The Labèque Sisters Play Mozart
FRI MAR 3, 8 pm
SAT MAR 4, 8 pm
LOUIS LANGRÉE conductor | KATIA and MARIELLE LABÈQUE duo-pianists
Symphonies of Wind Instruments
Concerto in E-flat Major for Two Pianos and Orchestra, K. 365
• Rondo: Allegro
Concerto in D Major for String Orchestra
• Arioso: Andantino
• Rondo: Allegro
Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550
• Molto allegro
• Menuetto: Allegro. Trio. Menuetto
• Allegro assai
Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1947)
Born: June 17, 1882, Oranienbaum, near Saint Petersburg | Died: April 6, 1971, New York City
Work composed: 1920, dedicated in memory of Claude Debussy; concluding chorale published as a piano reduction in an issue of Revue Musicale commemorating Debussy; revised 1947 and full score first published that year
Premiere: June 10, 1921, Queen’s Hall London, Serge Koussevitzky conducting (U.S. premiere by former CSO Music Director Leopold Stokowski and The Philadelphia Orchestra, November 23, 1923)
Instrumentation: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, 3 bassoons (incl. contrabassoon), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba
CSO subscription performances: One previous subscription weekend | Premiere/Most recent: April 1978, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting
Duration: approx. 9 minutes
The unusual grammar of the title Symphonies of Wind Instruments immediately reveals something important about this most unusual composition. The word “symphony” has its roots in the Greek syn (“with”) and phoné (“voice”). The plural form “symphonies” emphasizes that the work is not a “symphony for wind instruments,” but rather the [different ways of] 23 winds “sounding together.” The Symphonies of Wind Instruments is one of Stravinsky’s boldest works. In its quiet and subdued way, it is probably even more “modern” than the groundbreaking Rite of Spring, which preceded it by seven years.
Stravinsky’s compositional technique in this piece is perhaps best understood as an analogy of cubist painting. (In the year he wrote Symphonies of Wind Instruments, Stravinsky also collaborated with Pablo Picasso on the ballet Pulcinella.) The sharply delineated geometric forms of cubism correspond to abrupt shifts from one musical motif (or theme) to another. This is the first work where Stravinsky consistently did away with transitions and motivic development of every kind. Instead of melting into one another gradually, the themes of the piece form a complex mosaic-like network whose elements combine, conflict and interlock, but do not affect one another in any way.
There are frequent tempo changes in the work, with only three different tempo levels alternating. These tempos—72, 108, and 144 to the quarter-note—form a simple mathematical ratio, so that the basic metric pulse of the piece never changes. (The piece has only metronomic markings, without traditional tempo designations such as adagio or allegro.)
In his autobiography, Stravinsky had this to say about Symphonies of Wind Instruments:
I did not, and indeed I could not, count on any immediate success for his work. It is devoid of all the elements which infallibly appeal to the ordinary listener and to which he is accustomed. It would be futile to look in it for any passionate impulse or dynamic brilliance. It is an austere ritual which is unfolded in terms of short litanies between different groups of homogeneous instruments.
The meaning of this “austere ritual” is revealed in the chorale that closes the work. This chorale was published separately in the periodical Revue Musicale as an homage to Debussy who had passed away in 1918. In retrospect, the entire piece may be seen as a long introduction to the chorale—a succession of exquisite harmonies in a slow tempo, quietly going around in circles before stopping on the central note.
Concerto in E-flat Major for Two Pianos and Orchestra, K. 365
Born: January 27, 1756, Salzburg | Died: December 5, 1791, Vienna
Work composed: 1779
Premiere: November 23, 1781, Vienna, Mozart and his student Josepha Auernhammer, pianists
Instrumentation: duo-piano solo, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, timpani, strings
CSO subscription performances: Eight previous subscription weekends | Premiere: November 1937, Eugene Goossens conducting, Ethel Bartlett and Rae Robertson, pianists | Most recent: March 1995, Jesús López-Cobos conducting, Katia and Marielle Labèque, pianists (also on U.S. tour and at Carnegie Hall, March 1995)
Duration: approx. 24 minutes
Mozart had a sister named Maria Anna (“Nannerl”) who was five years his senior. Like her brother, Nannerl was a child prodigy on the piano. Their father took them both on extended concert tours to Vienna, Paris, and London, where her success equaled Wolfgang’s. It was with her in mind that Mozart composed his concerto for two pianos, but the siblings never performed it together. Instead, Mozart played the work, after his departure from Salzburg, with his talented Viennese student Josepha Auernhammer, who was madly in love with him, although Mozart did not return her feelings. (In his letters, he called Josepha “the fat miss,” and at one time wrote: “The young lady is a fright! but she plays enchantingly. The only thing she doesn’t know is the real, subtle, singing taste in the cantabile; she tugs at everything.”)
