Sunday, April 26, 2015

Escaping the Cliche of Canon: 5 Lesser-Known Works of Mozart

The music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is as canonical as Shakespeare, no longer a matter of taste but a statement of musical fact.  However, as with Shakespeare, this is a double-edged sword, since once anything becomes a museum piece we begin to lose our connection to it.  The nervous, mercurial energy of Symphony No. 40 becomes background music in Panera Bread, and the bitersweet lamentations of the Requiem floats through a car commercial.  It’s a sad fact that even the most inspired music, if played too often—and in the wrong context—can become a cliche.  So how do we rediscover the Mozart that his contemporaries heard, the one that made Haydn (arguably the greatest composer of his age) to exclaim, “I tell you before God and the world, he is the greatest composer known to me”?  In the end, you have to “unhear” every musical cliche and start from scratch, listening to the music of his contemporaries and work your way forward to the musical masterpieces.  Or, perhaps more simply, you could listen to the lesser-known works of Mozart which, for one reason or another,  have escaped the broad brush of cliche.  Here are 5 works which I think represent every facet of Mozart’s genius: his melody, his harmony, his orchestration, his eccentricity (especially his penchant for the minor mode), and his forward-thinking appeal to modern audiences (at times you really think Mozart is a Romantic).  There is no good reason these works have not passed into the public domain, so to speak, but I’m glad they haven’t.  When you listen to them, you almost go, “my God, what music—who composed it?” and then remember, right, it’s Mozart.  Then you start to realize why great composers become great; not just because your teachers said so, but because you, too, can hear this greatness.  Just don’t tell the people who supply music to on-hold services and Panera Bread! 

#1. Concerto for Flute and Harp in C (1778): This piece isn’t exactly unknown, since it’s used in the film Amadeus and pops up on classical radio stations (the few that remain) because of its “easy listening” nature.  But never mind that, it’s a true, evergreen creation, where Mozart simply lets his love of melody run away with him.  I’ve never heard a work that is so joyously untroubled, full of happiness and love, and so endlessly consoling.  The flute and harp combination is a Classical composer’s dream, since it promises an endless stream of pastel-colored textures so an audience could gossip, write letters, or spy on other people without interruption.  Yet Mozart manages to make what should be rather vapid music beautiful and at times, truly touching.  The opening movement is gently operatic as the instruments toss phrases back and forth, yet there are quiet arias of exquisite lyricism.  The heart of the piece is the slow movement which is a true inspiration: here we get true yearning, the Mozart of the piano concertos and the inspired later works.  It’s strange to find something so mature—and Romantic!—in such an early Mozart work.  The finale is a jolly romp, again in the manner of a comic opera.  Music of the classical period (Haydn aside) is rarely funny, but this movement is; it makes me laugh with its zaniness and its complete lack of pretension.  Mozart isn’t trying to impress anyone—it’s just fun music that remembers to be beautiful at the same time. 

#2. Piano Concerto No.16 in D (1784): Mozart’s 27 Piano Concertos are more or less part of the established musical canon, though we really need to revise that number to 23, as the first four are re-workings of other composers’ music made by the preteen composer.  But even fewer are played that often, typically Nos. 20-27, along with the famous (and miraculous) No.9, and the lyrical No.12.  The others make occasional outings on disc, and are rarely heard and often dismissed as “lesser” Mozart.  There’s not a bad piece in the lot, and even the gentler early works such as Nos.5-11 are staggering Rococo masterpieces.  Yet No.16 is one of my very favorites, as it epitomizes everything we love about these concertos: marching rhythms, gorgeous melodies, interplay between orchestra  and piano, and beneath it all, a sense of longing, of music that can never bridge the gap between mind and heart.  The piece opens stridently, almost like one of Beethoven’s early concertos, but quickly dissolves into gorgeous flights of Mozartian lyricism.  Indeed, the entire movement is a push and pull between “stiff upper lip” sensibility and aristocratic despair.  Listen as the music slides into a minor mode, the music wanting to spill a love letter at some noblewoman’s feet—but is then whisked away to the dance. 

