Eine kleine Nachtmusik (“A Little Night Music”), K. 525
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Born in Salzburg, Austria, January 27, 1756; died in Vienna, December 5, 1791
Eine kleine Nachtmusik (its translation, “A Little Night Music,” was borrowed by Stephen Sondheim for his famous 1973 musical) has always enjoyed hit status among Mozart’s works, to the point that overexposure may blind us to its gemlike perfection. It is one of the finest examples of the special-occasion music he composed throughout his career under various titles: serenade, divertimento, cassation, or nocturne. These works, usually in many movements, were created for princely soirées or weddings of wealthy merchants (like Mozart’s “Haffner” Serenade) and frequently for performance out of doors and/or in the evening. They were intended to be light, festive background music to accompany social chatter and plenty of eating and drinking. But although Mozart usually wrote such works only on commission (they were an excellent source of quick cash for this often financially strapped composer), we have no record of why this piece — dated August 10, 1787 in the composer’s own catalogue — was written or even whether it was ever performed in his lifetime. Could he have written it just for his own pleasure? The title in Mozart’s native German, rather than the Italian he customarily used for such works, suggest that this might well have been a personal piece. Mozart biographer Alfred Einstein came up with the ingenious suggestion that Mozart might have composed it as a corrective to his A Musical Joke, K. 522, written shortly before. In A Musical Joke, Mozart gleefully thumbed his nose at all the hallowed rules of musical composition of his day, while in Eine kleine Nachtmusik he followed those rules meticulously to create a work of ideal refinement and charm.
Originally this composition contained another minuet movement; it is listed in Mozart’s catalogue as a five-movement work, but the first minuet was inexplicably torn from the manuscript. What is left is a miniature four-movement symphony for string orchestra, with a sonata-allegro first movement, a slow movement in rondo form, the surviving minuet, and a sonata-rondo finale. The second movement Romance introduces a few nocturnal shadows in its C-minor middle section to a work that is otherwise an ideal music expression of the relaxed pleasures of a balmy summer evening.
Alma grande e nobil core, K. 578
Vado, ma dove?, K. 583
Bella mia fiamma — Resta, o cara, K. 528
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Mozart’s many operas by no means exhausted his prodigious gifts for writing dramatic arias for all voice categories. Throughout his career, he created many additional arias tailored to the talents of favorite singers. If a singer friend wanted a new aria to interpolate into a non-Mozart opera or to show off his or her prowess at a court concert, Mozart usually was happy to oblige. And it seems that the composer was most susceptible to the pleas of his soprano colleagues: Grove’s Dictionary of Music lists nearly 60 concert arias, with the lion’s share — 35 arias — created for the soprano voice. The three arias that we will hear come from the later years of Mozart’s life.
“Alma grande e nobil core,” (“A great soul and noble heart”) was composed in August 1789 for the soprano Louise Villeneuve, who created the role of Dorabella in Mozart’s opera Così fan tutte. It is an “insertion aria,” written for Villeneuve to include in a revival of Cimarosa’s opera I due baroni di Rocca Azzura in Vienna. The beautiful and wealthy Donna Laura is being courted by two men claiming to be the rich Baron di Rocca Azzura; the one whom she loves is actually a clever imposter. After quarreling with a female rival, Donna Laura sings this proud aria dismissing the woman. The opening section is full of vehement expression, and in a fast closing section, Donna Laura’s anger fuels the rapid coloratura.
Composed a few months later in October 1789, “Vado, ma dove?” (“I go, but where?”) is another insertion aria for Villeneuve. In this case, it was to be used in Antonio Soler’s comic opera Il burbero di buon cuore (“The Good-Hearted Churl”), and the text may be by Lorenzo da Ponte, Mozart’s favorite librettist. The singer is Madame Lucilla, who is perplexed by the churlish behavior of the suitor with whom she is genuinely in love; she does not realize that his strange actions are motivated by his being deeply in debt. This is an aria in two contrasting sections: an opening Allegro expressing her confusion and a slower Andante sostenuto of melting loveliness and tenderness that is Mozart at his lyrical best.
While the previous arias were written for comedies, “Bella mia fiamma,” an independent concert aria, expresses a genuinely tragic situation. A full-blown operatic scena, it features an elaborate, extended opening recitative of great pathos, a chromatically tormented slow aria of farewell, and a heroic closing fast aria in which the singer resolves to face death with fortitude. Composed in Prague in November 1787 just a few days after the premiere of Don Giovanni, it is also one of Mozart’s vocal masterpieces, only on a smaller scale.
The text is by Michele Scarcone for Niccolò Jommeli’s opera Cyrere placata (“Ceres Appeased”), based on the mythological tale of the Roman goddess Ceres and her daughter Prosperina, who marries Pluto, the god of the underworld. Before this marriage takes place, however, Prosperina is in love with the mortal Titano, but Ceres separates the two and condemns Titano to be sacrificed on her altar. Titano sings this aria expressing his anguish over losing both his love and his life.
