November 17 and 18, 2018
By Chris Morrison
Born: March 14, 1681, Magdeburg, Germany
Died: June 25, 1767, Hamburg, Germany
Telemann was one of the most prolific composers of all time, with over 3,000 works to his credit (many now lost), including over 1,000 church cantatas, 46 Passion settings, and hundreds of suites for orchestra. He was largely self-taught as a composer and instrumentalist; among the instruments he played were the violin, organ, flute, recorder, oboe, double bass, trombone, and zither. While he got an early start in music, having composed an opera at age 12, Telemann’s family wanted him to pursue some other career. For a time he studied law at the University of Leipzig. But music won out, and the Mayor of Leipzig asked Telemann to take over composing for the city’s churches. After working in Leipzig as well as Sorau (Poland), Eisenach, and Frankfurt, Telemann moved to Hamburg in 1721 to become music director of that city’s five churches. Telemann was friends with many famous fellow musicians, even serving as godfather to Johann Sebastian Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel, who on Telemann’s death took over his Hamburg post.
Suite in F major, TWV 55:F11 “Alster” (excerpts)
Composed: c. 1725
Duration: 15 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 oboes, bassoon, 4 horns, strings, continuo
In the mid-seventeenth century, the French ouverture started to supplant the Italian sinfonia as the standard way to begin an opera or ballet. While the “overture,” as we call it today, continued to evolve over the centuries, the French version of the term also came to be applied to a new courtly musical entertainment, in which an extended opening movement, or Ouverture, is followed by a series of short dances. Nowadays referred to more commonly as a “suite,” this form is probably most famously represented by the keyboard, cello, and orchestral works of that name by Johann Sebastian Bach.
Telemann’s special contribution to the form was his wide knowledge of musical styles, as the dances frequently became vivid character pieces, portraits of places or scenes from nature or mythological characters, often enlivened by allusions to the musical styles of various countries. As he put it, “I have had the good fortune of becoming acquainted with many of the most famous musicians of different nations, whose ingenuity has always aroused in me the desire to execute my pieces thoughtfully, so that I might earn their and their people’s favor.” Assessments of how many orchestral suites Telemann composed vary from around 600 to over 1,000. Something like 135 still survive today, with only six in Telemann’s own handwriting.
Composer-conductor Gunther Schuller described the “Alster” Suite as “a tour de force of orchestration and ingenuity.” It is a musical depiction of the sights and sounds around the Alster River, a tributary of the Elbe. The Alster and two artificial lakes derived from it are prominent features of the city of Hamburg, where Telemann was then living. There is a ceremonial strut to the outer sections of the opening Ouverture, which frame livelier music, including horn fanfares, in the central Allegro. Then comes the lively “Die canonierende Pallas,” a portrait of the goddess Pallas Athena at play. Strings and French horns exchange phrases in the appropriately-named “Das Älster-Echo.” (Due to time constraints, movements 4-8 of the Suite are omitted in this performance.) The Suite concludes with “Der Schäffer und Nymphen eilfertiger Abzug,” a fast-paced dance in the manner of a jig, as shepherds and nymphs take their leave of the city.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Born: January 27, 1756, Salzburg, Austria
Died: December 5, 1791, Vienna, Austria
No reminder is really needed of the unique stature of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the history of Western music. His vast catalog of compositions – over 600 of them, including some 15 operas, 17 masses, 50 symphonies, 20 piano concertos, 23 string quartets, and much more – epitomizes the German-Austrian Classical style. His music is recognized and loved all over the world for its melodic, harmonic, and textural richness and beauty. The son of a well-known violinist and pedagogue, Mozart was one of the greatest prodigies ever, playing his first public concert at age five and composing his first music at seven. Before reaching the age of ten he had already played recitals in front of the likes of Marie Antoinette and King George III of England. He traveled throughout Europe through his teens. After failing to find a secure post elsewhere, and having grown dissatisfied with his career in Salzburg, Mozart moved to Vienna, where he spent the last decade of his life. While he enjoyed some successes with his new operas and piano concertos, life there grew more and more precarious, leading to his early death at age thirty-five.
Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K. 183/173dB
Duration: 22 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, strings
Mozart wrote the Symphony No. 25 in October 1773, a few months after the seventeen-year-old composer’s opera Lucio Silla had enjoyed considerable success in Milan during the third of his three trips to Italy with his father Leopold. On the conclusion of that Italian sojourn, the Mozarts spent some time in Vienna before heading back to their home in Salzburg. Within days of arriving there, Mozart had completed two symphonies, No. 24 in B-flat major (dated October 3) and No. 25, dated two days later. Both were likely sketched out in Vienna and completed in Salzburg.
The late 1760s and early 1770s were the time of the Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) period in literature and music. Composers had turned to a more overtly dramatic style of writing, which often included the use of minor keys, wide, sudden leaps in the melodic lines, dynamic contrast, and syncopated rhythms. Mozart may have heard some of these works during his time in Vienna, and embraced elements of the Sturm und Drang style in the Symphony No. 25, which is often referred to as the “Little G minor” Symphony, to distinguish it from the later Symphony No. 40 in the same key. These were Mozart’s only two symphonies in minor keys.
The Sturm und Drang influence is most obvious in the Symphony No. 25’s outer movements, with their throbbing strings and nervous energy. In the first movement – made famous through its use in Miloš Forman’s 1984 film Amadeus – tension arises from the syncopated violin and viola figures, juxtaposed with basses playing on the beat. The oboe’s extension of the theme calms the mood but briefly. A second theme in the violins takes the music into the major, and tremolos introduce a third, more genial, idea, also in the major. After this exposition is repeated, arpeggiated chords and more tremolos mark the short development section, in which long oboe notes fight with orchestra outbursts. Horns introduce the recap of the main themes, this time entirely in G minor.
Graceful and courtly, the slow movement is something of a respite from the agitation of the first movement. Muted violins and bassoons engage in a pretty, simple yet moving dialogue. Far from the typical courtly dance, the third movement Minuet is stern, even grim. Its outer sections are marked by wide dynamic contrasts. In between, however, the Trio, scored for just the winds, is playful and sweet.
The drama of the first movement returns in the Finale, with more syncopated rhythms as a main theme is announced by the French horns. That and another theme are presented and briefly developed. When they return in the recapitulation, dramatic strings now underlie the main horn theme. A short coda brings the work to a defiant, minor key conclusion.
Born: March 4, 1678, Venice, Italy
Died: July 28, 1741, Vienna, Austria
Antonio Vivaldi is remembered as one of the fathers of instrumental music and the master of the concerto for soloist(s) and orchestra – of which he wrote over 550, including some 240 for the violin. Colorful works like The Four Seasons are among the most popular in all of classical music. His operas and religious works also brought him fame during his lifetime. Ordained as a priest in 1703, the redheaded Vivaldi came to be known as “il prete rosso” (“the red priest”). He decided to pursue musical rather than ecclesiastical duties, becoming a teacher at the Ospedale della Pietà, an orphanage and school for girls famous for its excellent choir and orchestra, where he worked in several capacities over the ensuing three-plus decades. Meanwhile his concertos and other instrumental works were being published to great acclaim. In his later years Vivaldi fell on hard times, and on his death he was buried (as was Mozart five decades later) in a pauper’s grave in Vienna.
The Four Seasons, Op. 8/1-4
Composed: c. 1723
Duration: 40 minutes
Instrumentation: strings, continuo, solo violin
The four concertos known collectively as The Four Seasons (Le quattro stagioni) are among music’s enduring masterpieces. Drawn from the collection of twelve concertos by Antonio Vivaldi titled The Contest Between Harmony and Invention (Il cimento dell’armonia e dell’inventione, Op. 8, published 1725), The Four Seasons are also classical music bestsellers: several hundred recordings have been made over the years by the world’s great violinists, and one of those recordings, featuring Nigel Kennedy, has sold in excess of two million copies. During Vivaldi’s own lifetime, these concertos were among his most popular works – as a critic wrote in 1740, “Who does not know the Four Seasons of Antonio Vivaldi?” But they and the rest of his considerable output fell into neglect after his death. It was the resurgent popularity of The Four Seasons that finally rehabilitated Vivaldi’s reputation in the 1950s, leading to a reappraisal of his hundreds of concertos and dozens of operas and religious works.
