Symphony No. 44 in E Minor, "Trauer" (Mourning)
Franz Joseph Haydn
Born in Rohrau, Austria, March 31, 1732; died in Vienna, May 31, 1809
In 1766, Joseph Haydn was promoted to the post of Kapellmeister, in charge of all musical activities at the court of Prince Nicolaus Esterházy. The splendor of the Easterházy establishment rivaled, if not exceeded, that of the Austrian Imperial Court itself. Already possessing a palace at Eisenstadt on the Hungarian border and a vast town house in Vienna, Prince Nicolaus about this time transformed a modest hunting lodge on the muddy plains of Hungary into a glorious rococo palace emulating Versailles. Named Esterháza, it contained a 400-seat opera house with all the latest stage equipment, a marionette theater, a chapel, and two magnificent concert halls. Haydn was expected to write music for all these venues, lead an orchestra composed of some of Europe's finest virtuosos, as well as carry out all the day-to-day administrative tasks.
It was a job for a superman, but Haydn promptly rose to the challenge. Despite all the claims on his time, his creative genius burst into full flower, producing symphonies and chamber music that set new standards for his period. As Jens Peter Larsen writes, "The symphony was by this time more or less established as an elegant piece of entertainment for a noble audience, and Haydn had the courage to write symphonies that were completely different." Marooned in "my desert," as he called the remote Esterháza, and rarely able to travel even as far as Vienna, the composer dug deep into himself for inspiration. As he famously explained: "I received approval; I could, as head of the orchestra, make experiments, observe what created an impression and what weakened it, thus improving … and running risks. I was set apart from the world, there was nobody in my vicinity to confuse and annoy me in my course, and so I had to become original."
Haydn's risk-taking and originality can be found especially in the remarkable symphonies in minor keys he wrote between 1768 and 1774. They include Symphonies No. 45 ("Farewell"), No. 49 ("La passione"), and the one we hear at these concerts, No. 44 in E minor, probably composed in 1771. All these works share qualities of passionate personal expression, dramatic intensity, and technical experimentation that moved them far beyond the realm of "elegant entertainment." One could even call them the first harbingers of Romanticism: very early examples of the Sturm und Drang ("Storm and Stress") movement that briefly convulsed Austrian and German music and literature at this time. Haydn himself gave Symphony No. 44 its "Trauer" or "Mourning" soubriquet, and he prized this symphony so much that he requested its slow movement be played at his funeral.
The Symphony opens dramatically with four emphatic notes played in unison that will drive this entire sonata-form first movement forward. They are immediately answered by a gentle string phrase, setting a pattern of strong dynamic contrasts between loud and soft in this work. Haydn then stirs up a rich brew of counterpoint as various instruments take up the four-note idea in canon, mingled with flurries of sixteenth notes. After the repeat of this exposition, the animated development plays energetically with each element of the theme in turn. In a delicious gesture, Haydn suddenly halts his race to the finish line on a melodramatic chord and inserts a marvelous little canon on the four notes.
In an unusual switch for this period, Haydn moved his minuet from its customary third position to the second movement. And it is a strange minuet indeed — melancholy, harmonically bleak, and not at all disposed to dance — yet perfectly in keeping with the mourning mood. It is as though all the courtiers at Esterháza had donned black armbands. Languishing downward, the trio section features a virtuosic high solo-horn line.
The slow movement is worth waiting for: it is a ravishing song for muted violins and one of Haydn's loveliest adagios. Interestingly, this movement is in the major mode — E major — and is the most serene and untroubled part of the work. Haydn was an unquestioningly devout Catholic, and the fact that he requested this music for his funeral suggests death held no terrors for him.
The Presto finale returns us to the drama of the first movement with even greater intensity. It is music of relentless energy, propelled by one driven type-A theme, introduced again in unison. Lively imitative counterpoint and rhythmic cross-play between instruments increase the excitement of music that hardly stops for breath until it stops for good.
Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Born in Salzburg, Austria, January 27, 1756; died in Vienna, December 5, 1791
"Mozart essentially invented the classical piano concerto and then elaborated the concerto's potentialities of form and expression in a series of highly individual masterpieces. He unveiled a universe and then devoted himself to populating it with the most diverse creations."
Maynard Solomon in "Mozart: A Life"
Maynard Solomon here eloquently sums up Mozart's extraordinary contribution to the development of the piano concerto, epitomized by the 12 keyboard masterpieces he wrote between 1784 and 1786. Each is a world unto itself, and one of the loveliest and most refined of these worlds is that of Piano Concerto No. 23, completed on March 2, 1786. Two and a half months earlier, Mozart had created No. 22, a regal dominion of trumpets, drums, and grandeur. Just three weeks later came No. 24 in C minor, a turbulent, proto-Romantic vision of anger and anguish. The A-major Concerto is altogether different from these neighbors: an intimate conversation in a drawing room between close friends.
It is also one of the most vocal of all the concertos. This is not surprising, for simultaneously Mozart was completing his vivacious comic opera The Marriage of Figaro, which premiered just three months later. Busy creating arias and ensembles for a castle-full of aristocratic and peasant characters, Mozart apparently had plenty of melodic ideas left over, for this concerto is propelled by its melodies, by turns high-spirited and heart-wrenching. Here, the soloist is asked not so much to display her digital dexterity as to play the great opera singer, especially in the sublime slow movement.
