Skip to main content

Program Notes: Elegance and Emotion

Concert Program

Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683 – 1764)
Orchestral Suite from Platée
Rigaudon 1 & 2
Menuet 1 & 2
Tambourin 1 & 2
Passepied 1 & 2
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)
Concerto No.24 in C minor for Piano & Orchestra, K.491 1
I. Allegro
II. Larghetto
III. Allegretto
Franz Schubert (1797 – 1828)
Symphony No.4 in C minor, D.417 (Tragic)
I. Adagio molto – Allegro vivace
II. Andante
III. Menuetto: Allegro vivace
IV. Allegro

Program Notes

Born in Dijon, France, bap. September 25, 1683; died in Paris, September 12, 1764
Orchestral Suite from Platée (1745)

In 18th century France, Rameau was renowned as a music theoretician and opera composer, with a reputation, too, as an organist.  By one account, he was “lean and scraggy, with more the air of a ghost than a man.”  By other accounts: “like a long organ pipe,” “with legs like flutes.”  His musical appearance aside, Rameau did not endear himself to his colleagues and other artists.  His prickly character and keen intellect frequently provoked argument, particularly over his prolific writings on the theory of music.  Suffice it to say that Rameau was usually correct, and his theories of harmony still underline modern thinking about tonal harmony.  Remarkably, Rameau was 50 before his first stage work, Hippolyte et Aricie (1733), was publicly performed, beginning a new era in French opera.  It was a huge success.  With Rameau, music drove the action of the opera, conflicting with the ideals of the old guard.  “Lully needs actors, but I need singers,” Rameau declared, as quoted by Voltaire.  A contemporary composer, André Campra, proclaimed that there was enough music in Hippolyte to make ten operas by any other composer.  “This man will eclipse us all,” Campra added.  And he did!

Among Rameau’s many tragédies-lyriques, opéra-ballets and pastorales-héroïques, his Platée (1745) broke the mould by being a comédie-lyrique, with elements of tragedy at its heart.  Platée (Plataea) is a water nymph, so ugly that she resembles a frog.  She lives under the illusion that everything and everyone who approach her pond will fall in love with her.  The gods set up a practical joke to make Platée believe that Jupiter is, indeed, in love with her and wishes to make her his bride.  A back story has already been told in the opera’s Prologue, revealing that in setting up the mock wedding, Jupiter was hoping to cure the jealousy of his wife, the goddess Juno.  When Juno arrives at the wedding scene, she confronts Jupiter’s bride-to-be, only to find an ugly frog-like creature.  The comedy pokes fun at the gods’ expense; the tragedy lies in the humiliation of the poor water nymph.

The duality of tragedy and comedy is reflected in the short, questioning bursts of themes that precede and punctuate the rhythmic flow of the overture.  A pair of vigorous, cheerful Rigaudons follow, with their characteristic hopping footwork, drawn from one of the several ballet episodes that are built into French opera of the time.  It is the quality and variety of the dances that separate Rameau from many of his contemporaries.  The Menuets, one in the major, the other in the minor, are both built over a drone, marked “in the style of a hurdy-gurdy,” and scored imaginatively for strings alone.  A pair of humorous, even jaunty Tambourins in duple time imitate the sound of a drum.  The two triple-time Passepieds have a more pastoral feel.  The Orage, on the other hand, bursts on the scene as a tempestuous storm and the violins find themselves in the thick of things, with fingers racing up and down their fingerboards.

Born in Salzburg, Austria, January 27, 1756; died in Vienna, December 5, 1791
Piano Concerto No. 24, in C minor, K. 491 (1786)

Mozart wrote just two piano concertos in a minor key and both are powerful works.  The C minor, K. 491, marks his peak as a concerto writer and is one of a handful of truly great works for piano and orchestra.  It contains a vein of inner disquiet that is dark and brooding.  The music is understated rather than dramatically expressed and all the more poignant for expressing thoughts which, to use Wordsworth’s line, are “too deep for tears.”

Mozart completed the concerto March 24, 1786, as the 11th of an astonishing sequence of 12 piano concertos within three years, written in Vienna, as a means of supporting himself and his growing family.  He was also at work on two operas, including his comic masterpiece The Marriage of Figaro and a revival of Idomeneo, which involved a host of changes and rewrites.  Of all the concertos, the C minor gave him the most difficulty.  The original score, which survives, contains numerous corrections, changes, crossings-out and rewritings which, while not unknown in Mozart’s music, show that he wrestled long and hard with its composition.  In it, he finds a way to crystallize his thoughts through a Beethoven-like creative struggle.  Its music travels through subjective emotions, chromatic themes, rich instrumentation and passionate outbursts that point the way towards the romantic piano concerto of the 19th century.

Mozart uses the largest orchestra in any of his concertos: woodwinds, including clarinets, two horns, two trumpets, timpani and strings.  The orchestral introduction sticks resolutely to C minor, with an extraordinarily powerful main theme (and then three more) that not only foreshadows the harmonies to come, but also passes through all twelve tones of the chromatic scale.  Its effect is unsettling and disorienting.  The entry of the piano, still in the key of C minor, at first offers no solace until it gravitates towards what pianist Glenn Gould liked to refer to as the ‘caressing’ key of E-flat, the relative major.  It is as though the piano here takes on a role as catalyst to the relentless urgency and darkness generated by the orchestra.  By the end of the movement, C minor remains dominant.  Mozart failed to leave a written-out cadenza, but he did allow the piano one last say in the argument after the cadenza, a rare procedure for him and one that Beethoven was soon to follow in his C minor Piano Concerto.

