Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Summermusic 2024 Opens with Two Mozart Piano Quartets: Part 2

The first of Market Square Concerts’ Summermusic 2024 programs this Saturday presents two Mozart Piano Quartets – the E-flat Major Piano Quartet, K.493, featured in this post, and its companion, the G Minor Piano Quartet, K.478 which you can read about in the previouspost, here

You’ll be glad to know the first concert of this year’s summer series will be held indoors in air-conditioned comfort Saturday (July 13th) at 7:30 on what seems like Day #92 of the Heat Wave of 2024 at Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg.

Mozart's own Thematic Catalogue showing entries for the Piano Concerto in C Minor K.491, for "The Marriage of Figaro," K.492, and the Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat Major, K.493 and other works

Here is a live performance by the same ensemble who performed the G Minor Piano Quartet in the earlier post: violinist Hagai Shaham, violist Zvi Carmeli, cellist Zvi Plesser, and pianist Asaf Zohar.

Like the first quartet, this one is also in three movements. The opening Allegro is built on a wealth of musical ideas unfolding in a steady stream, not really “themes” as we think of them, but phrases which specific, recognizable musical “profiles” that fit into the nature of a classical structure much like a piano concerto with a call-and-response dialogue between piano and “orchestra.” The slow movement, a Larghetto in A-flat Major, is long and lyrical, by comparison, the piano’s figurations “a shining rivulet through the lush, dense and more earthy blend of the strings,” according to one annotator. The finale, rather than the romp of the first quartet, is a more moderate, classically poised rondo which gives the strings more to do, here, but overall creates a “fluid logic” to bring the piece – and Mozart’s contribution to the piano quartet repertoire – to a close.

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First of all, what is a “piano quartet”? When I was growing up, there was a group of four pianists who played arrangements of classical hits and they called themselves the Piano Quartet. But in this case, since music is not often as logical as some people would like, while it is a group of four players, only one of them is playing a piano. Technically, it’s a string trio – violin, viola, and cello – plus a piano. Or as it usually happens these days, it’s a “piano trio” – violin, cello, and piano – joined by a friendly violist.

In this case, it will be the Mendelssohn Piano Trio – Peter Sirotin, violinist; Fiona Thompson, cellist; and Ya-Ting Chang, pianist – plus frequent collaborator, violist Michael Stepniak.

While historical facts are not necessary to your enjoyment of just sitting back and listening to a piece of music, it helps understanding the music‘s context just as knowing more about the biography of a historical figure helps you appreciate who the person is and perhaps why that person became a figure worth remembering.

When we talk about the types of ensembles these great composers wrote for, we take it for granted they were always around and that, whatever inspired the piece in the first place, picking the instruments to play it was… well, what, exactly? As every chicken with an egg will understand, did a composer come up with music he or she wanted to compose and then come up with an ensemble to write it for? Or was the first idea “I’m going to write a piano quartet” and then the composer comes up with music that would best suit that ensemble? What if Mozart was inspired to write the opening of this 2nd Piano Quartet as a symphony instead?

The 20th Century American composer Elliott Carter, not exactly on everybody’s list of Great Composers (a little too cerebral for many listeners), was once asked what inspired him. He seemed to scoff at the idea of the 19th Century Romanticist walking under the trees waiting for some Muse to hit him with a tune – a typical music-lover’s idea of “where does the music come from?” – but instead he decides what he’s going to write for and then works out various solutions of what that music could sound like. Inspiration, for him, was solving challenges presented by the medium (a slightly opaque term to include the instruments or singers who’d perform it).

There’s something intriguing, though, about Mozart’s selection of the “piano quartet” as his medium for these two works. Before he wrote them, the ensemble didn’t really exist: nobody had written piano quartets before. Oh, certainly, the piano trio had been around – Haydn wrote lots of them and Mozart wrote several himself. Actually, while Haydn had written around 20 or so by the time Mozart wrote his piano quartets (depending on how you want to number them), Mozart had really written only one, but he was 20 years old and he called it a “divertimento” written for a piano trio (isn’t music confusing enough without defining, say, a string quartet as a piece played by a string quartet?). Now he was 30, and he decided to write not a piano trio but, by adding a viola to fill out the middle harmonies of the ensemble, creating a piano quartet. Not that anyone might call Mozart the “Father of the Piano Quartet.”(Full disclosure: Mozart loved playing the viola, especially in string quartets where he could sit in the middle and hear both the melody and the all-important bass-line in the cello going on around him.)

