Thursday, July 14, 2016

Summermusic 2016: Mozart and his G Minor Piano Quartet

Haydn & Mozart playing quartets (1785)
In the world of chamber music, the G Minor Piano Quartet of Mozart is usually considered one of the Great Works. You'll get a chance to hear it live with the members of “Curtis on Tour” Sunday afternoon with Summermusic 2016, 4pm at Market Square Church (both inside and air-conditioned) and preceded on the concert by Schubert's 4-movement String Trio (which you can read about here) and followed by Edward Elgar's Piano Quintet (which you can read about here).

Friday's 8:00 concert begins the series with Beethoven and Mendelssohn as well as two recent composers, John Novacek and David Ludwig.

The third program – Tuesday at 6:00 – features a more-or-less all-American string quartet program with works by Barber and Dvořák (well, he wrote it in America and it's called “The American Quartet”) and the very first performance of a newly commissioned work by Jonathan Bailey Holland to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the National Park Service and celebrate Cape Cod's National Seashore (you can read more about it in this article by Jess Hayden of the Carlisle Sentinel).

While it wasn't my intent to write a separate post about each piece, this post is about Mozart's Piano Quartet in G Minor, K.478. Here's a performance with pianist Asaf Zohar, violinist Hagai Shaham, violist Zvi Carmeli and a familiar face to local fans of Concertante, cellist Zvi Plesser.
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Probably over a decade ago, one of Market Square Concerts programs featured composer and lecturer Bruce Adolphe presenting the first movement of the G Minor Piano Quartet as if it were music for a trial scene, a delightfully witty and dramatically quite suitable setting for this music. While the musicians performed his examples, each thematic idea became a character - the opening, a brusque lawyer ("she is the murderer"), answered with a demure protest by the sweet young defendant, and so on.

Mozart's autograph, Piano Quartet in G Minor (piano part)

But it was near the climax of the piece when (oh, had this been caught on video) someone's cell phone rang! But not just any cell phone. The audience member was using the "Ode to Joy" theme as a ring tone which cracked everybody up and brought everything to a standstill (I thought we'd have to adjourn). A few seconds later as we'd moved on, it occurred to me I should've shouted out "Beethoven objects" to the opening of Beethoven's 5th, but alas, like so many come-backs, too late... Anyway, it all worked out in the end.

Obviously, Mr. Adolphe was not explaining this as "what was on Mozart's mind" when he composed this music. This is not "what the music is about." He was very clear about that. But it's nice to have some fun with an art form that too often is accused of taking itself far too seriously.

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Usually, when I write about a piece of music, I'm more interested in what was going on in the composer's life when it was written, both musically and personally, what might have led up to its creation. Or, for this series of concerts, I've been amused by the importance of a composer like Antonio Salieri who played important roles in the life of three of our composers on the first two programs, being a teacher to Beethoven and Schubert and a rival to Mozart (regardless of that other business...).

Mozart Medallion (1788)
Fact: Mozart completed a piano quartet in G Minor and entered it into his thematic catalogue on October 16th, 1785 (it would later become K.478 in Köchel's catalogue); a piano quartet in C Major was added on June 3rd, 1786, and were released by the publisher in 1787.

One thing that's always fascinated me about the G Minor Piano Quartet is the story that the publisher Hoffmeister commissioned Mozart to compose three piano quartets – in those days, works usually came in combinations of 3 or 6 (in Baroque days, a dozen was not uncommon): Beethoven's 3 Piano Trios Op.1, or the 3 Violin Sonatas Op.12, or the 6 String Quartets Op.18 – but when the first two sold poorly, they mutually agreed to cancel the contract and the third piano quartet was never written.

While we moan and gripe about having lost what could only have been a masterpiece, considering the status of the two he did compose, how did this happen? We blame it on a fickle, uneducated audience as today we point to “cross-over” music and reality TV dumbing-down an audience's awareness of art (when I found the YouTube video of Richard Lin playing Beethoven's Op.12/3 Sonata for my post, there was a superimposed ad for an upcoming André Rieu concert) without realizing the problem, such as it is, existed long before television.

The problem wasn't so much a public that couldn't appreciate Mozart's music. There were, in a sense, two types of music, if we consider what we call “classical music” in the absence of anything comparable to today's “pop music”: music was intended for either a public sphere or a private one and orchestral music or opera belonged to the public sphere while chamber music was in the private sphere.

