Piano Concerto No. 11 in F Major, K. 413
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Born in Salzburg, Austria, January 27, 1756; died in Vienna, December 5, 1791
By the late 1780s, Mozart was no longer afraid to be completely himself: following the dictates of his muse whether that pleased contemporary tastes or not. And he paid a heavy price for this in waning popularity and mounting debts. However, at the start of his career in Vienna, he took utmost care to win over his new audiences by giving them exactly what they wanted.
Leaving the Archbishop of Salzburg's stifling court in 1781 may have freed Mozart's spirit, but it was a very risky move in late 18th-century Austria. Most musicians—Haydn being the chief model—made their living through a steady appointment at a princely court. Without this security, Mozart was proposing to make his way as a freelance performer-composer—a career with very little precedent. In that period, as Mozart scholar Arthur Hutchings tells us, "A printer or copyist could make more money from new music than its composer could." Mozart's best opportunity for earning a living was to exploit his brilliant gifts as a keyboard artist in a city that worshipped the piano above all instruments. And he needed to create a steady flow of extremely attractive new works to win a following among Vienna's aristocrats and rich merchants.
With his first three piano concertos written for Vienna in 1782—nos. 11, 12 and 13—Mozart strove to please a diverse audience by showing off his best musical manners. As he wrote to his father: "These concertos are a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult; they are very brilliant, pleasing to the ear and natural, without being vapid. There are passages here and there from which the connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why."
Of these three early Viennese concertos, today's work in F major, K. 413, tries the hardest to be ingratiating. Melodious and refined, it is always on its best courtly behavior and speaks the galant language loved by 18th-century aristocrats. Cuthbert Girdlestone, author of a notable guide to Mozart's piano concertos, describes its aesthetic ideal as being "that of a gentleman in a drawing room." It uses a smallish orchestra—just oboes, horns, strings without the brilliance of flute, trumpets and timpani—all the better to train full attention on the soloist, originally Mozart himself.
The first movement abounds in courtly musical gestures. The orchestra opens with sweeping sixteenth-note bows, followed by delicate upward flourishes and mincing dotted rhythms. Courteous trills ornament the elegant second theme, which rises in a stately sequence. After having its introductory say, the orchestra politely makes way for the soloist. One gracious melody flows smoothly into the next, without dramatics or dark shadows. Even when the soloist wanders off into the minor mode for the brief middle development section, he is not allowed to go too far astray.
The slow movement is a pastoral idyll, as lovely and as delicately colored as a Fragonard painting. Sighing echo motives are prominent in the orchestra throughout. Again, the pianist is the protagonist, spinning delicately ornamental lines against a constant accompanimental pattern known as the "Alberti bass.”
For his finale, Mozart gives us two movements in one: an intriguing blending of the 3/4 minuet dance used for symphonies of that era and the light-hearted rondo-refrain form that was the traditional finish for concertos. Usually, the soloist introduced the rondo tune, but, in keeping with its symphonic character, Mozart awards it here to the orchestra. The piano, however, leads both of its returns, each adorned with richly virtuosic embellishments. Rondo finales were often exuberant, brilliant affairs, with plenty of solo fireworks; this one, however, maintains its courtly decorum right up to its unusual quiet ending.
Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, D. 417, “Tragic”
Born in Vienna, January 31, 1797; died in Vienna, November 19, 1828
The years of 1815 and 1816 were among the most remarkable in Schubert's prolific, all too brief career. Over their span, the still-teenage composer created four symphonies (nos. two through five), a dozen piano works, two string quartets, five theatrical scores, several church works and about 200 songs. And he did not enjoy the luxury of unlimited time for composing. Six days a week, he labored as assistant teacher in his father's school, teaching young children their 3 R's. The school, with as many as 300 pupils, occupied the ground floor of the Schubert family's modest two-story dwelling; Schubert lived upstairs in the cramped family quarters. Only a man with an unquenchable desire to set down the music that burned inside him, coupled with the dauntless energy of youth, could have produced so much under such trying conditions.