“Bella mia fiamma” was created for the obviously formidable vocal talents of the Czech soprano Josefa Duschek, a close friend of Mozart’s, and comes with a marvelous — and possibly apocryphal — story attached. Josefa reportedly begged Mozart for an aria and finally locked him into a room to write it for her. In revenge, the composer said he’d give it to her only if she could sing it flawlessly at sight. To ensure she’d have to earn her aria, he loaded it with difficult intervals — both enormous leaps and intricate chromatic half-step passages — and unexpected harmonic progressions. But in devising a devilish test for Frau Duschek, Mozart also produced one of the greatest arias he ever wrote and one in which singer and orchestra are equal partners.
Symphony No. 4 in G Major
Born in Kalischt, Bohemia, July 7, 1860; died in Vienna, May 18, 1911
The imaginative process by which a composer creates a new work of music is infinitely mysterious, and it often bears little relationship to the circumstances of his daily life, his physical health, or even his prevailing psychological mood. This was certainly the case with Gustav Mahler and his Fourth Symphony: this complicated genius — sensitive to his surroundings almost to the point of madness — somehow managed to create his sunniest, most untroubled work at a time when just about everything seemed to be going wrong. And not even the sun was shining on the banks of the Aussee that summer of 1899.
Summers were precious to Mahler, by then the overworked music director of the Vienna State Opera. The rest of the year was devoted to conducting, coping with the day-to-day demands of running a large musical institution, and battling the cut-throat cultural politics of turn-of-the-century Vienna. Only during a few weeks each summer did he have the time and peace for sustained work on his growing family of symphonies. As he wrote to his confidante, the violinist Natalie Bauer-Lechner: “Now, during these few short weeks, I have to work every moment of the day, even when I’m weary and out of sorts, merely in order to get finished. And my work must inevitably suffer from the strain.”
And in the summer of 1899 the strain was nearly intolerable. First Mahler’s original retreat, booked months in advance, proved impossible, and he had to devote ten days of his dwindling holiday seeking out a new spot. This he finally found near the Aussee in western Austria’s Salzkammergut lake district, but it was little better. The denizens of the nearby spa seemed to delight in harassing the reclusive celebrity, and there were also the inescapable sounds of the spa band competing with Mahler’s own internal music: “serenades, funeral marches and wedding marches every day from eleven o’clock, and on Sunday from eight in the morning.” Even the weather wasn’t cooperating: it was freezing cold and it rained piteously day after day.
Somehow, a miserable Mahler found his way out of all this and into another world: the magical, childlike world of his Fourth Symphony. The gateway to this enchanted land was a poem from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Boy’s Magic Horn”), a collection of folk poetry compiled by Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim in the early 19th century. The Bavarian poem “Der Himmel hängt voll Geigen” (“Heaven is Hung with Violins”) had inspired Mahler in 1892 to compose a song called “Das Himmlische Leben” (“The Heavenly Life”). Since then, the song with its fanciful, alluring imagery of a child’s heaven — in which everyone lives happily, all the best produce is readily available, and the saints themselves are gourmet cooks — had rolled around in his creative imagination. Mahler had first considered using the song in his Third Symphony, but rejected it as that symphony grew to gargantuan dimensions. A whole new work needed to be created, one in which all the movements would relate to and culminate in this beguiling little lied.
By the end of the disastrous summer of 1899, Mahler had sketched half the symphony. And he had also decided to secure a proper environment for its completion the following summer. He purchased a plot of land on the shores of the beautiful Wörtersee near Maiernigg in the Austrian Tyrol and hired an architect to build both a house for the Mahler menage (he had not yet met his wife, Alma) and, even more important, a Häuschen or little cottage deep in the woods for his composing.
When Mahler came to Maiernigg in 1900, he found that, without much conscious thought during the preceding concert season, the symphony had made great progress in his subconscious imagination — what he called “the second Me.” He described its overall mood to Natalie: “What I had in mind was extremely hard to achieve; the uniform blue of the sky being much more difficult to render than all its changing and contrasting hues. Well, that’s the general atmosphere of the piece. Occasionally, however, it darkens and become phantasmagorical and terrifying: not that the sky becomes overcast, for the sun continues to shine eternally, but that one suddenly takes fright; just as on the most beautiful day in a sunlit forest, one can be seized with terror or panic.”
