November 2012


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791). Symphony No. 1 in E flat major, K. 16 and Concerto for Flute, Harp, and Orchestra in C Major (K. 299). The son of Leopold Mozart, Kapellmeister for the Archbishop of Salzburg, Mozart exhibited early, exceptional gifts for music. At the age of 4, he began reproducing his older sister, Nannerl’s, lessons at the harpsichord. His ear was so sensitive as to be disturbed by a violin tuned an eighth of a step too low. Blindfolded, he could identify tones and chords, and on hearing a melody just once, could reproduce it accurately. When Wolfgang was 6 years old, Leopold put aside his own musical aspirations and embarked on a European tour, presenting his prodigy before the crown heads of London, Munich, Vienna, and Paris.

In her writings, Nannerl recalled an event from this tour: “On 5 August 1764 we had to rent a country house outside London, so that father could recover from a throat ailment which brought him near to death. While our father lay dangerously ill, we were forbidden to touch the piano. And so, to occupy himself, Mozart composed his first symphony (K. 16) for all the instruments of the orchestra. “

The Concerto for Flute, Harp, and Orchestra was written in 1778 in answer to a commission for a student.  Now 22 years old, Mozart struggled to land a permanent position. “It is true,” he wrote from Paris, “that people say the nicest things, but there it ends. When I play, they exclaim, ‘Oh, it’s a miracle, it’s inconceivable, it’s amazing!’ and then, goodbye.” The struggle for patronage would persist to the end of Mozart’s life, leading him to plumb ever greater emotional depths in his music. His compositions of 1778, however, were fashioned after the charming Rococo patterns of the day, and were meant to please audiences. Even here, his workmanship surpassed that of his peers, and remains to this day unequalled in purity and finesse.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949), Horn Concerto No. 1 in E flat major, Op. 11. The only child of Franz Strauss, a noted horn player, Richard Strauss began to play on the piano at the age of 4, learning so quickly that his father began giving him formal lessons. The young boy enjoyed scratching melodies on paper, and when he was enrolled in school, kept a habit of wrapping his books in notepaper so that he could continue composing in the classroom. During his high school years, he studied violin, piano, harmony, counterpoint, and instrumentation, and by the age of 18 had already published and attended performances of two of his own choral pieces, three art songs, a string quartet, and a symphony.  It was during this year, while attending a performance in Berlin, that the young Strauss came to the attention of the influential music critic and conductor Hans von Bülow. Von Bülow initially expressed disdain for the maturing composer, saying, “He is no genius but only a talent, of the sort that takes sixty to make a bushel.” The critic soon felt a change of heart, however, and in 1882 conducted several of Strauss’ works, including the Concerto for Horn and Orchestra.

In later years, Strauss would become famous for tone poems and operas that expressed a flaming musical temperament in the revolutionary style of his hero, Richard Wagner.  In these early years, however, Strauss’ compositions yielded to the influence of his father, ironically one of Wagner’s most outspoken critics.  Strauss’ early music, of which the Horn Concerto is representative, hails from the more placid Romanticism of Robert Schumann and Felix Mendelssohn. The Horn Concerto was written when Strauss was eighteen years old, and has become a staple of the modern repertoire.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Felix Mendelssohn, 17 years old, spent the summer of 1826 reading the works of Shakespeare with his sister, Fanny. He composed the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream that July and August, writing it first as a two-piano duet to be performed with Fanny, then, over the next six months, transcribing it for orchestra. Sixteen years later, in 1842, the King of Prussia commissioned Mendelssohn to compose additional, incidental music for a full production of Shakespeare’s comedy.

The comedy takes place in classical times on a midsummer night when two pairs of lovers, mortals, flee into the woods and become caught in the intrigues of the fairy world. Mendelssohn’s Overture begins with the humming of fairy wings; this is interspersed with various themes depicting the different plot lines of the play. Duke Theseus’ theme suggests a noble of the Athenian court. A romantic melody shadows the lovers, and a buffoonish passage, complete with braying bassoon, depicts the actor Nick Bottom, whom Puck will crown with a donkey’s head.

A lively Scherzo, or musical joke, follows quickly after the Overture, setting the stage for Puck to acquaint the audience with his prankish history. Puck also explains that his master, King Oberon of the fairies, is quarreling with Queen Titania over a changeling boy.

Oberon enters and instructs Puck to anoint Titania’s eyes with the juice of the flower that will cause her to fall in love with “what thou seest when thou dost wake.” In the Fairies’ March, Puck conducts his winged fellows to a bank “where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,” then leads them in a “roundel and a fairy song” to goad Titania into sleep.

After the spell is cast, the narrator awakes in the character of Helena, the Athenian maiden who now finds herself deserted by her lover, Lysander. During the Intermezzo which follows, Puck applies the juice of the flower to the wrong eyes, further muddling the fates of the Athenian lovers. After the Intermezzo, Puck remedies the damage, saying, “Jack shall have Jill, . . . and all shall go well.” Sleep descends on the lovers as Mendelssohn serenades them with the gentle Nocturne.

Queen Titania, however, remains victim to Puck’s deviltry, having become enamored of Nick Bottom, donkey head and all. Now Oberon, victorious in the matter of the changeling boy, regrets the mockery and undoes “this hateful imperfection of her eyes.” He sends Puck to restore Bottom to himself, then bids Titania and all fairies to attend the ceremony at Theseus’ house, where “shall the pairs of faithful lovers be wedded, with Theseus in all jollity.”

The triumphal Wedding March brings a conclusion to the romantic comedy, but Shakespeare has more in store for the audience.  Nick Bottom and his troupe of Athenian actors now present an entertainment for the wedding party.  The narrator introduces the tale of Pyramus and Thisby, for which Mendelssohn has scored a clownish dance, the Bergomask.

After the drama, Duke Theseus dismisses the wedding party, noting that “the iron tongue of midnight hath told twelve: Lovers, to bed; ’tis almost fairy time.” Amidst reprises of the Overture and the Wedding March, Puck summons the fairies to perform their ministrations in Theseus’ home. The fairies oblige, singing in chorus: “Hand in hand, with fairy grace, Will we sing, and bless this place.”

Puck then bestows his parting soliloquy, saying,

If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.

Thus falls the curtain on Shakespeare’s dream and Mendelssohn’s montage, a work derived from what George Grove called “the greatest marvel of early maturity that the world has ever seen in music.”  ­

© 2012 Heidi Rodeback