Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Summermusic 2014: Two C Major Quintets - Part 1: Mozart

(Mozart medallion, 1788)
The third and final concert of Summermusic 2014 is Wednesday evening at 6:00 – yes, that's six o'clock – at the Civic Club of Harrisburg with two great quintets by Mozart and Schubert on the program – Mozart's String Quintet in C, K.515 from 1787 and Schubert String Quintet in C, D.956, one of the greatest works in chamber music (and probably, by many accounts, music in general) and one that was directly inspired by the Mozart quintet on the first half.

If you've been to the two earlier concerts, you've already heard four of our performers – violinists Peter Sirotin (artistic director of Market Square Concerts) and Leonid Ferents (a friend of Peter's from schooldays in Moscow, Leonid's also a violin-maker and recently finished both the violins he and Peter will be playing), violist Michael Stepniak (Dean of the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music) and cellist Cheng-Hou Lee (a member of the Avalon Quartet, he'll be back with his colleagues for our November concert) – and to this we'll add two more: the violist Nicole Sharlow (a.k.a. Principal 2nd Violinist in the Harrisburg Symphony) in the Mozart and the cellist Nadine Trudel (principal cellist of the Sarasota Orchestra who recently premiered her husband's concerto for cello and bass in San Jose) in the Schubert.

If you're unfamiliar with the location or need directions, see the previous post – also if you're wondering what those K. and D. numbers mean. It also has video clips – further down – with live performances of both complete works as well as some background information.

Check here for information about parking in the Civic Club area.

This post is more about the 'biography' behind Mozart's Quintet and the time in his life it was written. You can read the post about Schubert's Quintet, written 41 years later, here. (I mean, the quintet was written 41 years later: the plan is to finish the Schubert post this afternoon.)

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Mozart finished writing this quintet and added it to his “thematic catalogue” on April 19th, 1787. It was to be the first of three such string quintets – they would be offered to the public as a subscription which meant, basically, he would advertise them in the Viennese papers for sale, people would buy or “subscribe” to them and when the works were ready and printed, they would receive their copies of all three quintets. Today, it might be the equivalent of pre-ordering an up-coming release of a best seller on-line. Having completed the C Major, he immediately went to work finishing the G Minor Quintet.

But there were other things going on in Mozart's life at the time.

Perhaps the overriding concern was, as usual with Mozart and his wife, money. Another child – Johann Thomas Leopold – had been born the previous October and Constanze was occasionally ill. They lived in an apartment they could barely afford in Vienna's “Inner City,” a fashionable address close to everything important for Wolfgang's musical life as well as their social life. And Mozart's professional reputation was slipping a bit.

The previous year saw the premiere of his opera The Marriage of Figaro, a very bold new direction for opera at a time when most plots dealt with mythological settings and the main characters were either Greek gods or allegorical figures from the old myths. Even though Figaro is set in the castle of a Spanish nobleman of the 18th Century, the primary movers of the plot are the servants and – to make matters worse – it's the servants who win by outsmarting the aristocrats. The original play by Beaumarchais had been banned in Paris, so the Austrian court of Joseph II, Austrian and Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna, was not pleased when the Emperor allowed Mozart's projected opera based on it to go forward.

Keep in mind this fact: Mozart's opera premiered in 1786 and the Bastille fell in 1789.

The storming of a political prison in Paris marked the opening of the French Revolution after a long period of simmering dissatisfaction with the king's government and the wide separation between the aristocrats (say, the 1%) and the middle and lower classes. Also, keep in mind the queen, Marie Antoinette, was Joseph II's younger sister, whether she ever said “let them eat cake” or not. Plus, of course, there was the very real fear that if the French king would lose his throne, such events could spread to other countries across Europe.