Aha, but, being an astute music-lover, you might point out that Beethoven wrote piano quartets – three of them – before Mozart did. Yes, he did, curiously, and they date from 1784. Curiously, more than one writer I’ve read says they were “inspired by Mozart’s piano quartets” but how could they be, since Mozart’s were written in 1785 and 1786? Aha, you say! Mozart was inspired to write piano quartets because Beethoven had “invented” the ensemble! But – aha, back at you! – Mozart was living in Vienna and Beethoven was not the Great Master of the Viennese musical scene we think of. He was 13 at the time and living in the provincial backwater of Bonn, 548 miles away. A greater question might be, what inspired a teenager like Beethoven, still getting his creative feet wet, to write his piano quartets? But that’s another story…

Detail from Josef Lang's 1783 portrait (unfinished) which Constanze Mozart thought the best likeness of her husband

Most of the “biographical background” to Mozart’s 2nd Piano Quartet is an extension of what you might’ve read in my previous post about the 1st, that they had been commissioned by the publisher (and composer) Franz Anton Hoffmeister, two year’s Mozart’s senior, and that the contract had been for three piano quartets. Now, if this was a commission, meaning Mozart was writing music “to order,” did Hoffmeister specify the medium or did he just ask for three pieces of chamber music? Anyway, the first one Mozart presented him did not fare well: Hoffmeister considered it too difficult and too serious for the amateur audience which was his target. He was, after all, a businessman looking to make a profit. Depending on where you read it, Hoffmeister decided to cancel the contract and relieve Mozart of the necessity of writing all three works while, somewhat magnanimously, allowing him to keep the rather meager advance; but was that after the first one failed to attract a buying public or after Mozart’d written the second one which met a similar fate? No one, it seemed, was interested in intellectually challenging music they found difficult to play…

Now, keep in mind this was not a concert-going public and the ratings weren’t determined by the applause-meter at the performance, or even by the number of reviews in the newspapers (remember newspapers?). The real money for any composer in late-18th Century Vienna was some vague concept called The Amateur Audience – unless you were a successful opera composer, then your income was determined by the box-office take. Like artists who set up a stand in the lobby to sell their CDs after a concert these days (remember CDs?), someone performing this new piano quartet in somebody’s home would make the published scores, the printed music, available for sale so those hearing the piece would purchase it and go play it likewise. Or at least offer the address of a handy music emporium where you could go purchase it yourself. Again, keep in mind, long before there were stereos and television sets, the home entertainment system consisted of the amateurs in the family or a wider circle of friends who’d get together and give impromptu performances in the family parlor – or, if you were an aristocrat, the music room of your palace – where the audience was few in number, consisted of other friends and family members, or could just be only the performers themselves, playing for the sheer love of making their own music.

(Did you know, the German word for “amateur” is Liebhaber? Literally, “love-haver,” one who loves music. And “amateur” despite its more modern pejorative tone, comes from the Latin root, amo/amas/amat or “love.” Also, one German word for “professional” was kenner, “one who knows” music, that is, someone who studies music in more detail or who performs at a more studious level, capable of analyzing it and appreciating the more intellectual aspects of music theory.)

More often, I’ve heard the story Hoffmeister canceled the contract after the second quartet which explains why Mozart never wrote a third piano quartet (what great music might we have had if he would have…?).

But it also makes sense that, maybe, Mozart wrote the second because he wanted to, regardless of being rejected by his publisher, and the reason he didn’t write the third was because he had other projects to consider. After all, Mozart wasn’t writing for fame, he was writing for fortune, or at least to pay the bills. If fame happened, fortune was more of a possibility. One thing he wasn’t writing for was “posterity.” That’s another 19th Century Romantic concept, part of the Beethoven Myth, the epic genius storming the heavens with music that could only be appreciated in the future!

The irony is, given the intrusion of Reality into the Arts, Mozart had been doing quite well in his first few years of winging it on his own as a free-lance musician in the Imperial Capital of Vienna. He found a certain amount of fame – more than the Music Appreciation Myth would have us believe – and wasn’t doing too badly earning some money as a result. He gave concerts for which people bought tickets in addition to performances at the imperial court where it was more for “exposure” and to win favor with the emperor (musicians were often paid by being given gifts – ornate jeweled rings or snuffboxes seem to have been popular – which usually went immediately to the nearest pawnshop) and that could open doors to future income like maybe an appointment as a “resident composer” in some aspect of court life (the general basis for the (in)famous if only supposed rivalry between Mozart and Salieri).