This concerto has always remained popular as one of the jewels of the none-too-large body of works for two pianos and orchestra. It bears some resemblance to another work for two solo instruments and orchestra written the same year and in the same key: the Sinfonia Concertante K. 364, for violin and viola. In both works, the two solo parts are strictly equal in terms of their treatment. The words of Hermann Abert, from his classic book on Mozart, apply to both concertos: “[The two soloists] share all their melodies, vary each other’s music, interrupt each other, even argue gently on occasion; however, their fraternal agreement is never troubled by any serious differences of opinion.”
Although it starts with a motif that sounds like a military fanfare, the first movement is mostly lyrical, melodic and brilliant. After an extremely tender and intimate slow movement, the good-humored Finale opens with a theme that reminded Abert of an old Austrian folksong. The movement is full of harmonic surprises, and the tone of the music, despite occasional forays into the darker minor mode, remains happy and carefree to the end.
Concerto in D Major for String Orchestra
Work composed: 1946 for Paul Sacher, music director of the Basel Chamber Orchestra, revised 1961
Premiere: January 27, 1947, Basel Chamber Orchestra, Paul Sacher conducting
CSO subscription performances: CSO premiere
Duration: approx. 12 minutes
Stravinsky first collaborated with the Swiss conductor Paul Sacher (1906–99) in 1930, when he played the solo part of his Capriccio for piano and orchestra under Sacher’s direction in Basel. Within a few years, Sacher, the founding music director of the Basel Chamber Orchestra, emerged as one of the world’s most important champions of new music. His commissions gave the world such masterpieces as Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta and Richard Strauss’s Metamorphosen, to name but two. Stravinsky wrote two works for Sacher: the present Concerto and A Sermon, a Narrative and a Prayer (1963).
Stravinsky had left Europe in 1939 and settled in the United States, living for many years in Southern California. By the end of the war, he was eager to renew his European contacts—and Sacher gave him his first European commission in more than a decade. Stravinsky started working on the piece even before mailing his letter of acceptance to Switzerland.
The brief Concerto in D (also known as the Basel Concerto) employs motoric rhythms inspired by the Baroque era, melodic fragments alluding to Romanticism, and a sophisticated handling of the string instruments that wouldn’t have been possible before the 20th century—all in Stravinsky’s own inimitable manner. All three movements are based, in one way or another, on alternating half-steps. The first movement continually hovers between major and minor, with numerous rhythmic and melodic surprises that break the regular patterns as soon as they have been established. Later, the tempo slows down for a middle section with languid harmonies and expressive syncopations, followed by a more energetic transition. After a series of startling chords played by solo violas and cellos, both earlier sections are recapitulated.
The harmonics of the first cello and four double basses serve as a bridge to the second-movement “Arioso,” which spins a romantic, and ever sweeter, singing line from a simple alternation of two pitches. The final “Rondo” unfolds over a constant background of agitated tremolos, where this whirling and buzzing activity plays the role of the rondo theme, contrasting with those moments where that activity briefly stops.
Concerto in E-flat Major for Two Pianos and Orchestra, K. 365
Work composed: June–July, 1788
Premiere: likely April 16, 1791, Vienna, Antonio Salieri conducting
Instrumentation: flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, strings
CSO subscription performances: 18 previous subscription weekends | Premiere: January 1895 (Pike Opera House), Frank Van der Stucken conducting | Most recent: January 2012, Juanjo Mena conducting
Duration: approx. 35 minutes
The last three symphonies of Mozart were composed within the amazingly short period of two months. 1788 was a productive year for the composer, but even so the composition of three symphonies of major proportions during the summer months was extraordinary.
A certain mystery surrounds the creation of this music. It was unusual for Mozart to write orchestral pieces during the summer, since performances were not likely to be scheduled outside the regular concert season. Furthermore, the composer received no commission and no payment for these works, and at least two of them were never even performed during his lifetime. Why, then, did he write them? Some like to believe that these symphonies were their own justification, that Mozart had such an intense inner need to express himself that he could not wait for a convenient commission. This romantic notion may fit the impassioned nature of the music, but it is out of character for the composer. He was a craftsman who was trying, albeit unsuccessfully, to make a living from his compositions. He could hardly afford the luxury of Art for Art’s sake, no matter how passionate his desire for self-expression.
A more likely explanation is that Mozart wrote the symphonies for concerts that were projected for the following winter but never materialized. His practicality is shown by the fact that, once a performance opportunity finally presented itself three years later, he readily rescored the G Minor Symphony (adding clarinets and revising the oboe parts accordingly) and permitted an orchestra four times the intended size to play it. It may well be, as Mozart scholar Alfred Einstein says, that it is symbolic of the last three symphonies’ “position in the history of music and of human endeavor” that they represent “no occasion, no immediate purpose, but an appeal to eternity.” Nonetheless, this apparent purity of conception was nothing more than a coincidence. To believe otherwise is to allow our understanding of Mozart’s artistic identity to be colored by romantic values of a later age.
The tendency to think of the G Minor, in particular, in romantic terms has been rampant. The work has provoked the most emotionally extravagant of criticisms throughout its 200-year existence. That critics have heard very different meanings in this music reflects more on their own personalities than on the music, but it is nonetheless fascinating to contrast these interpretations. Is the G Minor tragic or comic, depressed or buoyant, impassioned or graceful?