Just briefly, the situation in the Austrian Empire – which covered a good deal of Central and Eastern Europe from what is now the Czech Republic and parts of Poland to northern Italy, Hungary and the Balkans to the borders of what was then the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) which also controlled Greece, Bulgaria, much of Romania and Serbia. In addition to an expensive, on-going war against Turkey, there was constant unrest in the Netherlands (part of the Austrian Empire brought about by those Renaissance marriage-treaties) and Hungary (which would continue simmering through the mid-19th Century until the Austrian Empire officially became the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1867).

Emperor Joseph II
Joseph II was an “enlightened ruler” who initiated numerous reforms that – in our eyes – seemed progressive and necessary: freedom of speech and thought, religious toleration, “shattering the chains of serfdom,” improving medical care, “making bishops Imperial subjects” plus numerous economic and social reforms (even concerning burial practices) but which fought against centuries-old traditions.

In the mid-1780s – Mozart had arrived in Vienna permanently in 1781 – there were frequent protests against these imperial reforms from the city's conservative factions and it was difficult to avoid political pamphlets being distributed among the people bearing titles like “Why is the Emperor Not Belovèd by his People?”

(If any of this should strike a modern reader as somewhat familiar, you can read more about it in Volkmar Braunbehrens' Mozart in Vienna: 1781-1791, p.312, for more details: if you can find a copy of this book, I highly recommend it.)

In 1786, there had been a popular outcry against Franz Zallheim, a dissolute nobleman and convicted murderer, which resulted in his public execution in gruesome medieval fashion and took place in various locations of Vienna's Inner City. (The fact this went against the Emperor's reforms was also a topic of debate: attacked for his reforms, he was attacked by his supporters for allowing something that went so strongly against his reforms.) Supposedly, it was witnessed by 30,000 people.

The first stage – the reading of the sentence and the application of hot pincers to his flesh – took place a few hundred yards from Mozart's apartment. From there, Zallheim would be led to the “usual place for execution” to be broken on the wheel “from the legs up” until he died, his body then displayed on a gibbet.

That day, Mozart composed two new arias to be added to an impending revival of his 1781 opera, Idomeneo. It's unlikely he would not have been aware of what was happening on his own doorstep.

Mozart had been working on The Marriage of Figaro since the middle of the previous year. Its premiere would take place about seven weeks after Zallheim's execution, meaning the opera was not yet finished and the sprightly overture – one of the happiest pieces in the repertoire – was so far just a gleam in his brain.

Unfortunately, Figaro was not a great success, running for nine performances but not going over well with the bulk of the audience – members of the aristocratic class who, given memory of the popular reaction against Zallheim, one of their own even if he was a murderer, did not feel comfortable seeing another one of their class – the hapless if fictional Count Almaviva – made a fool of by his valet and his wife's maid.

Lorenzo da Ponte, New York, 1830
Fortunately, Mozart was invited to produce Figaro in Prague where, in fact, it was so great a success (fewer aristocrats in the audience, if nothing else) Mozart composed his “Prague” Symphony in gratitude and promised them a new opera for the following year, a second collaboration with a Jewish-born Italian priest who had a penchant for women and gambling named Lorenzo da Ponte (did you know he eventually emigrated to America and was, briefly, a merchant in Sunbury, PA?)

Once back in Vienna, Mozart set to work to rebuild his finances. 1786 had not been a good year, earning 2600 florins, a 30% drop from 1784 which had been a good year. In the fall of '86 he had taken up the idea of a German or English tour but with two small children, this was a challenge.

Then somebody mentioned to him something that had been going on back home in Salzburg, which brings us to the second major issue affecting Mozart's life at this time.

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Leopold & his Children
Leopold Mozart was one of the most (in)famous “stage parents” in music, exploiting his two children – Wolfgang and his sister Maria Anna known to history as Nannerl – taking them around to perform before the crowned heads of Europe from Vienna to Paris and London and the Netherlands. There were numerous trips to Italy, Munich and again Paris – not to mention frequent visits to Vienna – in hopes of finding Wolfgang, now a teenager having outgrown his prodigyhood, a cushy court job (ostensibly a cushy court job for Leopold which would include, as a bonus, his brilliant son). Nannerl, by this time, had gone from being a piano prodigy to being a girl with no professional prospects.