But then, in 1786, the money started dropping off. Mozart needed to make a living. What to do? Accepting the commission from Hoffmeister was a money-making venture. It didn’t work out. Next?

In the post on the first quartet, I mentioned how there was this large gap in Mozart’s creative output for the summer of 1785 – the G Minor Piano Quartet was completed on October 16th – but he was clearly working on something, and something big. He had suggested to poet Lorenzo daPonte, one of the house poets for the Imperial Opera (his boss was Antonio Salieri), that he turn Beaumarchais’ new hit play “The Marriage of Figaro” into an opera libretto. Now, there was a problem with this – and we needn’t go into the political intrigue involved, here, both in terms of the International Scene and the heated environment of artistic politics behind the scenery at the Imperial Opera – because the play was being banned everywhere because what king or aristocrat would want to put on a play making fun of aristocrats (thanks to the conniving Count Almaviva) and is full of anti-royalist sentiments (hurrah for the servant class, represented by Figaro and Susanna). Keep in mind, Mozart’s looking to it as an opera in 1785, and though the Storming of the Bastille didn’t happen until 1789 (not long after Marie Antoinette famously said, “Let them eat cake”) and the overthrow of the monarchy occurred in 1792, the anti-aristocratic atmosphere (already fueled by the Treaty of Paris which recognized the establishment of an American republic in 1783) was quite strong all across Europe. It was merely a matter of time. Not only did aristocrats not want to see themselves the object of jokes – made fools of by mere servants – they feared for their very lives and fortunes if such sentiments took hold on their estates.

Yet somehow, Emperor Joseph II permitted the opera project to go ahead: daPonte very wisely toned down the political rhetoric – Figaro’s speech in the Garden Scene against the inheritance of wealth and power became an aria raging against unfaithful wives – and all this was taking shape during the summer of 1785. By that autumn, Mozart was hard at work on the music for it.

Yet, meanwhile, he wrote fourteen other pieces, including another opera – The Impressario, part of a double bill with another one-act comedy by Salieri – as well as the G Minor Piano Quartet, entered into his Thematic Catalogue (not to be mistaken for the Köchel Catalogue) on October 16th, 1785. The Marriage of Figaro, later to become K.492, was premiered (not a success but not a failure, either) on May 1st, 1786. The next work to enter the catalogue was the E-flat Major Piano Quartet, K.493, on June 3rd, 1786. We don’t know exactly when Mozart began the quartet, but even four weeks is a remarkable amount of time to write such a work.

Now, among the pieces written during the work on Figaro are three great piano concertos: the E-flat, K.482 (finished on December 16th, 1785), the A Major, K.488 (March 2nd, 1786), and the C Minor, K.491 (March 24th, 1786). Mozart was the soloist, certainly for the C Minor, but lacking any evidence about the other two premieres, one can only assume he was the soloist for them, also.

Regardless, Michael Kelly, the Irish tenor singing Don Basilio and Don Curzio in Figaro, left us this description of Mozart’s piano playing from about this time: “His feeling, the rapidity of his fingers, the great execution and strength of his left hand particularly, and the apparent inspiration of his modulations, astounded me.”

This focus on composing – and performing – piano concertos becomes important in the gestation of the E-flat Major Piano Quartet. One thing with this “amateur market” I’d mentioned earlier was the appearance of several of his earlier concertos arranged for piano and string quartet where the budding pianist could imagine being a concert soloist while the string players filled out the role of the orchestra (any argument about why this isn’t called a “piano quintet” can be saved for another time – oh, like maybe for Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet on the third Summermusic program coming up on July 21st?). The way Mozart “constructs” the roles of the piano and the strings is very much like a concerto with the give-and-take between a soloist and its back-up orchestra. Again, one has to ask if an amateur pianist in Vienna could play this, this was a very talented musician regardless of amateur or professional status!

Of three earlier concertos, written in 1782, Mozart wrote to his father how they “are a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult; they are very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being vapid. There are passages here and there from which the connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why.... The golden mean of truth in all things is no longer either known or appreciated. 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.”