From 1808 to 1813, Schubert had profited from the finest musical and academic training available to a Viennese boy of humble background. His musical gifts won him a place at the Kaiserlich-königliches Stadtkonvikt, the leading Viennese boarding school for commoners; here he studied composition with Mozart's fictional nemesis, Antonio Salieri. By the time he wrote his First Symphony as a graduation piece in 1813, he had thoroughly assimilated the language and techniques of the Classical masters. Though his early symphonies show the influence of Haydn, Mozart, and his beloved Beethoven, they also reveal that he had already developed his own distinctive voice—unmistakable in the shape of the melodies, the lilt and propulsion of the rhythms, the expressive daring of the harmonies and beguiling colors of the woodwinds.
The first symphony he ever wrote in a minor key, Symphony No. 4 in C Minor was composed between the end of 1815 and April 1816, around the time of Schubert’s 19th birthday. Years later, he gave it the title “Tragic,” but that title is actually quite misleading. Rather than high tragedy, this symphony recalls an earlier symphonic style known as “Sturm und Drang” (“Storm and Stress”), which flourished in the last decades of the 18th century. Usually written in minor keys and heralding the subjective Romantic world to come, works in this style were highly dramatic—almost operatic—but more tempestuous and rebellious than tragic. Mozart’s beloved Symphony No. 40 in G Minor is an outstanding example of this style, and we know that it was one of Schubert’s favorite symphonies. There are also many features in the Fourth Symphony that suggest Beethoven, whom Schubert worshipped all his life; not least among them is the key of C minor, a heroic key for Beethoven chosen for such monumental music as the Fifth Symphony, the Coriolan Overture, and the slow movement of the “Eroica” Symphony.
Movement one: The only section of the symphony that truly touches on tragic emotions is the opening slow introduction. Launched by a darkly emphatic chorus of C’s from the whole orchestra, it unfurls a twisting, tormented theme presented in dialogue between plaintive violins and brooding violas and cellos. This music wanders restlessly among many distant keys before finally settling on the doorstep of C minor.
Extreme restlessness also characterizes the main Allegro vivace section with its “coiled spring” (Brian Newbould) of a principal theme spurred on by an agitated string accompaniment. Melodramatic outbursts intensify its energy. Even the violins’ more lyrical second theme does little to ease its forward drive. The principal theme churns throughout a brief development section before the exposition music returns — but now in the “wrong” key of G minor, rather than C minor. Eventually, the music finds its way to C major for a heroic conclusion.
All pretense of tragedy is dropped for the A-flat major slow movement, the symphony’s masterpiece. In this intimate, poignant music, Schubert casts off the borrowed clothes of Beethoven and reveals himself as a lyrical genius with his own unique voice. The violins’ tenderly elegiac theme is soon given a plangent tone by a solo oboe; indeed, the writing for the woodwind section throughout this movement forms a beautifully colored contrast to the strings. Between reappearances of this major-key music, two episodes in the minor mode interject a little grit and agitation to toughen the music’s lyricism.
Though Schubert labeled it a minuet, the third movement in E-flat major is really a scherzo in the style of Beethoven. No longer music for courtiers, it is instead an earthy, heavy-footed dance for the common folk of Schubert’s working-class neighborhood. Imitating Beethoven’s penchant for disruptive cross-rhythms, Schubert begins all phrases on the third beat, thereby disabling the usually strong first beat. Led by rustic-sounding woodwinds, the contrasting trio section is an enchanting ländler dance—the precursor to the Viennese waltz.
Back in C minor, the sonata-form finale returns to the storm-tossed mood of the first movement. The first violins attack the frantically obsessive principal theme, with its little eighth-note swirling motive, above the urgent throbbing of the other strings. A pert, upward-leaping bird motive, enhanced by the flutes and clarinets, is an essential component of the second strand of this extended theme. Pure Schubertian lyricism marks the second theme with its two-note sighing motive tossed back and forth between violins and woodwinds. Using both the swirling and bird motives, Schubert concocts a much more interesting development section than the first movement’s; it races impetuously through many keys before arriving in C major for a full recapitulation. The symphony closes with three emphatic exclamations of C, echoing its opening, but erasing all traces of C minor and tragedy.
Notes by Janet E. Bedell copyright 2008