By Jack Bryce
Board Member, Carleton College Professor Emertius
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Salzburg, January 27, 1756 – Vienna, December 5, 1791), Austrian composer, was deeply influenced by musical elements from around the world, which he blended into a unique mixture that became the high point of the classical style in Vienna. He excelled in every musical medium of his time and, to quote Grove’s Dictionary of Music, is “regarded as the most universal composer in the history of Western music.” His father, Johann Georg Leopold Mozart (1719-87) was a violinist, composer and theorist working for the Salzburg Archbishops; his mother, Anna Maria Pertl (1720-78) was the daughter of a local administrator and jurist. Wolfgang and his extremely gifted pianist sister Maria Anna, known as Nannerl (1751-1829), were their seventh and fourth children, the only ones to survive to adulthood. They were educated by their father in music, mathematics, literature, languages, dancing, and religion.
Father Leopold made Wofgang’s career a prime occupation, taking him with Nannerl on concert tours to Munich and Vienna in 1762, when Wolfgang was six and Nannerl eleven, and then from 1763-6 to Germany, France, the Low Countries, England, and Switzerland. In 1767 the family visited Vienna; from 1769 to 1773 Leopold and Wolfgang toured Italy three times. Hieronymus Colloredo was now Archbishop of Salzburg, a difficult employer; in 1777 he fired both of the Mozarts. After Wolfgang spent an unhappy visit to Paris in 1778, Collaredo took him back in 1779, but the relationship ended permanently in 1781; Mozart wrote that he was released “with a kick on my ass by order of our worthy Prince Archbishop.” Mozart moved permanently to Vienna, married Costanze Weber in August 1782, and continued to write sonatas, chamber and symphonic music, opera, and concerti; he also taught, and published widely, but he struggled for money. At his death from rheumatic fever just before 1 a.m. on December 5, 1791, his last work, the Requiem, was still unfinished.
The E-minor Sonata for piano and violin, № 21, K. 304, is one of two sonatas Mozart wrote in Paris in the early summer of 1778. He was travelling with his mother Anna Maria on a largely fruitless journey; he spent far too much money, and found no lucrative position as had been hoped. But he did some composing, most notably the “Paris” Symphony # 31 in D major, K. 297; and he published six violin sonatas in Paris, including this one in E minor. It is in a most tragic mood, the only one of his 35 violin sonatas in a minor key, and his only piece in E minor; indeed, only a very few of Mozart’s instrumental works are in a minor key. It is tempting to conclude that it has to do with a catastrophic event, namely that Anna Maria Mozart fell ill and died in Paris in July of 1778, leaving her 22 year old son to try to explain what had happened to his furious father in Salzburg, and then to make his way back home alone.
Like many of the earlier violin sonatas, this one is in only two movements, marked Allegro and Tempo di Menuetto. The first movement has a remarkably simple character in some respects: the introduction of twelve measures is all in unison, and often the violin parts are doubled in the piano. But there is also considerable counterpoint, as in the tiny canon that occurs just before the movement concludes with a brand new theme. As is normal with pieces in a minor key, both movements feature sections in the major. In the first movement, this occurs just before the repeat, and very briefly in the second half. The second movement has a very sad minor theme, and a major second theme which seems even sadder. A middle section is all in E major, but somehow seems the most profoundly sorrowful music of all. It is very tempting to imagine young Mozart thinking of happier days in his earlier life, before his struggle to find himself on a major tour without his father, in the midst of which he lost his mother. The movement ends with an astonishing burst of fury.
Certainly the emotional character of this sonata is very complex. To me it introduces a whole new Mozart, a person who has acquired, or had forced upon him, a capacity for intense grief. I have to agree with the German-American musicologist and music editor Albert Einstein (1880–1952), who produced the first major revision of the Köchel catalog of Mozart’s works. He knew Mozart very deeply, and for him this sonata was “one of the miracles of Mozart’s works.”