And that is part of what was informing the bridge Mozart was trying to create in these two piano quartets: something for the amateur – the “love-haver” – to enjoy yet still offering something for the more serious musician – the “knower” or connoisseur – to appreciate.

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There is one thing I want to mention when considering the gestation of this music – not so much the piano quartet but the C Minor Piano Concerto written two months earlier.

There was a famous scandal that occurred in Vienna around this time, curiously while Mozart was setting the controversial play,The Marriage of Figaro, something the media today would call the Trial of the Century, considering the Emperor, an “enlightened” monarch, had abolished the death penalty in 1776. A minor aristocrat, Franz Zaglauer von Zahlheim, was tried for murdering a wealthy widow he had promised to marry but whose money he had then stolen to pay off his gambling debts. In typical criminal logic, he then killed her to cover up the first crime. He was found guilty but the Emperor decided to order his public execution, perhaps to serve as an example given the anti-monarchist feelings of the day. It was set for the morning of March 10th, 1786. You can google the particulars if you want, it’s more than gruesome: not just a “humane” beheading, after being set up tied to a wheel, Zahlheim was to have “glowing hot pincers” applied to his chest, and then beaten with a club until practically “every bone in his body would’ve been broken, starting with the feet and working upwards.” The execution, which according to local accounts drew 30,000 spectators, took four hours to complete.

Now, what, you’re probably asking, does this have to do with Mozart?

The place of execution was “a few hundred yards” from Mozart’s home. Given what this must have sounded like, between the crowds and… well, use your imagination, how could he not have been aware of what was happening in his own neighborhood? We know he was in Vienna on that date, and we know he entered two short works into his catalogue that day, replacement arias for a singer involved in a production of his Idomeneo. We also know he usually composed (at home) in the mornings, then went out after lunch to the homes of his piano students for their lessons. 

Whatever he was working on at that time for the new opera, the next piece he finished – two weeks later – was the C Minor Piano Concerto, usually described with its “tragic” or “demonic” elements and “dark eruptions,” “an explosion of dark, tragic, passionate emotions,” or at times as “violent and energetic.”

It’s not that he was “inspired” to recreate Zahlheim’s execution in music – another 19th Century Romantic conceit – but this is certainly an example of something more emotionally intense than the usual run-of-the-mill 18th Century Classicism. This would be another example of what musicologists – and musicians of the day – called Sturm und Drang, a sense of “storm and stress” that would later give rise to many of the stylistic tenets of future Romanticism.

And then, perhaps having gotten that out of his creative system, and having completed the long, arduous process of seeing an opera – and not just any opera: The Marriage of Figaro is considered one the Great Operas of the repertoire – onto the stage, he was ready for something a little “lighter,” something that was not only a contrast to the darkness of the G Minor Quartet’s opening movement, but a contrast to the events of March 1786.

Also keep in mind, speaking of reality, Mozart was paid 450 florins for this new opera. Whatever a florin might be worth in today’s money, it was basically nine times his annual salary when he left the service of the Archbishop of Salzburg five years earlier – for one work!

So, why did Mozart not feel the need to write a third piano quartet?

Since Figaro didn’t do that well in Vienna – it ran for a respectable eight performances but not exactly a success, financially – and it did do well in Prague where he’d been invited to attend one of the performances, a visit for which he wrote a symphony forever known as the “Prague” Symphony, he decided to accept their commission for another opera to be premiered there: Don Giovanni.

Oh, I know what some of you are thinking: Mozart wrote for money? 

Elliott Carter, almost 100
This reminds me of another Elliott Carter anecdote, one I’d heard him tell in a pre-concert talk back in the late-1970s in New York. It seems his publisher informed him, given the complexity of his latest music and the resultant confusion it met with in the United States, his earlier work, the “Variations for Orchestra” of 1955, was his most performed work in Europe (even on radio stations!). Given the amount of the Louisville Orchestra’s initial commission for it, he said this amounted to him earning something like 25¢/hour while writing it (I forget the exact amount; something that small). When he’d mentioned this at another talk, he said a woman in the audience (he described her as a “grand dame,” bringing to mind jewels and furs) rose indignantly and snooted, “you mean to tell me, Mr. Carter, that you write for money!?”

Mozart would have been amused.

– Dick Strawser

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