The slow movement is typical of Mozart’s more “public” music, a Rococo daydream, much like a Watteau painting.  Wistful, still, pastoral: the piano gently traces out the theme in the beginning, like a lover reading over a love letter twenty years old, the emotion faint, but still enjoyable.  However, as the letter goes on, hidden depths are plumbed at the reader recalls his/her lost youth...and it almost (almost!) veers into a Chopin slow movement.  Indeed, the line between Mozart and Chopin is perilously thin and I often mistake one composer for the other in their slower music.    In the end, the music regains its poise and the letter is tucked away with countless others, the piano reflecting on its contents as the reader shuffles off to the demands of duty. 
The finale is classic high-spirits Mozart, just like the Concerto for Harp and Flute: it’s humorous because it should (and could!) accompany a comic opera.  The piano dashes in a few seconds after the beginning with a scurrying, shuffling music, dancing all over in an attempt to ingratiate itself.  About two minutes in or so, the music takes a quick minor key turn, become more reflective; Mozart is a genius and making these sudden detours, and when the comic theme returns, it’s gorgeous—in a flute, followed by an oboe, and then a bassoon before everyone takes it up.  But Mozart has little time for pathos in this movement, and it cavorts comically to the very end, striking the perfect balance between piano display and orchestral power. 

#3. Symphony No. 34 in C (1780): A curious work, coming just before the canonical “Great” symphonies (Nos.35-41), and in only three movements.  In some way this sounds like a throwback to an earlier style with its portentous, dramatic opening.  Mozart was still quite young when he wrote this (well, he was always quite young, even when he died!), but this sounds very much like a young man showing his maturity.  “I can be damn serious when I need to be,” he seems to say, and the music sounds a bit like an opera on a tragic subject.  Yet a lighter spirit soon intrudes and the music assumes a more dashing appearance, not quite humorous, but brisk and exciting.  About three minutes in, however, something striking occurs: a whisk of the macabre, a truly Gothic moment.  The music gets dark, and by dark I mean “Requiem” dark, not just a parody of darkness as featured in many a classical opera.  We even get a foreshadowing of the “Dinner Guest” music from Don Giovanni in its unsettled harmonies.  Mozart doesn’t linger here for long, but quickly whisks it aside with the dashing music.  It’s a strange movement of light and dark, serious and unsettled, and sounds like nothing he composed before and nothing since until Symphony No.40.  

The slow movement is almost the “dreamy” pastoral Rococo we find throughout his output, but the melody strikes too deep for that.  It goes beyond “ah, what a pleasant day” to “ah, that was a pleasant gone forever.”  Mozart keeps the reigns on this, but it walks the edge between quiet music and heartfelt music.  I always imagine Mozart writing this with an eye as to how far he could push his audience: would they hear what he heard himself?  Or would they simply hear quiet, soft music and think nothing else?  This is what makes Mozart a genius to me: his ability to tow the line of convention while utterly transforming it beneath our eyes.  The finale is a quick, bustling movement, again more serious than comic, and reminding us of the end of a traditional 18th century opera overture.  Indeed, this entire symphony screams the theater to me, and was perhaps an attempt for Mozart to keep these impulses at bay when no opera commission was forthcoming.  Note around the fourth minute how a dark energy springs into the music, hinting at a drama too big for a conventional symphony to compass.  An eccentric symphony that probably confused its first audiences and found little place for centuries to come, yet can now be enjoyed for showing the manic depressive tendencies of Mozart’s muse. 

