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Bravo III-A: Mendelssohn and Beethoven Saturday March 6 2021 at 7:30 PM

Thalia Mara Hall
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MENDELSSOHN: String Sinfonia No. 7 in D minor

Mendelssohn was one of history’s great musical prodigies, even if over-shadowed in most people’s minds by Mozart. Born into a comfortable life (his father was one of Germany’s leading bankers and his grandfather Moses a famous Jewish thinker and philosopher), Felix started his musical studies in the shadow of his talented older sister Fanny. Between the ages of 11 and 14 he composed well over a hundred works: piano music, songs, operas, sacred choral works, concertos, and symphonies. From an early age, Mendelssohn was fascinated by the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and the possibilities of polyphony (music featuring multiple independent lines of melody). His teacher, the composer Carl Friedrich Zelter, drilled him in Baroque counterpoint, along with traditional study of classical style scores by Haydn, Mozart, and the two sons of J.S. Bach, Carl Philip Emanuel and Johann Christian, whose influences can be heard in his early music. During his time with Zelter, Felix composed thirteen string symphonies (“Sinfonias”), all between the ages of 12 and 15. Sinfonia No. 7 was probably composed around the time he was 12 or 13, but it sounds like the music of one far past his chronological age. It is balanced, witty, and always pleasing. Above all, his music is always marked by his gift for graceful melodic writing, and unlike Beethoven’s, rarely pushes boundaries or limits.

The Allegro opening is startling—strings in a quick unison flourish, answered by graceful intertwining lines, and an ensuing dialog of contrasts, with carefully balanced rhythmic interjections. The second movement (Andante) shows that Mendelssohn’s gift for melody appeared early on. The third movement Menuetto features interesting rhythmic interplay and although it’s the obligatory “dance” movement, is full of clever counterpoint (the “academic” combined with the “physical”), especially in the Trio (“B”) section. The Rondo Finale begins with a surprising, slashing unison note, then scurrying energy that seems to foreshadow (just a bit) Mendelssohn’s famously light string writing in the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. But this is interrupted by a dry and proper little fugue, which before long dissolves into a delightful, bouncing contrapuntal romp, combining homophonic chords, more unison, and polyphonic texture, arriving at a happy, thoroughly satisfying ending.

BEETHOVEN: String Quartet No. 11, in F minor, Op. 95 “Serioso” [Arranged for orchestra by Gustav Mahler]

If composing for Mendelssohn seemed to come easy, for Beethoven it was a different story. Even given their wildly different life circumstances (Beethoven’s struggle to make a living, his eternal health problems, and his impending and final deafness), they were completely different in their creative processes. Beethoven kept with him at all times a sketchbook, in which he stored musical ideas when they came to him, to be worked out at a later time. We can see in the sketchbooks how his most memorable melodies took shape only after hours of reworking, editing, and reshaping.

If Haydn was the “father” of the string quartet, it was Beethoven who took it to its highest development, inspiring later composers to greatness in the genre themselves—the finest of these were Bartók, Debussy, Ravel, Shostakovich, and Schoenberg. The string quartet is still regarded as the most difficult and prestigious of musical mediums for composers. Four homogenous strings force the composer to rely on purely musical devices like melodic development and rhythmic invention, less able to fall back on the temptations of changing timbre and color.

Beethoven’s creative life is customarily divided into three periods. In his “Early” (Classical) period he built on the innovations of Haydn and Mozart. From around 1803, when he was in his early thirties, as he began to come to terms with his impending deafness, his music took on aspects of the “heroic.” It was at this point in his life that his music often illustrated the idea of triumph over adversity. In his so-called “Late” period (he was only in his mid-forties) he seemed to turn completely inward, foreshadowing Romanticism. As deafness closed in on him, he found his ideal means of expression in the medium of the string quartet. The Opus 95 Quartet, composed in 1810, straddles the last two periods. It opens with the same gimmick as Mendelssohn’s Sinfonia (a dramatic unison gesture that immediately grabs our attention). But what follows is anything but Mendelssohn. In Op. 95 we can hear him searching for new sounds, even announcing his intentions with the title “Serioso.” Described by writers as “terse” and “tempestuous,” with “stark juxtapositions,” this is Beethoven’s shortest string quartet. The musicologist Joseph Kerman described it this way: “Everything unessential falls victim, leaving a residue of extreme concentration, in dangerously high tension.” In this transitional period, Beethoven’s music is characterized by short gestures and a kind of direct intensity. Fifteen years later, he would move fully into his “late” style in the quartets, expanding the time scale and retreating even deeper into introspection.

During his lifetime, Gustav Mahler was acknowledged as one of the Europe’s most important conductors. He was far less known as a composer. While heavily involved in the preparation, rehearsal, and staging of Beethoven’s single opera Fidelio, Mahler decided to make an arrangement of this string quartet for string orchestra, retaining Beethoven’s musical ideas while expanding the intimate conversation to a public scale. Inexplicably, Mahler’s arrangement met with derision and boos at its 1899 premiere, and Mahler never conducted it again. It was not heard again in public until 1986.
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Chamber II-A: Mozart by Candlelight Saturday March 27 2021 at 7:30 PM

Thalia Mara Hall
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Serenade No. 6 in D, K. 239 (Serenata Notturna for Two String Orchestras & Timpani)

Critics have never been sure just what to make of this unusual work. Brilliantly paired on this program with Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, it’s the perfect foil for both that and Mozart’s “Musical Joke” (or parody, as sometimes translated). A “serenade” is by definition night music (one lover serenading another at night), so the title Serenata Notturna is actually redundant. And, like Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, also “A Little Night Music.”