When Mozart broke away from his father in 1781 to move to Vienna (Leopold could not risk following him for fear of losing his job with the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg who, despite history's view of young Mozart, was glad to be rid of the upstart Wolfgang). When Leopold found Wolfgang was interested in marrying a daughter of the Weber family, his primary concern seemed to have been the potential loss of the fortune Mozart might make, the influence the Webers would have over his son instead of him, which was then followed by the concern what dissipation married life might bring would lessen that potential fortune in the second place.

Needless to say they had a serious falling out. Their correspondence was often strained and less frequent.

Meanwhile, Nannerl married a much older nobleman already twice widowed with five children who had an estate outside Salzburg. When her son was born, he was named Leopold after his grandfather, and who remained in his grandfather's house while his mother returned to her husband to raise her five step-children. It was her father's idea to turn “Little Leopold” into another Mozart prodigy: this was to keep this a secret from her brother.

A friend from Salzburg, unaware of this secrecy, mentioned to Wolfgang in passing about his nephew (born in July, 1785) still living with Mozart's father a year later. Whatever Mozart's reaction was to this, it was like the presentation of a solution: he and Constanze could go off to England and leave their two children with Leopold (along with some money and a servant to help cover expenses).

Curiously, the father who planned on turning his daughter's son into a New Mozart was not interested in raising his son's son. In fact, he wrote to Nannerl he was incensed at the idea: why, he fumed, they might decide to stay in London or they might die and he would be stuck with them, and so on in similar fashion.

Now, it's easy to turn Leopold into a monster – certainly Maynard Solomon's biography of Mozart makes the case for it and Peter Schaffer's play and the film based on Amadeus would indicate Mozart had psychological reasons to fear his father. But in these letters, it's quite clear – aside from missing the point of having his own prodigy's son to turn into the Next Generation Prodigy – he was more concerned about the expense of raising his grandchildren than his son dying at an early age in a distant country!

Leopold's response was firm and no doubt disappointing. Plans for a London visit – keep in mind, Haydn's first trip to London wasn't until 1790 – had to be put off if not canceled.

For whatever reason, Mozart did not inform his father of the death of his own recently born son, also named after his father, a second “little Leopold” who suffocated in his crib barely a month after his birth.

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Then news arrived from Salzburg that his father was ill and, it eventually came out, dying. Leopold was 67 and though not well, he described himself in a February letter to Nannerl as just getting older. Even in early May, he wrote to her that he was “no worse” and looking forward to warmer weather and fresh air.

Mozart, recently affected by the death of a fellow Mason, wrote to his father with some alarm and urging him not to keep any news from him, that he would “fly to your arms as quickly as is humanly possible.” This letter was dated April 4th, 1787.

Mozart was not always good about keeping his correspondence so no reply to this letter survives. At any rate, it was the last letter he wrote to his father.

He finished the C Major Quintet on April 19th and on May 16th, the G Minor Quintet, a stormy work as you'd expect in that key (if C Minor was Beethoven's “stormy” key, G Minor was Mozart's – he wrote only two symphonies in a minor key and they are both dramatic and indeed stormy works in G Minor).

Leopold Mozart died on the 28th of May. Though we don't know how long it took the news to reach Vienna, there is no record of Mozart's reaction or his grief, but several days later, there was another death in the Mozart household: his pet starling, the one who could whistle the rondo theme from his G Major Piano Concerto K.453 (although with an inserted sharp where it didn't belong). On June 4th, he wrote a poem about the bird – and was working on a serenade known as Eine kleine Nachtmusik. Shortly after receiving news of his father's death, he wrote its companion piece which he called Ein musikalischer Spass, “A Musical Joke.”