The slow movement returns to the ‘caressing’ key of E-flat major.  It is a romanza in all but name.  Two episodes, notable for their imaginative writing for woodwinds, keep the dark key of C minor ever present.  In the finale, too, C minor is the constant reference point, although several of the variations on its march-like theme do venture beyond.  Mozart strived long and hard to maintain the right balance and a feeling of momentum in this concerto.  Occasionally, as in the third variation, he left no definitive word on which of several alternate passages he preferred.  But the very fact that the concerto has remained in the repertoire since Mozart’s death bears testimony to its power to move us.

Born in Vienna, Austria, January 31, 1797; died in Vienna, November 19, 1828
Symphony No. 4, in C minor, D. 417 (‘Tragic’) (1816)

Schubert wrote his First Symphony in 1813, when he was 16 and his Sixth just six years later, before he was 20.  He had been fortunate to win a place as one of ten choristers at the Hofkapelle, the Vienna Imperial Court Chapel, and with it, a scholarship to the esteemed Stadtkonvikt, the Imperial-Royal City Seminary.  While his general and musical education here was the best that Vienna could offer, none of his teachers taught him much, if anything, about orchestration.  He learned this craft by listening, primarily as a violinist in various student and amateur orchestras.  The Seminary orchestra gathered each evening to read through (rather than rehearse for a performance) the works of Haydn and Mozart in particular, with some Beethoven – usually one symphony and several overtures per occasion.  Schubert also played violin in small amateur orchestras in middle-class homes and in the family string quartet.  All this activity essentially provided him with an apprenticeship by absorption, and it well served his clear symphonic ambitions as a composer.  Echoes of melodies or the instrumentation of works he had recently played occasionally percolate through the early symphonic music that he wrote in his teenage years.  Had he been tormented by the self-criticism of a Brahms or many another composer of the day, these student symphonies, written to study the craft and science of the creative process, would have been destroyed.  That he viewed his early symphonies as preparatory works is clear in a letter he wrote in his last year of life, February 21, 1828, to the publisher Bernhard Schott in Mainz.  Here, Schubert lists many chamber works, songs and vocal ensemble pieces that were as yet unpublished.  “This completes the list of my finished compositions,” he concludes.  “In addition, I have written three operas, a mass and a symphony.”  In other words, the only symphony Schubert was willing to acknowledge as ‘finished,’ and therefore worthy of publication, was his last – the “Great’ C major (D. 944).

As for the Symphony No. 4, in C minor, which he later subtitled Tragische (Tragic), this was written while the young Schubert’s days were spent teaching at his father’s primary school.  During his time away from this task which he disliked, he was still keeping up twice-weekly lessons with Salieri, playing in the regular orchestral meetings of an amateur ensemble, teaching a few pupils privately and keeping in touch with social circles centred on friends from the Stadtkonvikt – not to mention composing astonishing quantities of music.  The focus and drive within the 19-year-old Schubert was exceptional.  While the Second and Third symphonies had been read through by the student orchestra at the Stadtkonvikt, the Fourth falls between documented readings there and similarly substantiated readings that the Fifth and Sixth symphonies received by the community orchestra which met at the home of musician Otto Hatwig.  It is possible that the Fourth went unplayed until the first documented performance of the work, in Leipzig two decades after Schubert’s death.  The orchestral score did not appear in print until 1884, edited by Brahms as part of the first complete edition of Schubert’s compositions.

The slow, commanding introduction to the opening movement asserts a dark C minor identity, a bold choice given that Beethoven’s Fifth had been unleashed on the Viennese public just eight years earlier.  But Haydn’s “Representation of Chaos” prelude to The Creation is the model here, not Beethoven, and both Haydn and Mozart’s Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) symphonies from the 1770s and 80s continue to fuel the darker, more driven passages as Schubert’s Fourth progresses.  That’s the case with the compact but still buoyant main theme which follows the Adagio molto introduction, on the strings.  The darkness turns towards the brighter major key, however, when a lyrical second theme arrives.  Indeed, two-thirds of Schubert’s entire Tragic symphony falls in the major key.  The eloquent slow movement is in A-flat major, but still manages to draw a feeling of poignancy, perhaps even tragedy, aided by two starkly contrasting Sturm und Drang minor-key episodes and by Schubert’s fluidity in the use of remote keys.

The third movement, Menuetto: Allegro vivace, pushes the graceful minuet into a tempo and territory belonging to the Scherzo.  In E-flat major, rather than a traditional home-key C minor, its offbeat accents and slurring tease our sense of pulse.  The central trio section is a folklike ländler dance where Schubert shows a keen feeling for tone colours.  C minor urgency returns with the first theme of the finale, punctuated by a brief stormy outburst from winds and brass before landing on a graceful A-flat second theme where the winds are sensitively scored over running strings.  As the material is developed, the key centre moves around in unexpected directions, yet the momentum prevails as the opening themes now ring out in the major key.  The major key now dominates to the end, not through a feeling of a hard-won progression from darkness to light, as with Beethoven, but more with a youthful feeling of confidence and optimism, which is capped by three assertive repetitions of the C major chord with which the symphony began.

©2022 Keith Horner
All program notes are written by Keith Horner.  Comments welcomed: