By Chris Morrison
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.
Overture to La clemenza di Tito, K. 621
Duration: 5 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 French horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
Mozart had composed much of The Magic Flute, and was well into his final work, the Requiem, when he was asked to write a new opera for the celebration of the coronation of Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor, as King of Bohemia. The timeline was a short one, but the paycheck was sizable, and Mozart couldn’t refuse. He supposedly wrote La Clemenza di Tito, or The Clemency of Titus, in just eighteen days, literally continuing work in the carriage as he was on the way to the Prague premiere, which took place about three months before Mozart’s death, on September 6, 1791.
A setting of a libretto by Caterino Mazzolà based on a popular prior one by Pietro Metastasio, La clemenza di Tito draws its story from events in the life of the Roman Emperor Titus as related by Suetonius in his famous The Lives of the Caesars. Titus is betrayed by his friend Sesto, yet in the end chooses to forgive him and the others that have plotted against both his throne and life. Unlike most overtures of the day, that for La clemenza di Tito does not make use of melodies that turn up later in the opera. Opening with a beautiful, majestic theme and scales, these ideas and a subsequent one in the violins are briefly developed before the Overture’s lively conclusion.
Born: December 5, 1960, La Plata, Argentina
Osvaldo Golijov grew up in an Eastern European Jewish household. Born to a piano teacher mother and physician father, Golijov was raised surrounded by classical chamber music, Jewish liturgical and klezmer music, and the new tango of Astor Piazzolla. Since the early 1990s, he has enjoyed collaborations with some of the world’s leading chamber music ensembles, such as the Kronos Quartet and the St. Lawrence String Quartet, in addition to relationships with artists such as Yo-Yo Ma, Dawn Upshaw, and Robert Spano. In 2000, the premiere of Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marcos (St. Mark Passion) took the music world by storm. Golijov has also received acclaim for other groundbreaking works such as his opera Ainadamar and the music he has written for films of Francis Ford Coppola. Golijov served as the Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall during the 2012-13 season. He is Loyola Professor of Music at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he has taught since 1991.
The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind
Duration: 33 minutes
Instrumentation: strings, solo clarinet
Osvaldo Golijov writes:
Eight centuries ago Isaac The Blind, the great kabbalist rabbi of Provence, dictated a manuscript in which he asserted that all things and events in the universe are product of combinations of the Hebrew alphabet’s letters: ‘Their root is in a name, for the letters are like branches, which appear in the manner of flickering flames, mobile, and nevertheless linked to the coal’. His conviction still resonates today: don’t we have scientists who believe that the clue to our life and fate is hidden in other codes?
Isaac’s lifelong devotion to his art is as striking as that of string quartets and klezmer musicians. In their search for something that arises from tangible elements but transcends them, they are all reaching a state of communion. Gershom Scholem, the preeminent scholar of Jewish mysticism, says that ‘Isaac and his disciples do not speak of ecstasy, of a unique act of stepping outside oneself in which human consciousness abolishes itself. Debhequth (communion) is a constant state, nurtured and renewed through meditation’. If communion is not the reason, how else would one explain the strange life that Isaac led, or the decades during which groups of four souls dissolve their individuality into single, higher organisms, called string quartets? How would one explain the chain of klezmer generations that, while blessing births, weddings, and burials, were trying to discover the melody that could be set free from itself and become only air, spirit, ruakh?
The movements of this work sound to me as if written in three of the different languages spoken by the Jewish people throughout our history. This somehow reflects the composition’s epic nature. I hear the prelude and the first movement, the most ancient, in Aramaic; the second movement is in Yiddish, the rich and fragile language of a long exile; the third movement and postlude are in sacred Hebrew.
The prelude and the first movement simultaneously explore two prayers in different ways: The quartet plays the first part of the central prayer of the High Holidays, ‘We will observe the mighty holiness of this day…’, while the clarinet dreams the motifs from ‘Our Father, Our King’. The second movement is based on ‘The Old Klezmer Band’, a traditional dance tune, which is surrounded here by contrasting manifestations of its own halo. The third movement was written before all the others. It is an instrumental version of K’vakarat, a work that I wrote a few years ago for Kronos and Cantor Misha Alexandrovich. The meaning of the word klezmer: instrument of song, becomes clear when one hears David Krakauer’s interpretation of the cantor’s line. This movement, together with the postlude, bring to conclusion the prayer left open in the first movement: ‘…Thou pass and record, count and visit, every living soul, appointing the measure of every creature’s life and decreeing its destiny’.
But blindness is as important in this work as dreaming and praying. I had always the intuition that, in order to achieve the highest possible intensity in a performance, musicians should play, metaphorically speaking, ‘blind’. That is why, I think, all legendary bards in cultures around the world, starting with Homer, are said to be blind. ‘Blindness’ is probably the secret of great string quartets, those who don’t need their eyes to communicate among them, with the music, or the audience. My hommage to all of them and Isaac of Provence is this work for blind musicians, so they can play it by heart. Blindness, then, reminded me of how to compose music as it was in the beginning: An art that springs from and relies on our ability to sing and hear, with the power to build castles of sound in our memories.
Born: December 16, 1770, Bonn, Germany
Died: March 26, 1827, Vienna, Austria
One biographical sketch on Beethoven begins “The events of Beethoven’s life are the stuff of Romantic legend, evoking images of the solitary creator shaking his fist at Fate and finally overcoming it through a supreme effort of creative will.” Biographical details, however, such as the deafness that plagued his last three decades, his stormy love affairs and famous ill temper, are dwarfed by his artistic output. He mastered and transformed the musical forms of his day, extending the range of expression available to composers. Beethoven was no Mozart-like prodigy, although in his teens he was composing and playing in orchestras. But by his twenties – after studies with Franz Josef Haydn and Antonio Salieri – both his compositions and piano playing had attracted considerable attention. Around the age of thirty, Beethoven first noticed his encroaching deafness. Soon thereafter began his “middle” period, which included groundbreaking works like the “Eroica” Symphony and the opera Fidelio. After a period of relative musical inactivity in the late 1810s, he entered his “late” period, highlighted by the Ninth Symphony and the late string quartets and piano sonatas, in which his music gained a new depth and freedom.
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55 “Eroica”
Duration: 48 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
“I think heaven and earth must tremble beneath us when it is performed.” So Beethoven, according to his pupil Ferdinand Ries, expressed himself regarding his Symphony No. 3, also calling it “the biggest work he had written so far.” After the crucial year of 1802, when Beethoven admitted the impact of his growing deafness, and even considered the possibility of suicide, in his “Heiligenstadt Testament” he wrote of overcoming those feelings, but also the desire to strive for what he called “a new path.”
What resulted was perhaps the most influential composition of its day – for some even the most influential in all of classical music history. The Symphony No. 3 was composed in late 1803 and early 1804, and was introduced in December 1804 at a private concert at the castle of Prince Lobkowitz, to whom it is dedicated. Beethoven conducted the public premiere on April 7, 1805, at Vienna’s Theater-an-der-Wien.
Still argued is the extent to which the Symphony No. 3 was a portrait of Napoleon Bonaparte. Beethoven had admired the ideals of the French Revolution, embodied in the figure of Napoleon (whom Beethoven compared to the consuls of ancient Rome), and initially dedicated the Symphony to him. But when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor in May 1804, Beethoven angrily scratched out that dedication on the score’s title page, supposedly shouting, “So he is no more than a common mortal! Now, too, he will tread under foot all the rights of man, indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men, become a tyrant!” It has also been suggested, however, that Beethoven changed the dedication after learning that his friend Prince Lobkowitz would pay him very well for that honor. Whatever the composer’s feelings, the published score ultimately read “Heroic Symphony, composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.”
Leonard Bernstein thought the Symphony’s first two movements “perhaps the greatest two movements in all symphonic music.” Two impressive E-flat major chords played by the whole orchestra announce the symphony’s beginning. They are followed by the first main theme, introduced by the cellos and basses, and not much more than an elaboration of an E-flat major chord (but with an out-of-place C-sharp that establishes the music’s harmonic tension). A calmer second theme follows; ultimately, no fewer than five distinct melodies are introduced.
Throughout this movement, Beethoven makes much of dynamic contrast, dissonance, and syncopated rhythmic uncertainty. In the lengthy development, the main themes move dramatically through various keys and sonorities. Beethoven even has the oboe introduce a new melody, something previous composers seldom did. On a couple of occasions Beethoven seems to be leading back to the recapitulation, but instead takes further harmonic detours, with lovely short solos from the horn and flute. Eventually, E-flat major is firmly restored as the themes pass in review. As will happen in Beethoven’s music, the coda is so extensive that it almost seems as through he has created a new development section. But with a few more variants on the opening theme, the movement comes to a close with decisive chords.
The second movement is a funeral march in C minor. Its main theme is heard quietly in the strings, then taken up by the oboe, accompanied by a drumbeat figure. This music unfolds slowly, with a growing feeling of tension that is dispelled somewhat by a C major passage that begins lyrically but develops forcefully, complete with trumpets and timpani. Soon, though, the funeral procession continues. Brass instruments sound an alarm, and a contrapuntal passage ensues, restless triplets now accompanying the march. This unsettled music leads briefly into a new lyrical idea, then to the remarkable coda that Hector Berlioz wrote about so movingly: “The theme of the march reappears, but in fragments separated by silences and with no accompaniment except for three pizzicato notes of the basses. And when the tattered fragments of the mournful melody, alone, naked, shattered, erased, have collapsed, one after one, on the tonic chord, the wind instruments emit a cry, the last farewell of warriors to their comrade in arms.”
The energy of the third movement Scherzo is emphasized by the relative quiet of the music, as though tightly coiled energy is on the verge of bursting forth. Rustic horns (three of them, a reminder that this work represents the first time that more than two horns had been employed in a symphony) sound out in the central section, followed by a reprise of the opening music. Despite its brevity, this movement exemplifies, in the words of Donald Francis Tovey, a “desire to replace the minuet by something on a scale comparable to the rest of a great symphony.”
An opening flurry introduces the pizzicato statement by the strings of the fourth movement’s main idea. That theme, used three previous times by Beethoven (in the finale of the ballet The Creatures of Prometheus, a short Contradance, and the “Eroica” Variations for piano), becomes both the basis of several variations and the accompaniment to a new melody. Almost immediately the music erupts in stormy counterpoint. A rollicking new idea appears that we realize is another variation on the main theme. Fragments of the melody are tossed about within the orchestra. The tempo slows as the oboe, then strings, take up a peaceful variant of the theme. Now the full orchestra presents the theme as a triumphant processional, but only as an interlude between more peaceful musings. Tension builds again before the energetic onslaught of the powerful concluding moments.
Paul Henry Lang called the “Eroica” Symphony “one of the incomprehensible deeds in arts and letters, the single greatest step made by an individual composer in the history of the symphony and in the history of music in general. The Eroica simply dwarfs everything in its boldness of conception, breadth of execution and intensity of the logic of construction. Beethoven himself never again approached the feat of fiery imagination: he wrote other, perhaps greater, works but he never again took such a fling at the universe.”