Each of The Four Seasons has a short poem, a sonnet, associated with it, possibly written by Vivaldi himself, describing the scenes and events of each movement (read the poems here). These examples of “program music,” music that refers outside itself to some narrative, person, place, or event, are not unique in Vivaldi’s output. In fact, there are other such works in the Il cimento collection: for instance, the Concerto No. 5 is titled “La tempesta di mare” (“Storm at Sea”), and No. 10 returns to a subject also pictured in The Four Seasons, “La caccia” (“The Hunt”).
All four concertos of The Four Seasons are in what was gradually becoming the standard form of the time, with two fast movements framing a slower one. The first concerto, “Spring” (“La Primavera,” in E major), begins with a melody famous even to non-classical music fans. Soon the violin breaks out in imitations of birdsong. Later we hear gentle zephyrs, their wafting suddenly interrupted by a violent thunderstorm. In the peaceful second movement, a goatherd sleeps as the leaves of nearby plants rustle quietly. Vivaldi calls special attention in the score to a “barking dog” – imitated by the violas, their repeated notes to be played “very loud and abruptly” – that interrupts the shepherd’s slumbers. Shepherds and nymphs welcome the beginning of spring with a dance, accompanied by bagpipe-like drones in the lower strings, in the lively third movement.
At first, the second concerto, “Summer” (“L’estate,” in G minor), evokes the relentless heat of midyear. But soon bird songs are heard again, and cool winds relieve the oppressive heat for a time. The violin soloist is called on for a number of imitations here – cuckoos, turtledoves, breezes and rustling winds. Neighbors made impatient by the heat argue, and a storm threatens to break. Towards the end of the movement, a lonely violin solo describes a shepherd’s fear of an impending storm. That fear also comes out in the orchestral tremolos of the second movement. The shepherd tries to sleep through his fear, but flies and gnats, heard in repeated notes by the orchestra under the solo violin, pester him. The storm breaks out vividly in the third movement, with frenzied outbursts from the violin and orchestra – darting violin scales evoke lightning, while the cellos and basses portray thunder.
“Autumn” arrives in the third concerto (“L’autunno,” in F major). Farmers celebrate a successful harvest in the first movement – perhaps their drinking is a bit excessive, however, as the lurching solo violin depicts the revelers’ tipsiness. Intoxicated sleep comes upon them here and in the second movement, with its gentle muted strings. Horn calls from the solo violin announce the third movement’s hunt. March-like figures from the orchestra contrast with energetic music from the soloist. A wild scrum in the orchestra describes the confusion of the hunt as well as the capture and death of the prey, with the strings imitating the barks of the dogs.
The final concerto, “Winter” (“L’inverno,” in F minor), is the shortest and darkest of the four. Agitation is evident from the opening moments of the first movement, as the rhythms suggest shivering people stomping their feet to stay warm. Trills in the violins imitate the shivering and chattering teeth. Here the writing for the soloist is especially virtuosic, evoking with arpeggios and scales the bitter chill of the winter winds. The mood lightens in the serene, lyrical second movement. Pizzicato (plucked) notes from the violins imitate the icy raindrops (one didn’t see that much snow in the Venice of Vivaldi’s time), while the warmth of the soloist’s song offers comfort in front of the roaring fire. With careful footsteps on an icy path, the final movement creeps in tentatively, but soon erupts in swirling winds. Darkness descends briefly as the music slows. But soon the music speeds again, and the cycle of concertos ends with a flurry of energy.