The new symphony was largely finished by August 6, 1900. Employing a smaller orchestra than Mahler’s previous symphonies and at about 50 minutes the shortest of them, the Fourth is a work of the greatest subtlety and complexity in terms of Mahler’s handling of form, thematic material, and orchestration. Seldom does the whole orchestra play en masse; instead Mahler has refined here his concertante style of writing, in which small groups of instruments engage in intimate, ever-changing conversations. This constantly shifting dialogue works hand-in-hand with Mahler’s devotion to continual thematic evolution: never does a theme return exactly as it was before. Mahler’s initial themes in the Fourth often seem sweetly simple but his subsequent handling of them is anything but.
Strangely, the sunny ersatz simplicity of this work, which helps make it Mahler’s best-loved symphony today, worked against it in its early years. The composer premiered it with the Kaim Orchestra of Munich on November 25, 1901, and the audience — expecting another mighty opus like the Second and Third symphonies — didn’t like it at all. In fact the work was never popular in Mahler’s lifetime. In exasperation, he called it “my persecuted stepchild.”
Movement 1: The symphony as a whole might be understood as a fantastic journey to the Heaven of the last movement; along the way, we’ll encounter some disturbing episodes, but they will not deter us from reaching the celestial goal. This magical journey opens to the enchanting jingle of sleigh bells and flutes. Three major themes unfold. First, the violins’ naive, carefree melody that, in Mahler’s words, “begins as if it couldn’t count to three, but then launches out into the full multiplication table.” It is succeeded by a very schmaltzy Viennese melody in the cellos. The folk-like, puckish third theme is introduced by the woodwinds.
The development section introduces yet another important theme: a repeated-note melody with a dotted-rhythm tail heard high in the flutes. This theme seems to be associated with the heavenly goal; it will return at the climax of the third movement as the gates of heaven open and will then transform itself into the orchestral opening of the song-finale.
As the development rampages forward, we suddenly hear a trumpet call amid the tumult. Mahler: “Just when the confusion is at its height and the stampeding of initially disciplined troops has surpassed all limits, a command from the general instantly restores law and order.” The orchestra rapidly disintegrates into total silence. Then the violins saunter back in with the second half of their opening theme to start the recapitulation, and we are back on the road to Heaven.
Movement 2: The C-minor Scherzo presents another risky detour on the journey. Mahler subtitled this movement “Freund Hain spielt auf” or “Friend Hain strikes up [the music].” Freund Hain is a child’s bogeyman in German folklore. Here he takes the shape of a devilish fiddler, impersonated by the concertmaster playing a violin tuned a clashing step above his colleagues’ instruments to resemble a scratchy, out-of-tune country fiddle. This Austrian Ländler dance alternates between dream and nightmare: everything seems a bit unreal and out-of-focus. Two trio sections provide rustic contrast: the first introduced by the tipsy-sounding principal clarinet and bassoon, the second — more sentimental in character — by a pair of clarinets.
Movement 3: Having moved past the temptations of Freund Hain, we reach the great G-major Adagio, the heart of the work and the movement Mahler considered his finest. He later described the images that had inspired this beautiful variations movement: “St. Ursula herself [whom we will meet in the song-finale], the most serious of all the saints, presides with a smile, so gay in this higher sphere. Her smile resembles that on the prone statues of old knights … one sees lying in churches, their hands joined on their bosoms and with the peaceful, gentle expressions of men who have gained access to a higher bliss … such is the character of this movement, which also has deeply sad moments, comparable, if you wish, to reminiscences of earthly life.”
Two long themes alternate in the variations process. A plucked ostinato pattern in the basses undergirds the first theme and, passed to other instruments, pervades the movement. The first theme, serene and lovely, rises from the low strings; it displays Mahler’s growing contrapuntal skills in its gracefully interweaving lines. The yearning second theme is presented by the solo oboe; unlike theme one, it feels the tug of earthly cares. Near its climax comes a sudden, violent drop of nearly two octaves in the violins; this sounds like a groan of despair — as though Heaven will never be reached.
But after moments of earthly pain and struggle, the clouds part on an E-major vision of the heavenly goal. This is the symphony’s biggest moment. The ecstasy subsides, and the movement closes high in the divided violins as we hover on Heaven’s threshold.
Movement 4: And now we finally reach our journey’s destination in the enchanting song that was the symphony’s inspiration. The orchestration is extremely delicate lest it compete with the gentle, childlike tones of the soprano singing of Heaven’s delights. Although the movement is in strophic form, each strophe is different, again in keeping with Mahler’s evolutionary practices. A poignant minor-mode refrain completes the soprano’s stanzas three times; it is answered by grave, archaic-sounding open-fifths in the orchestra and exuberant reprises of the sleigh bells that opened the symphony.
The final strophe shifts to E major — the key of the Adagio’s heavenly apotheosis — but now, with the goal reached, all is quiet and serene. The close of the symphony is as unique as its beginning: bells again, but now the music fades off into eternity to the low tolling of the harp.