although the musical articulation remains complex.  The woodwind (with the exception of the clarinets) and the two horns all enjoy some great soloistic opportunities in the Trio.

Unlike many symphonies written in minor keys, Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 does not switch to the major mode for the finale but remains in the minor to the end.  This movement has no equals in the Classical literature for sheer dramatic power and intensity.  It contains a passage that, astonishingly, uses eleven of the twelve chromatic pitches in close proximity to an almost ‟atonal” effect, and ends with three strong G-minor chords that almost sound like cries of despair.

Program notes by Peter Laki

Saturday, April 16 / 8:00 pm / Loeb Playhouse / Bernard Labadie, Music & Artistic Director

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