Late, Great Mozart: Program Notes


By 1788, Mozart’s celebrity status in Vienna was just about exhausted. His successes had not led to full, secure employment. Nonetheless, a good number of masterpieces were still to be written. Tonight, we will glance at what the fully mature genius was up to in 1788 and 1789.

The first half of this evening’s all-Mozart program presents the simultaneously intimate and expansive divertimento for violin, viola, and violoncello, K.563. Understandings of this piece have played on the title “divertimento,” noting the lack of seriousness implied by the title and the incongruent depth of the work. Still, the form–six movements with two fast outer movements framing alternating slow and minuet movements—was common to divertimenti.

This trio in E-flat is also a singular work because of the choice of instruments. Not only did Mozart write nothing else for the combination of violin, viola, and cello, it has historically not been a popular ensemble for composers, and most works featuring it (by Boccherini, Haydn, Beethoven, Dvorak, Hindemith, etc.) go unnoticed.

The first movement follows sonata form, beginning with an unhurried exposition. The startling harmonic shift going into the development launches 28 bars of dramatic counterpoint. The second movement puts the spotlight on the violin, with contributions by the other instruments in the haunting development and the recapitulation. A coda closes the movement. A Minuet-Trio is followed by a second slow movement, an extraordinary set of variations based on a gingerly paced theme. Variations are ordinarily quite pedestrian, simply taking a theme and changing it over the course of a series of repetitions. But Mozart exploits the form in unexpected ways, creating variations within variations, and never repeating anything unaltered. It is the most daring movement of the set, due to Mozart’s liberal alteration of the theme, even within a single variation.

The second minuet begins with a horn-call gesture, which returns periodically, including at the end. It also features two trios, and a coda brings the movement to a close. The final Allegro takes the stuff of a frolicking rondo and shapes it into some pretty sophisticated inventions before allowing full closure.

Of course, these comments do not touch on the constant vibrancy in the musical details, which only this live performance will render. Mozart dedicated the piece to Johann Michael Puchberg, a Viennese clothier who would loan Mozart, and, later, the composer’s widow, a great deal of money. It is not clear how much was repaid; Puchberg never made a fuss.

To start the second half of the concert, a second violin is added into the mix. For Mozart, 1788 was a year dominated by an unprecedented number of compositions exploring contrapuntal procedures (audible in the divertimento, as well). While the fugue portion of this piece is an arrangement of a work composed for two pianos (K.426) five years previously, the new Adagio adds a great deal. The year of the keyboard version is the very year that Mozart got to know some of J.S. Bach’s more contrapuntally complex music, having been introduced to it by Baron Gottfried van Swieten.

The Adagio opens with dramatic gestures and moods not ordinarily associated with Mozart, tending more towards the Don Giovanni end of the spectrum. For Mozart, this degree of chromaticism was reserved for expressions of mystery and, sometimes, confusion. But what is the mystery here? As it turns out, it is the pending fugue, whose chromatic subject is also a resolution of the tensions laid out in the Adagio. The fugue itself is in four voices. Already by measure 31 Mozart inverts the head motive of subject; he earnestly explores what counterpoint can do. Do for what? Ultimately, Mozart is interested in the dramatic potential of the technique, which he will continue to probe to his final days.

Mozart’s music in A major, especially in his later years, tends to be among his most lyrical, and sometimes possesses a pensive quality. It is the key of the piano concerto, K. 488, the clarinet concerto, K. 622, and a significant key in the more tender moments of Mozart’s opera Così fan tutte, K. 588.

Mozart embraced the sound of the clarinet relatively late in his short life, though he had been impressed by the instrument during visits to Mannheim in the 1770s. He apparently did not have access to them in the orchestra in Salzburg at all, as is demonstrated in a letter to his father from Mannheim in 1778: “Alas, if only we also had clarinets.” Late in his life, he wrote several important works for the instrument, mostly inspired by the artistry of Anton Stadler, a fellow Mason and one of Mozart’s close friends among the fraternity of Viennese wind instrumentalists. Mozart even rewrote oboe parts in existing compositions, such as the G minor symphony, K. 550, for clarinet. In his arrangements of four works by Händel (including the Messiah), Mozart often replaced the oboe parts with clarinets.

Stadler and his brother Johann were both excellent clarinetists, holding first and second chair in the court orchestra in Vienna. Malcolm Boyd points to Anton Stadler’s reputation for his playing in the low register—he played second clarinet to Johann’s first so that he usually played the lower part–and even devised an extension that enabled him to play four half steps lower than the clarinet range. The instrument became known as a basset-clarinet and was in fact the instrument for which the Clarinet Quintet, K. 581 in A major was composed.

One remarkable trait of this quintet is the manner in which Mozart treats the five instruments. He neither allows the work to be a solo piece for the clarinet with string accompaniment, nor ignores the uniqueness of the clarinet’s special sound, but forges a chamber work that highlights both the clarinet’s attributes and those of the other instruments as well. In the opening Allegro, the delay of the clarinet’s entrance makes it more effective. Similarly, the second theme is announced by Violin I, and the clarinet’s repetition of the idea is altered by a shift in mode. The strategy allows for vivid contributions to be made by each instrument. The development is marked by the repetition of a figure from the opening material, but remains mostly in the strings: the clarinet hesitates to join in the exercise, instead bouncing up and down through arpeggios, creating a passage in the brilliant style.

The Larghetto engages the listener with the aria-like solo in the clarinet over the undulating and unobtrusive muted accompaniment. The middle section is a little busier, but still tenderly paced. The presence of a Menuetto sets this work off from Mozart’s other chamber music for winds and strings, but it is even more striking because it contains two trios (like the fifth movement of K.563), the first of which leaves out the clarinet altogether. The Menuetto is reserved, but rich in color. Trio I contrasts in mode and topic, invoking a sense of sadness, or possibly an unidentified threat. The second Trio gives way to a swirling country dance with the clarinet in the lead.

The theme of the last movement is not apparently remarkable–in fact, quite the contrary–but the imitation between the violin and viola in the middle section is noteworthy, as is the second violin part, which acts as a bass to the final phrase of the theme. The theme also affords Mozart ample opportunity for the inventiveness required of the variation form. The theme is lost by the second variation, leaving only the harmonic structure. The haunting third variation is built around the viola’s insistent figure. Variation four brings back the theme with rapid figuration, but Variation five drifts into a melancholic lethargy. A transition (and cadenza?) leads to a moderately rousing final variant that mostly serves the purpose of closure.

The work was completed on September 29, 1789, and premiered on December 22 at the Burgtheater, in the Christmas concerts held by the Wiener Tonkünstler-Societät between the parts of the cantata Il natale d’Apollo by Vincenzo Righini.

~Copyright 2017, Joseph Orchard