Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Summermusic 2013: Mozart at His Best

Friday night at 8:00 at Market Square Church, "Summermusic 2013" gets underway with the first of three concerts. You can read more about the whole series and especially the other works on that program in this previous post. This post is about Mozart and his Quintet in E-flat Major for Piano and Winds, K.452, which concludes the concert.

This photograph was taken last summer when concert-goers heard the Quintet for Piano and Winds by Ludwig van Beethoven with pianist Stuart Malina, oboist Gerard Reuter, clarinetist Christopher Grymes, bassoonist Peter Kolkay and hornist Geoffrey Pilkington.

So it should come as no great surprise that the same performers have returned this summer to perform another quintet for the same combination of instruments – the one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed in 1784. It was a very good year: Mozart, at the age of 28, was just coming into his prime - at least as far as Vienna and this newest phase of his career. And he thought it was the best thing he'd ever composed.

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Marianna Shirinyan, piano; Rachel Bullen, oboe; John Kruse, clarinet; Etienne Boudreault, bassoon; Joke Wijma, horn – at the 13th Esbjerg International Chamber Music Festival in Denmark, 2011
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Mozart certainly thought highly of the piece and Beethoven so admired it, he decided to write one himself, using Mozart's as the model.

Could you imagine if Brahms, who loved Beethoven and Mozart, would have written one of his own as a tribute to both? What if the guy who asked Schubert to write the “Trout” Quintet had played the bassoon instead of the cello?

There are not a lot of works for an ensemble like this – certainly not by top-shelf composers like Mozart and Beethoven. An on-line search brings up a composer named Fritz Spindler whom I've never heard of, yet his quintet was published in 1888 as his Op. 360.

Nor can I imagine a more recent one by Elliott Carter would ever show up in the general repertoire.

Yet the scarcity of such works hasn't exactly made Rimsky-Korsakov's quintet (which replaces the oboe with a flute) a less infrequently heard piece than it already is.

Mozart was 25 when he quit his much-hated job with the Archbishop of Salzburg's household staff. Having been unable to find a position with any other aristocratic court (the most frequent employer of musicians in the 18th Century), he decided to try his luck as a free-lance performer, composer and teacher in the imperial capital of Vienna in 1781. It was not easy and not without its challenges, but having caught the ear of Emperor Joseph II, Mozart became the “new hot thing,” to turn a phrase.

Two things happened by the time Mozart composed this quintet. For one, he had gotten married in 1782 and (finally) returned to his hometown in late-July, 1783, with plans to introduce his bride Constanze to his father and sister. I should say his disapproving father and sister: the trip was more to convince them to accept her. Though we know little of what did happen during the three months he spent there, we do know there were no public concerts and no stimulation for new works. The one performance mentioned (without comment) in his sister Nannerl's diary indicates that Constanze sang the soprano solo in a mass by Mozart (he'd been working on the great C Minor Mass which he left incomplete at this time but it was more likely one of his earlier and less extensive masses included in the service). His visit seemed almost to be a non-event.

We don't know much about Mozart's daily life from this period but it's not difficult to imagine that, having seen what life in Salzburg might still be like had he stayed, he attacked Vienna with a new vigor. And apparently with a little more self-assurance (something it's hard to imagine Mozart ever lacked).

Because in February, 1784, came the second, seemingly minor event: he started keeping a record of his compositions, entering them into a thematic catalog when they were completed, along with a brief quote of the opening bars and its instrumentation. This is clearly the work of someone more concerned about the future – and in those days, artists very rarely thought about posterity. It may be nothing more than merely organizational paperwork, keeping track of what he had written, having found himself without a symphony on this trip. But why the change in procedure, now?

Whatever the reason for this sudden turn at a more organized life (itself a new idea, given Mozart's lifestyle, almost in the manner of a modern-day new year's resolution), the first works he entered into it were these:

Piano Concerto in E-flat (K.449) – February 9th, 1784
Piano Concerto in B-flat (K.450) – March 15th, 1784
Piano Concerto in D (K.451) – March 22nd, 1784
Quintet in E-flat for Piano & Winds (K.452) – March 30th, 1784
Piano Concerto in G (K.453) – April 12th, 1784
Sonata in B-flat for Piano & Violin (K.454) – April 21st, 1784

The two piano concertos of March – K.450 and K.451 – were performed on the same concert with the Quintet (K.452) on April 1st, the day after he completed the quintet. Mozart was the pianist for all three works on the program.

Afterward, a very happy Mozart wrote home to his father that the Quintet “called forth the very greatest applause: I myself consider it to be the best work I have ever composed. How I wish you could have heard it! And how beautifully it was performed!” Then he added, “To tell the truth, I was really worn out at the end after playing so much – and it is greatly to my credit that my listeners never got tired.”

Curiously, the quintet is written with a clarinet in the ensemble, though the winds in the orchestra for the two concertos includes a flute but no clarinets. There is, of course, the old story that Mozart didn't much care for the flute, but for all practical purposes, why not include it in this piece instead of bringing in a clarinetist (perhaps his friend, Anton Stadler, for whom he'd later write a concerto, the clarinet quintet and the “Kegelstatt” Trio)?

This was a busy time for Mozart: in the nine weeks around the time he composed these four works, he was involved in “no less than 24 performances” according to Volkmar Braunbehrens' Mozart in Vienna.

It's also interesting to note that, whenever he might have composed it (and for whatever reason), his friend Stadler performed the earlier Serenade for 13 Winds, generally known as the Gran Partita (the title is not Mozart's), K.361. Judging from the watermarks on the paper, scholars assume it was composed in 1781; others think it might have been written sometime between his leaving Salzburg and his starting to keep the thematic catalog.

The important thing is, Stadler's concert was on March 23rd, 1784. Mozart completed the Quintet on March 31st and performed it the next day.

Though this is purely conjecture on my part, I can just imagine Mozart being so delighted with hearing this piece - especially since he thought so highly of Vienna's excellent wind-players - he might have decided to add another wind piece to the concerto program and dashed it off in the following week. If that's the case, then how could he not include Stadler?

Another famous anecdote (speaking of hectic) involves the Violin Sonata, K.454, which Mozart completed three weeks later and performed with the famous violinist Regina Strinasacchi (who turned 20 that year). He had not had time to write out the piano part and played it “from memory” (no, as some tellers of the tale put it, he did not improvise it: it was completely composed in his head – it just wasn't written down, yet). When the emperor looked at the score afterward, he was dumbfounded to see only the violin part inked in: the entire piano part of the score Mozart was playing from was blank!

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While I don't know what a florin from the 1780s would be worth today, it is estimated (see Maynard Solomon's biography of Mozart) that in his first year in Vienna, Mozart earned between 1,084 and 1,284 florins; in 1782, between 2,174 and 3,074 florins. In 1783, his income was down – less than 2,408 florins – but then he spent at least three months in Salzburg and did not return to Vienna until several weeks later. In 1784, a year that began so productively, he earned about 3,720 florins, the most he would earn until 1791 when he made between 3,672 and 5,672 florins.

Part of the reason for this decline in his income was the fickleness of the Viennese public: while Mozart was confident of his fame, he did not count on the fact that sooner or later (and unfortunately, sooner than he expected), Vienna began looking somewhere else for the “new hot thing.”

Mozart was not very practical when it came to money – his gambling problem developed later – always feeling the need to “keep up appearances” (he felt, in order to impress the aristocracy, one needed to be well dressed and present an image of affluence), always living just beyond his means. But that is an issue for a later time.

However, with Mozart, there isn't a lot of time “for later.” We tend to forget, given this steady stream of divine music which he seemed to produce so effortlessly, that he had only seven more years to live. He wrote this Quintet when he was 28 – he would be dead before his 36th birthday.

Music lovers are always playing "What if...?" especially with Mozart. What if he had lived as long as Haydn? As hard as it is to imagine, he would have outlived Beethoven and Schubert and died in 1833, the year Brahms was born.

It is too easy to fantasize about what might have been but it does make the music we have all the more amazing to contemplate, especially when Mozart himself thought this piece was the best he had offered - so far.

- Dick Strawser

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