The obvious difference would've been the performance venues: public music was experienced by a large group in a space like a theater or concert hall; private music belonged to smaller spaces with smaller audiences and was often designed to be played by its audience. You would attend a concert and listen to a symphony or concerto; you would perform the chamber music yourself and react to it as both performer and listener, or you listened to a few friends or relatives who were performing it – in other words, the “amateur market.”

Vienna, despite the presence of such monumental figures of classical music like Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler, and Schoenberg, was a city that enjoyed its entertainment and had little regard for music it considered too intellectual (the main reason Brahms always tried his symphonies out “out-of-town” before performing them in Vienna). Places in Germany might acclaim such a work more readily than the Viennese would. While Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert or Brahms might be considered the greatest composers associated with the city, it does not mean they were necessarily the most popular composers in Vienna.

In 1788, a newspaper in Weimar mentioned, referring to one of these piano quartets, “how it was often heard that 'Mozart has written a very special Quartet and such[-and-]such a Princess or Countess possesses and plays it!'” which then excited sufficient curiosity in the piece which then led others to produce it in “grand and noisy concerts and to make a parade with it.” The end result was the awareness that “this product of Mozart's can in truth hardly bear listening to when it falls into mediocre amateurish hands and is negligently played... What a difference when this much-advertised work of art is performed by four skilled musicians who have studied it carefully, in a quiet room when the suspension of every note cannot escape the listening ear, and in the presence of only two or three attentive people!”

The failure in Vienna which doomed the third of these piano quartets came about because performances of the first two were poorly received by those who were essentially looking to purchase something they could play in their own parlors – comparable to artists today who sell their CDs in the lobby so fans can listen to them at home long after the concert is past. But whether the audience found them unsatisfactory because they didn't think they were “good pieces” or perhaps were “too intellectual to be enjoyed,” it's more likely they didn't bother purchasing the printed scores – what the publisher was all about – because they were too difficult for amateurs to play.

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In December of 1782, not long after he left the court of the Archbishop of Salzburg to find his own way in the Imperial Capital, Mozart wrote to his father, “In order to win applause one must write stuff which is so inane that a coachman could sing it, or so unintelligible that it pleases precisely because no sensible man can understand it.”

Speaking of “what we have lost...”, Mozart also mentioned in this same letter how he “would like to write a book – a short critical work with musical examples – but not under my name.” At the time he was contemplating various opera projects and it's assumed this book would have contained his thoughts on writing for the opera house (and this, three years before he wrote The Marriage of Figaro). Imagine Mozart telling us what Mozart thought was important when he composed!

Antonio Salieri
Vienna was a city where, if you wanted to make a success, especially a financial success, you wrote operas. But it was very difficult to break into the repertoire at the National Opera House. The director was... Antonio Salieri – so immediately you would think, “aha! Salieri was trying to block his rival's success!” Not necessarily.

Mozart managed to get three operas premiered there between 1783 and 1791 – Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosí fan tutte – and the only other composer other than Salieri to have that many premieres was Vicente Martín y Soler. In those same eight seasons, Salieri had seven premieres but then as director, that was part of his job, producing new operas for his company. The company performed nine new productions each season with an average of two or three premieres.

It should be noted that Mozart made half-again as much as the usual fee for Don Giovanni which had already been premiered in Prague, and twice the usual fee for Cosí. So we can't completely claim discrimination or blame Salieri for sidelining a rival.

Now, I mention this because of one thing that pertains to the composing of the Piano Quartet in question: what else was he writing at the time?

1785 was a busy year for Mozart: if you read his biographies, there are accounts of new works and public concerts early in the year, how his father came to visit and was amazed at how many times his son would be performing (and who was in the audience). He attended a read-through of three of Mozart's new string quartets “dedicated to Haydn,” and the Grand Old Man confessed to a proud father that “before God and as an honest man I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.”

In addition to the concerts – not to mention having his father on-hand for a visit which also entailed frequent dinners with friends – Mozart managed to compose several works during this ten-week period: having in the past two months completed two string quartets (including the “Dissonant”) and the D Minor piano concerto, there was another new piano concerto, the cantata Davidde penitente (which was mostly recycling the unfortunately incomplete Mass in C Minor), an andante for violin and orchestra, and two works for the Masonic lodge he and his father attended.

But then, after the vast and intense C Minor Fantasy (K.475) which he completed on May 20th, the little song (one of the delights of his output), Das Veilchen and the Masonic Funeral Music (K.477) written in July and first heard that summer as a choral setting before being reworked as an instrumental piece in the fall, he composed nothing until he entered the G Minor Piano Quartet into the catalogue on October 16th.