Gabriel Fauré (Pamiers, Ariège, May 12, 1845 – Paris, November 4, 1924), French composer, teacher, pianist, and organist, began his musical education at the age of nine at the École Niedermeyer in Paris, a three-day journey from home. There he was taught organ, harmony, counterpoint, piano, plainchant, and composition. His first professional appointment was as organist of the church of St Sauveur in Rennes from 1866 to 1870, but he returned to Paris as soon as he could in 1870. He served in the Franco-Prussian War, and upon discharge was appointed assistant organist at St Sulpice and later choirmaster at the Madeleine. He married in 1883, and began the long period of work on his well known Requiem, finally finished in 1900. In 1877 he met Franz Liszt, who found his music too difficult to play, and traveled around Europe from 1879 to 1882 to see productions of Wagner, whom he adored but did not imitate. Fauré’s music was regarded, astonishingly perhaps to us, as frightfully advanced. But finally in his fifties he became known; Marcel Proust, for example, “intoxicated” by Fauré’s music, basing upon him the character and music of his literary creation Vinteuil. In 1896 he became chief organist at the Madeleine, and succeeded Massenet as teacher of composition at the Paris Conservatoire. He became director there in 1905, and instituted a series of sweeping, indeed revolutionary reforms; those swept out called him “Robespierre.” Finally he was rewarded with great fame for his compositions, and important tours of Europe and Russia.
In Fauré’s last work, the String Quartet, op. 121 (1923–24), he did something revolutionary by abandoning the piano; as he wrote to his wife, “I’ve started a Quartet for strings, without piano. This is a genre which Beethoven in particular made famous, and causes all those who are not Beethoven to be terrified.” The first movement, Allegro moderato, is in sonata form, though the original viola theme is omitted from the recapitulation. The second movement, Andante, is anything but traditional. The opening theme is heard half way through, but other than that the movement moves in a thoughtful way with no discernible form, but ever changing dynamics. The third movement, Allegro, is again in traditional sonata form, but includes a mid-section introduced by the ’cello which can be seen as taking the place of a scherzo movement. Fauré’s hearing had so deteriorated at his end that he would not have been able to hear the piece, had he allowed it to be played for him. How lucky we are this afternoon to have this fabulous work played for us!
Adolphe Blanc (Manosque, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, June 24, 1828 – Paris, June 10, 1885) has unfortunately been neglected by mainstream musical scholarship; there is nothing about him in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, for example. He is said to have been sent to Paris at age 13 to study violin at the Conservatoire, and also to have studied composition with Jacques-Fromental Halévy, the teacher of Gounod and Bizet, and Bizet’s father-in-law. Blanc played in the orchestra of the Société des concerts du Conservatoire, and became concertmaster of the orchestra at the Théatre Lyrique. According to R. Lafont, Dictionnaire encyclopédique de la musique de chambre (1999), he wrote almost always in an old fashioned manner, and was thus one of the last representatives of the purely classical style. The article in Wikipedia, however, suggests that Blanc has been overlooked because he adhered to the Romantic, Viennese tradition of music for private performance (Hausmusik), rather than entering the current Parisian musical life, centered on opera. If this is true, he sounds like the perfect composer for the Musical Offering! (I suspect, frankly, that he had more than enough contemporary opera to put up with at work in the Théatre Lyrique.) He has left three string trios, four string quartets, and seven string quintets; fifteen piano trios, quartets, and quintets; as well as songs, pieces for violin and piano, and choral and orchestral works—nearly all essentially unheard today and so unknown.
The Septet, however, is thankfully gaining a modern following. It was written in 1860 for clarinet, horn, bassoon, violin, viola, ’cello, and double bass, the same combination invented by Beethoven for his Septet, op. 20. It is warm, inventive, moving—utterly delightful music, featuring, as does its model by Beethoven, music for all of the instruments in a variety of solos and combinations. There are four movements, beginning with a smashing Allegro in E major. The soulful Andante is in C major, and the thrilling Scherzo-Tarentelle in A minor. The last movement begins with a slow Andante Maestoso introduction in A minor, which features a violin cadenza—sometimes, as you know, we must indulge our brilliant violinists—leading to a rollicking Allegro finale in E major, which concludes gloriously in an even faster tempo. What an absolutely fabulous neglected composer!