Most commentators write that the exact occasion for which it was composed is “unknown,” but in his book Experiencing Mozart: A Listener’s Companion, David Schroeder proposes a hilarious possibility: “It’s a warm summer evening in August of 1776, and having just graduated from the University of Salzburg, a Benedictine institution, you are looking forward to the informal evening celebrations after the fairly pompous events earlier in the day when you had to endure tedious speeches before receiving your parchment. After hearing your fill about how privileged you were to have this degree and how you would make the world a better place, you were ready to let off some steam, which a long-standing tradition for the evening of graduation day made possible. Now a type of mock ceremony could take place, with lots of wine and beer flowing, which even some of the professors enjoyed. It took place in one of the outdoor quads of the University, where facetious speeches could be made, jokes could be told, and irreverence that the chancellor and priests might very well find offensive could take over. To set the right tone for the event, a pseudo-march first took place, with the professors who wished to attend in the lead, followed by the graduates still in caps and gowns, starting at University Hall and winding through narrow passageways to the quad. The march, of course, required music, as did the event at the quad, which would include dancing and then background music when the serious drinking began.”

A certain Willi von Andretter, whose father had commissioned Mozart three years earlier to write a serenade (K. 185) for Willi’s brother’s graduation, got his father to approach Mozart again, knowing that only he could write appropriately tongue-in-cheek music for the occasion. Busy with commissions and various projects, the 20-year-old Mozart decided to recycle a virtually unknown serenade he had composed earlier that year for a private carnival party. Its three-movement March/Minuet/Rondo structure would fit the occasion perfectly. Schroeder’s account imagines the motley band of musicians and graduates playing their instruments as they walked, the violone/bass player with his instrument strapped to him, the timpanist with two large drums hanging off his sides. “Mozart may have written the work a year earlier, but it could not have been better suited to the occasion. . . Mozart marked the march maestoso, but the nature of the writing was anything but magisterial, especially in the second of the two repeated sections while the ensemble (along with the timpani giving a cheeky little rhythmic figure) very quietly plays staccato in the appropriate response to what the soloists have just played.” Mozart’s tricky offbeats probably made the band of revelers look like they’d had an early start on the wine by the time they reached the quad for the minuet and rondo. Listen, enjoy, and above all, don’t take it too seriously.

Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K. 546

Although the young Wolfgang and his sister performed four-hand duets at one piano often, Mozart composed only two works for them to play on separate pianos. The most famous is the Sonata in D Major, K. 448. The other was a Fugue in C minor, K. 426, composed in 1783. Although he began work on a Prelude to precede it, he never completed it, and decided to let the fugue stand alone. In 1788, he arranged the same fugue for string orchestra, then composed this Adagio to introduce it. The serious introduction complements the fugue perfectly, opening with the stately double-dotted rhythms of a French Ouverture—of the type Jean-Baptiste Lully created to set up his operas at the Versailles court to celebrate the “Sun King” Louis XIV. According to Marcia Davenport, the young Beethoven thought enough of this fugue to copy it out from score by hand, in order to learn all he could from it.

Ein Musikalischer Spaß "A Musical Parody," K. 522

The year 1787 was a busy one for Mozart. He was planning a trip to England when he got a generous offer from Prague right after the new year to see a production of his opera The Marriage of Figaro, which had made him the talk of the town. People all over the city were whistling its tunes—literally. The December 12, 1786 issue of a local newspaper proclaimed, “Connoisseurs who have seen this opera in Vienna are anxious to declare that it was done much better here. . . Our great Mozart must have heard about this himself, for there has been a rumor that he will come here in person to see the piece.” After hearing Figaro, Mozart performed at the National Theater, conducting his Symphony in D, K. 504 (“Prague”) along with several piano compositions, then improvising on the piano for half an hour, according to firsthand reports. That day was “one of the happiest of his life,” by his own account. When he returned with his wife to Vienna in early February, he had secured a commission for another opera, Don Giovanni, to be premiered in Prague. Back in Vienna (and before the opera premiere in the fall), he had no concerts and found the time to compose the two charming, witty works that sit next to each other here on our program, the K. 522 “Musical Joke” (or “Parody”—take your pick), and the now ever-popular Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. The first two movements of K. 522 were actually composed two years earlier, and the third movement is perhaps the funniest, if you cock your ear just right. Mozart writes all kinds of deliberately “incorrect” notes into the music, from parallel fifths and octaves (forbidden in good 4-part writing) to awkwardly unbalanced phrases and oddly repetitive passages—one thinks of Peter Schickele’s fictitious P.D.Q. Bach parodies, which become funnier the better one knows the style and what the composer is mocking. For Mozart, it was probably, as one critic wrote, a fun diversion—an “exercise in coping with musical impossibilities” while he was working on Don Giovanni, which today is regarded as perhaps his greatest opera.

Serenade No. 13, in G. K. 525 “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”

If there were a Billboard chart for Mozart’s “Greatest Hits,” this would be at the top for sales and sheer recognizability. This popular serenade was most likely composed for an informal Viennese party in one of Vienna’s famous outdoor gardens. It’s tuneful, charming, and memorable, fulfilling the ideals of “pleasing variety and natural simplicity” that Joseph Kerman ascribed to Enlightenment composers. But the music is not as simple as you think. Close listening will reveal surprising little turns and ornaments hidden in inner voices, marks of sophistication that set even Mozart’s “background” party music above all others.
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