Don Giovanni, punished
The main work of the summer was the new opera, a tragi-comedy called Don Giovanni or Il dissoluto punito which was premiered in Prague at the end of October. In the romantic 19th Century, this was perhaps Mozart's most famous work with its dark undercurrents and especially the whole business of the Statue of the Commendatore (killed by Giovanni in the first act) coming to life and dragging his killer off to Hell.

Enter the pop-psychologists (no pun intended)...

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Anyway, back to the quintet. I had mentioned it was being written for this subscription but as he was finishing up the G Minor quintet in May, Mozart was forced to realize his reputation has sunk far enough that, as a business venture, his offering up three – count 'em, three – major pieces of chamber music, following on the success of the six quartets dedicated to Haydn published in 1785, there was not enough money coming in to warrant continuing the offer.

So he had take to the humiliating route of placing an ad in the newspaper announcing the subscription was canceled.

He did not bother writing a third quintet!

What was happening to Mozart? Though Figaro was a success in Prague, it went over poorly in Vienna. He was giving fewer concerts now and his income had fallen sharply – by 30%, as I'd mentioned, comparing figures from 1784 and 1786. Given the initial success of Abduction from the Seraglio and his having written other if shorter operas, he was still only the seventh most performed composer in Vienna – unfortunately, I can find no record in the biographies I have that mention who the top six were. Certainly they won't be names we would've heard in our modern concert halls and opera houses much less even recognize.

But that's for a continuation of the story – perhaps the C Major Quintet is one of the last happy pieces he could compose in happy circumstances.

Five days after he completes K.515, he, Constanze and his surviving son, Karl Thomas, moved into more affordable quarters in a still stylish but cheaper suburb of Vienna.

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Oh, and one other event occurred between April 4th, when he wrote that last letter to his father, and April 19th, when he completed the Quintet in C Major.

A young fellow from Bonn arrived in Vienna on April 7th, a 16-year-old pianist and composer (and apparently quite an impressive improviser) named Ludwig van Beethoven. Too young to be on his own, yet, Beethoven's primary goal from this trip was to make himself known, meet Mozart and play for him and perhaps arrange at some future point a chance to study with him.

Mozart had, after all, taken on a young pianist – Johann Nepomuck Hummel, an 8-year-old prodigy – as a live-in student during the previous year.

Unfortunately, before two weeks had passed, Beethoven received a letter from his father saying his mother was dying and so the trip was cut short: Beethoven immediately returned to Bonn.

Whether Mozart actually heard Beethoven play is not known though there are many legends about it – especially from some of Beethoven's friends, though Beethoven himself never mentioned it. And surely, if he had, wouldn't you think he'd be bragging that even the great Mozart had said of him, “Surely here is someone who will someday make a noise in the world”?

By the time Beethoven was able to settle things with his family (his father, being incompetent and an alcoholic, was unable to care for his three sons and so Ludwig became the family bread-winner), he once again planned on going to Vienna to study with Mozart. Only by that time, Mozart had died. So he did the next best thing – he studied with the other great composer we know from this period, Franz Josef Haydn.

But it's very clear, looking at Beethoven's early works between 1792 and 1800 (if not beyond) that he learned much more from studying and performing Mozart's music.

And how did Mozart's C Major Quintet – on the first half of Wednesday's concert – impact Franz Schubert's C Major Quintet on the second half?

Read the post about Schubert's Quintet here, including an example of "borrowing" from the Mozart Quintet.

- Dick Strawser

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image credits: the original Mozart boxwood medallion from 1788 disappeared during World War II - this photo is of a copy made from the original; the portrait of Lorenzo da Ponte, painted in New York in 1830 by Thomas Morse, hangs in the New York Yacht Club and was found at the DaPonte Center's website in Austria; the photo of the Commendatore's visit to Don Giovanni's for dinner is from the Metropolitan Opera production of Mozart and Da Ponte's opera and was found (apparently uncredited) at Minnesota Public Radio's 2012 posting re:the Met broadcast.

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