As in most of Mozart's late concertos, the pianist also must share the spotlight with the orchestra's woodwind section. Mozart became more and more intrigued with how woodwind colors could blend and contrast with the piano, and in this concerto, he had a pair of his favorite wind instruments — the round-toned, fruity clarinets — to exploit. Throughout, keep your ears focused toward the center of the orchestra, for you will hear much beguiling and virtuosic activity from the wind ensemble.
Also listen for a special tone that is very characteristic of Mozart: the mood of smiling through tears. This is heard best in the first movement, which sounds outwardly serene, but immediately lets the cat out of the bag with the second chord, in which a dissonant G-natural troubles the tonic A-major harmony. "The light of the movement is one of a March day — the month in which it was composed — when a pale sun shines unconvincingly through fleeting showers," is how Mozart scholar Cuthbert Girdlestone beautifully describes it. The second main theme, introduced a minute later by the first violins, is rather melancholy and grows even more so as a bassoon and flute join in. As the exposition section wraps up, listen for a quiet, chin-up closing theme in the strings; from it, Mozart will build an expressive development section. The soloist’s cadenza was written out by Mozart.
Smiles give way to tears in the slow movement, one of Mozart's greatest and his only one in the key of F-sharp minor. The soloist opens with a poignant melody in graceful 6/8 meter, featuring big downward and upward skips suitable for an 18th-century opera diva. The orchestra answers with a more anguished melody, with achingly beautiful dissonances created by its converging contrapuntal lines. The flutes and clarinets try to brighten the mood to major in the middle section. But tears persist as the opening music returns and is capped by a heartbreaking coda, in which the soloist sings sorrowfully over agitated off-the-beat pizzicato strings.
The brilliant sonata-rondo finale at last dries all tears. And finally, the pianist can play the virtuoso as she leads off with the sparkling rondo theme. But this is just one of a quiver-full of melodies Mozart has ready, and he keeps shooting fresh ones at us in a movement of non-stop vivacity and invention.
Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, opus 60
Ludwig van Beethoven
Born in Bonn, Germany, December 16, 1770; died in Vienna, March 26, 1827
The Fourth Symphony is one of the least-often performed of Beethoven's mighty nine. And yet this fact can actually work to its advantage. Since it has been somewhat neglected in comparison with its over-played siblings, audiences may be better able to respond to this engaging work with the sense of discovery and delight it deserves.
The Fourth has been unfortunately obscured by the overlapping shadows of the two formidable symphonies that preceded and followed it: the “Eroica” and the Fifth. And while Beethoven’s music is often revered for its grappling with big human issues and its sense of triumph over great obstacles, the Fourth is not in this mold. Instead, it shows us the mischievous, life-affirming side of Beethoven’s genius, and the obstacles it overcomes are purely musical. As musicologist David Cairns wrote: “For all its lack of ‘great issues,’ the Fourth contains as much drama as do the symphonies on either side … a conflict and eventual reconciliation between … broad lyricism and the long singing line, and … rhythmic insistence, violent accents, and syncopation. In energy, the Fourth is inferior to none.” This idea of the conflict between lyrical melody and complex rhythmic play is helpful to remember when listening to this work.
Beethoven had already begun his Fifth Symphony when he broke away from it to compose the Fourth. By this time, he had more or less come to terms with his increasing deafness and found that salvation from depression lay in constant work. “I live only in my notes,” he write a close friend, “and with one work barely finished, the other is already started; the way I now write, I often find myself working on three, four things at once.” There seems to have been more happiness in his life than in the dark days of 1802 when he wrote his famous “Heiligenstadt Testament,” and there is evidence that in 1806, the year he wrote the Fourth, he may have been contemplating marriage.
The first movement begins with a mysterious slow introduction that suggests a serious, weighty work is underway. But suddenly, a teasing series of upward flourishes gathers and then explodes into the vigorous, high-spirited Allegro vivace. Beethoven has played his first practical joke on us: the tragedy is really a comedy!
The battle between melody and rhythm is waged in the development section, where the violins and woodwinds trade back and forth a soaring theme against the staccato eighth notes of the movement’s principal subject. Then, in preparation for the recapitulation, another joke: Beethoven takes those upward whoops and pushes them beyond the brink of absurdity before finally attacking his principal theme. And as soon as we’ve settled in for the recapitulation, he pulls the rug out from under us by wandering away from the home key of B-flat.
The second movement, in E-flat major, is one of Beethoven’s slow-tempo rondos, as was the funeral-march second movement of the “Eroica." Again, lyrical line contends with rhythmic energy. The first violins spin a lovely, long descending melody, marked cantabile (singing). But while you luxuriate in this melody, don’t ignore its halting accompaniment, launched by the second violins. Pervading the entire movement, its rhythms and character will subtly evolve, at times leaping into the foreground in fountains of arpeggios. In turn, the clarinets offer their version of the long descending melody, now reversed into an ascending shape. This is an extraordinarily innovative slow movement: complex in tone, being both poignant and dramatic.
Returning to the key of B-flat, the third movement is a scherzo, with a rustic woodwind trio section that suggests the "Pastoral" Symphony's peasant dances. Complex rhythmic games dominate the scherzo: two-against-three, syncopation, slashing cross-accents. Beethoven runs around the scherzo-trio cycle twice, but as he begins the scherzo a third time, the horns cry “enough already!” and bring matters to an abrupt halt.
The sonata-form finale is predominantly playful, but it is also energized by sharply accented cross rhythms and high-octane string writing. Still playing with us, Beethoven caps the work with a marvelously mischievous coda.