#4. Piano Sonata No.12 in F (1781-83): Speaking of manic depressive, this is one of his supreme statements of light and dark, a work shot through with gaiety and despair.  In the Classical period “minor key” works are rare, since following a minor key scheme seems to denote a tragedy, which makes sense for an operatic work, but proved unsettling—or simply confusing—in purely instrumental terms.  Such works were rarely popular and often not published, though Haydn occasionally slipped in the odd minor key sonata or symphony, even writing a stretch of them in his so-called “storm and stress” period.  Yet Mozart was much more subtle in his use of pathos: largely avoiding minor keys, he slipped in moments of introspection and outright melancholy into the middle of even the sunniest works.  His Piano Sonatas began as relatively public affairs, either music for salons or for budding piano students (often, his own).  Yet in No.12 we find the most mercurial portrait of Mozart, a work that is hard to pin down, but which predicts the greatest rhetoric of the Romantics to come.  The opening movement starts off  in a robust, carefree manner, but then a storm bursts—full of the minor key pyrotechnics of his Piano Concerto No.20.  This is short-lived, and the music becomes calm and carefree once more...but the presence of something unsettled is just off the horizon. 

Now to the slow movement, one of the greatest pieces he ever wrote: to call it sad, or beautiful, or bittersweet, or even despairing is to focus on one window of a tremendous Gothic mansion, which would require an entire book of photographs to properly document.  The theme opens up in a resigned, wistful manner, and takes an introspective byway before reaching its emotional core.  The theme is repeated twice more, each time a touch more reckless and insistent.  For some reason, letter reading always comes to mind when I listen to Mozart, perhaps because he was such an amazing correspondent.  This piece reminds me of someone reading and rereading a letter, lingering on a phrase which is too painful to take in all at once.  Each repetition of the theme is an attempt to take it in, to wrap one’s brain around the absolute finality of the sentence.  Once grasped, the letter is put aside, as the reader attempts to write his or her own letter...but inevitably he/she must return to the letter.  Sadly, the music cuts off before we get the response.  The finale is a madcap dash to the finish, though as usual with Mozart, we get a few minor key detours, one of which is a transformed reminiscence of the theme from the slow movement.  It’s darker now, less consoling and almost threatening—or perhaps merely annoyed (as in, “how could I have cared for such a scoundrel?”).  However, this is immediately tossed aside for the madcap music.  The lover no longer cares about his or her broken heart; love is spent, revenge is nigh! 

#5. Wind Serenade No. 12 (again, 12!) in C minor (also transcribed for string quintet as String Quintet No.2/1782/83): Mozart loved writing for wind ensemble, and all of his wind writing is remarkably pungent and usually bright and spirited.  Though this work has all those qualities, it is also dark and brooding.  Here we have our first bona-fide minor key work, though even here, Mozart is carefully to balance light and dark.  The first movement starts ominously, with a theme that recalls the opening to his early Symphony No.25.  Night, rain, thunder, racing horses—all of this is evoked in a few quick notes.  The interplay of instruments is magnificent and it sounds for the world like a group of players on stage—an intimate, tragic drama.  Mozart dispels this with a warm, almost comic melody which quickly—if temporarily—dissolves their disagreement.  The slow movement which follows is the most tender love song imaginable.  Not so much a passionate song as one of passion fulfilled, lovers asleep in each other’s arms, the drama of the world behind them.  It comes close to being a lullaby, and if you have to choose, get the wind serenade version, which is infinitely more sweet and “human” than the quintet.  No minor key violence intrudes on this song, though it does get lighter as it goes along.  

A stormier menuetto follows, though this, too, dissolves into dancing and song.  The finale, however, is the true highlight of the piece, a theme and variations on a slightly sinister subject.  The variations grow agitated and dramatic as they go along, and sweep the listener right off his or her feet.  There are, as always, strange and quiet detours in this music, but it always comes back to the driving tempest—as if the coach must reach the city gates by midnight, yet the storm is slowing it down hour by hour... 

These are obviously just a few works that are lesser known (that is, they aren’t played to death) and remind us what an inventive, original, and at times, eccentric composer Mozart really was.  Find your own forgotten masterpieces in his oeuvre, for they are many, and most of the belie the common consensus that they are “lesser” Mozart.  In the case of Mozart, even lesser is greater than most!  

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