We don't know when he started it – but typically Mozart composed rapidly and so, in this case, it's unlikely he'd spend the entire summer on a work like this, no matter how great it would be regarded (eventually).

No, the question “what did Mozart do that summer?” is answered by the work he did begin working on: it wasn't premiered until the following May 1st and legend has it the overture was written the night before, his wife Constanze keeping him awake by feeding him punch until he completed it.

He started a new opera, The Marriage of Figaro, sometime during the summer of 1785 for by the autumn, it was well underway. But there was the libretto to prepare – Lorenzo da Ponte adapting Beaumarchais' play – and while da Ponte worked with Salieri and two other opera composers at the same time, most of whom took his libretto (or script) and set it verbatim, Mozart corresponded with da Ponte to shape the libretto to his musical preferences. And given the role of the librettist in the production of operas then, this was highly unusual. Obviously da Ponte thought enough of Mozart's talent to put up with such behavior since such collaboration was unexpected.

Incidentally, speaking of connections, Lorenzo da Ponte, who was by the way a Catholic priest, ran afoul of things one could run afoul of in Vienna, traveled to Paris with a letter of recommendation to Queen Marie Antoinette from her brother, the late Emperor Joseph II, only to discover, as he approached Paris, there was trouble afoot and the King and Queen had been arrested! So instead, he and his companion Nancy Grahl (they would eventually have four children, speaking of things a priest could run afoul of) went instead to London where he became a grocer and a teacher of Italian. In 1805, he fled his creditors to go to New York, then, subsequently, even ran a grocery store in Sunbury PA between 1811-1818, then returned to New York where he opened a bookstore and taught Italian at Columbia University. In 1833, at the age of 84, he started an opera company which lasted only two seasons. Subsequent managers revived the company though its theater burned down twice before 1841. It would later become the genesis of the Academy of Music and the Metropolitan Opera Company.

While in Sunbury (and occasionally traveling through Harrisburg to buy supplies in Philadelphia), da Ponte befriended a young boy who was a printer's apprentice in Sunbury. He instilled in the boy a love of “fine music” with his tales of opera, Mozart and life in Vienna. The boy was Simon Cameron who later became a U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania and a cabinet minister in President Lincoln's first term, then, after being named U.S. Ambassador to Russia, moved to Harrisburg where he became a powerful (which meant corrupt) politician, controlling the state-wide Republican party (what was then called “machine politics”). He is probably best known for his statement, “An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought.” He purchased and renovated the John Harris Mansion on Front Street where he lived for many years. Celebrating its 250th anniversary, the Harris-Cameron Mansion is now home to the Historical Society of Dauphin County.

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There was one more thing Mozart did before completing his piano quartet. Salieri's new opera, The Cave of Trofonio, was set to premiere in June when one of the lead singers, Nancy Storace (for whom Mozart would create the role of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro), became ill, apparently suffering a nervous breakdown. It was three months before she was well enough to return to the stage in mid-September with an opera by Paisiello, Salieri's premiere rescheduled now for mid-October.

Printed score of "Per la ricuperata salute di Ofelia" discovered in 2015
Within a week of her return, a new cantata was announced in the press celebrating her recovery. Called Per la ricuperata salute di Ofelia (For the recovered health of Ophelia) for soprano and continuo (fortepiano and cello), it was a "brisk four-minute work" in three sections, each by a different composer setting words of da Ponte.

Salieri set the opening two stanzas, a pastoral passage in which Ophelia, a character in the postponed opera (no relation to Shakespeare's character), looks forward to the delayed performance. A march-like middle section was composed by Mozart, somewhat in the manner of his earlier Abduction from the Seraglio. The concluding part, similar to Salieri's opening, was by a composer identified as Cornetti, possibly Alessandro Cornetti, a vocal teacher and opera composer active in Vienna at the time.

The score was discovered in a Prague museum library only last November and while it is not the discovery of a lost masterpiece by any means, it is a rare example of two rivals managing to work together for the benefit of a singer well known for performing both their operas!

So, as Mozart was writing this dramatic G Minor Piano Quartet with its sparklingly happy ending, he was also having a moment of collaboration with a man who would later be accused of his murder!

How dramatic is that?

F. Murray Abraham as Salieri, from the film Amadeus

- Dick Strawser

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