Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550 (1788)
Instrumentation: flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings.
Performance time: 26 minutes
In the summer of 1788, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was 32, and he was at the height of his creative powers. Yet his life had already been marked by tragedy. The death of his father Leopold the previous year was now followed by the death of his six-month-old baby daughter Theresia, the third child that he and his wife Constanze had lost to premature death.
Mozart’s life, full of passions and struggles, fueled his music. We often view Mozart as having “classical” attitudes, like his contemporaries, in other words, he wrote music for particular occasions, music of great worth, written with great ease but not born out of a great need to express himself emotionally or spiritually. The music of Mozart however, is far from being a function of life, but rather a reflection of it.
Mozart was coming to terms with the fundamentals of the human condition: life and death. With only three more years to live, he would go on to revolutionize instrumental music (the last in his great string quintets K. 614 in E flat; his final Piano Concerto K. 595 in B flat; the Clarinet Concerto K. 622; and the unfinished Requiem K. 626). His last great trilogy of symphonies (Nos. 39, 40, and 41 “Jupiter”), crystallized changes in the future course of music.
The First Romantic
In the weeks following baby Theresias’ death, Mozart sat down to write his Symphony No. 40 in G minor. It is a masterpiece of astonishing originality, sophisticated craft, and emotional depth. It is a work of fury, anguish, and despair. This is Mozart at his most distressed.
The symphonic form in which Mozart had inherited was nothing like this. Symphonies were modest, small-scale affairs — kind of warm-up numbers in a concert, in between more interesting items. They could deal with one or two episodes of life, painted in primary colors. But with Mozart and the full spectrum, he could genuinely express the world.
What to Listen For
This first movement is flighty, unsettling, weird, almost on the edge of chaos, and yet, Mozart shows us he’s in complete control. It’s a monumental piece of work, in which he’s able to encapsulate the whole of human experience. It opens with material as famous as it is simple: these few notes, nervous pulsing from the violas and the stammering from the violins.
Pathos mingles with beauty in the lyrical second movement. The graceful flourishes sound charming, but by the time Mozart has finished in the development section, they have been transformed into audible pain, surprisingly in a major key.
The traditionally courtly minuet is an angry dance of defiance in Mozart’s hands, hardly suitable for dancing. The violins and bassoons are determinedly out of step with the rest of the ensemble, producing some violently accented dissonances. By contrast, the gentle Trio seems wholly untroubled, a calm in the midst of the storm of the rest of the entire symphony, alternating between the strings and winds.
The fourth movement finale is not a playful rondo, but rather an aggressive irreverent ascension of upward-shooting notes which consists of the famous “rocket” theme, played softly by the violins, then immediately answered by a scolding from the full ensemble. The development section introduces a mood that is more black comedy than high spirits. The movement has a striking similarity to the third movement of Beethoven’s most famous Fifth Symphony written 20 years later.
The New Instrument
The version you hear today is the later version, in which Mozart added clarinets. It seems he redistributed music material from the original — accommodating the clarinets essentially involved an extensive recasting of the oboe parts. He did not write out a whole new score, but rather a nine-page supplement with the new oboe and clarinets. As Haydn noted of the still-evolving instrument: “It was Mozart who taught us all how to write for the clarinet.”
– Corbin Foster
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844 – 1908)
Capriccio espagnol, Op. 34 (1887)
Instrumentation: piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets,
2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings.
Performance time: 15 minutes
The sun and sensuality of southern Europe have always held an irresistible fascination for Russian composers. In the case of Rimsky-Korsakov, the warmth of Spain also provided the perfect inspiration to showcase his strongest suits as a composer: mastery of orchestral color and a gift for exotic, modal melodies. Rimsky-Korsakov had completed his Fantasy on Russian Themes in 1886, and his pleasure at the result moved him to seek another idea for a similar work. Comments in his autobiography show the genesis of the Capriccio, and make it clear that he appreciated his own gifts as an orchestral colorist: “I took it into my head to write another virtuoso piece for violin and orchestra, this time on Spanish themes. However, after making a sketch of it, I gave up that idea and decided instead to compose an orchestral piece with virtuoso instrumentation. [It] was to glitter with dazzling colors.” Rather than eliminating the drama of the instrumental solo, Capriccio espagnol turns every section of the orchestra into a group of star players.
“Dazzling” hardly begins to convey the brilliance of the Capriccio. Composed in 1887, it received its premiere in St. Petersburg in the autumn of that year under Rimsky-Korsakov’s leadership, thrilling critics and audiences. Unlike suites composed for piano and later rewritten for orchestra (such as Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, superbly orchestrated by Ravel), the Capriccio was composed with each melody and development section tailored to specific orchestral choirs.
What to Listen For
Capriccio espagnol is comprised of five brief sections that form two larger divisions: an Alborada (the Spanish term for a morning love song), and a two-part finale.
Beginning with a theme in the horns, the Alborada is a set of five variations during which the sections of the orchestra exchange sparkling solo lines; for example, a clarinet solo from the first variation is taken over by solo violin, while the clarinet co-opts a violin cadenza. By the end of the Alborada, virtually every section of the orchestra has been showcased in exacting, highly-exposed play.
The Second movement, Variazioni, begins with a melody in the horn section. Variations of this melody are then repeated by other instruments and sections of the orchestra.
The third movement, Alborada, presents the same dance as the first movement. The two movements are nearly identical, except in different instrumentation and key.
The fourth movement, begins with a Scene and Gypsy Song, a sequence of five cadenzas — first by the horns and trumpets, then solo violin, flute, clarinet, and harp — played over rolls on various percussion. These cadenzas are meant to balance the five variations in the Alborada.
The fifth and final movement, is the dramatic Fandango of the Asturias (a region of Spain) that integrates themes already heard, braiding them into a finale of fevered intensity. The piece ends with an even more rousting statement of the Alborada theme.
It’s not necessary to follow this complex architecture to hear the unity it provides. Most of all, the Capriccio is a blood-stirring suite full of color, texture, and drama that confirmed Rimsky-Korsakov’s strengths to his contemporary audiences, as it does to us today.
Upon reviewing the score, Tchaikovsky wrote to Rimsky-Korsakov that “your [Capriccio espagnol] is a colossal masterpiece of instrumentation, and you may regard yourself as the greatest master of the present day.”
– Corbin Foster