Otto Jahn called it “a symphony of pain and lamentation” (1856), while C. Palmer called it “nothing but joy and animation” (1865). Alexandre Dimitrivitch Oulibicheff (1843) wrote of the finale, “I doubt whether music contains anything more profoundly incisive, more cruelly sorrowful, more violently abandoned, or more completely impassioned,” while A. F. Dickinson (1927) felt that “the verve of this movement is tremendous. It is…the best possible tonic for the low in spirits.” Georges de Saint-Foix wrote in 1932 of “feverish precipitousness, intense poignancy and concentrated energy,” while Donald Francis Tovey wrote at about the same time of “the rhythms and idioms of comedy.” Robert Dearling called it “a uniquely moving expression of grief,” while H. Hirschbach thought it “an ordinary, mild piece of music.” While scholar Alfred Einstein found the symphony “fatalistic” and Pitts Sanborn thought it touched with “ineffable sadness,” composers seem to have had happier opinions. Berlioz noted its “grace, delicacy, melodic charm and fineness of workmanship”; Schumann found in it “Grecian lightness and grace”; Wagner thought it “exuberant with rapture.”
What are we to make of this extraordinary variety of opinion? These disagreements would seem to indicate a work rich in meanings so abstract or so veiled that they appear different to different listeners. More interesting, perhaps, are the ramifications for performance, since playing the symphony necessarily involves interpreting it. Some conductors may choose to favor the passionate, others the graceful qualities. There is no right answer, no one best way to interpret.
An interesting aspect of the interpretation of the G Minor Symphony is the choice of tempos. The first movement is molto allegro (very fast) while the finale is allegro assai (quite fast). These markings would seem to suggest that the last movement is slower, yet most conductors do the opposite. One reason that audiences continue to find the G Minor Symphony meaningful after thousands of performances is that it is capable of being presented, and hence understood, in many different ways.
KEYNOTE. Nothing is known of the audience reaction to the G Minor Symphony at the 1791 premiere, when Antonio Salieri conducted an orchestra of 180 musicians. Indeed, it is not even definitely confirmed that this performance took place. If it did, listeners were probably perplexed when they heard this music. Mozart, though trying to write music specifically for audiences, was inexorably drawn in his late works toward complexities and deep emotions that often puzzled his listeners. There is much in the G Minor Symphony that is unprecedented and that certainly does not seem calculated to appeal immediately. The soft opening, for example, is exceedingly rare for a classical symphony without slow introduction. The pervasive insistence in the first movement on short motivic figures rather than full-blown melodies contributes to the work’s intensity, a feature that would surely have made for difficult listening in the late 18th century. Mozart’s biographer Hugh Ottoway speculates that contemporary listeners would have found much of the symphony actually distasteful.
What was really unprecedented about this piece in 1788, what must surely have been incomprehensible to listeners in 1791, was its many levels of subtlety. The special mood—whether it is labeled intense or exuberant or whatever—is created by an almost excessive amount of time spent in the minor mode and by certain powerfully abrupt changes of tonal area. Three of the four movements are in G minor; a more typical procedure in the classical era would have been to cast the later movements in the major, possibly to suggest a progression from tension to resolution. Even within the first movement the music hovers around G minor more than might be expected—the lyrical second theme (with winds and strings alternating), cast at first in B-flat major, comes back in the recapitulation not in the expected G major but, with surprising poignancy, in G minor.
This insistence on the tonic key is offset by certain dramatically sudden changes to distant areas. At the beginning of the development section, for example, the music moves quickly to the distant key of F-sharp minor, and from there begins the inexorable (and intensely contrapuntal) journey back to the tonic. (This intensity of counterpoint, incidentally, returns full force in the minuet, which is as far removed as imaginable from the elegant dance music that Mozart usually put into his third movements.)
The finale parallels the first movement. Again a lyric second theme, cast initially in B-flat major, becomes tragic and introspective upon its return in G minor. Again the beginning of the development is a moment of great drama—this time it is not a change to a distant key but rather a bold unison passage that seems to deny all keys. This celebrated phrase seems to approach 20th-century atonality (we actually hear ten of the 12 tones one after another—disregarding a brief ornament—without duplication, a procedure suggestive more of Schoenberg than of Mozart).
Of what significance for an audience is all this analysis of key areas (and lack thereof)? Few listeners, other than trained musicians, are consciously aware of what keys a piece moves to and through. But the subtle use of tonal areas is what creates a composition’s moods and what conveys its meaning. We all react to the emotional content of a work like the G Minor Symphony. Although we may disagree—as the critics quoted above surely did—about the meaning of its emotions, few would deny that the symphony presents deeply human feelings. It is through a possibly subconscious hearing of the tonalities that we perceive these emotions. Everyone hears the effect of tonal contrasts even if few can name or consciously locate the key changes. In the G Minor Symphony the resulting emotional impact is unique, original and overpowering.
—Jonathan D. Kramer