WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
Born Salzburg, Austria, 27 January 1756; died Vienna, 5 December 1791.
Symphony No. 36, in C major, K. 425 (“Linz”)
Written in Linz, Austria and premiered in that city 4 November 1783. The score calls for 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings. Duration about 25 minutes. The SSO played the ‘Linz’ Symphony most recently with Guy Victor Bordo conducting, 17 November 2001.
In the fall of 1783 Mozart was visiting his home town, Salzburg, to introduce his bride, Constanze, to his rather disapproving father and sister. On 27 October, the morning after premiering his magnificent though incomplete Mass in C Minor with Constanze as soprano soloist, the young couple set off for Vienna, with a stopover in Linz to visit a family friend, Count Thun-Hohenstein. On the 31st Mozart wrote to his father, ”I really cannot tell you what kindnesses the family is showering on us. On Tuesday, November 4, there will be a concert in the theater here and, as I have not a single symphony with me, I am writing a new one at breakneck speed.”
Thus at a speed prodigious even for Mozart, especially considering the polish and confidence of the finished product, he wrote the symphony in about four days. (Keep in mind that the parts had to be copied and the players presumably given time for at least a run-through.) The symphony was later performed in Vienna, Salzburg and Prague, but the nickname “Linz” at some point became attached.
For the first time, Mozart—following the lead of his admired elder Franz Josef Haydn—wrote a slow introduction (Adagio) to his first movement. The listener may well feel plunged into the midst of some ongoing drama, as the intense first notes give way to a tender passage for strings and a searching phrase for bassoon and oboe. But soon the Allegro spiritoso (a “spirited” fast tempo) arrives, full of energy and brilliant contrasts.
The Poco adagio that follows, in a slow 6/8 tempo, is graceful and stately in turn, with surprisingly darker shadings (partly thanks to the inclusion of trumpets and timpani, unusual for a Mozart slow movement). The third movement, a minuet (Menuetto), is festive and strong-rhythmed, with a more intimate Trio (middle section) featuring oboe and bassoon. And the finale, marked Presto (very fast indeed), is an exhilarating display of orchestral virtuosity and ingenious construction, with playful passing of themes back and forth amongst the players.
PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY
Born Votkinsk, Russia, 7 May, 1840; died St. Petersburg, 6 November, 1893.
Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op 33
Written 1877 and premiered 30 November of that year in Moscow with cellist Wilhelm Fitzenhagen and conductor Nikolai Rubenstein. The score calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons and horns, plus strings. Duration about 20 minutes. The SSO’s most recent performance was May 1994 with cellist Sharon Robinson and conductor Guy Victor Bordo.
“Rococo” refers to European art of the late 18th Century in which grace and elegance are primary qualities—distinct from the extravagant elaboration of the Baroque, the severity of the Neoclassical and the emotional turmoil of the Romantic. One thinks of the paintings of Watteau or Fragonard, or the “lighter” serenades of Mozart and Haydn. Tchaikovsky doubtless had Mozart, his favorite composer, in mind when he composed his own theme for his variations for cello and orchestra.
He wrote the piece for his fellow-professor at the Moscow Conservatory, the German-born Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, who helped the composer with some of the solo cello passages. (Many composers consult a virtuoso when writing a concerto for an instrument not “their own,” Brahms being a famous example.) After performing the piece abroad, Fitzenhagen took the liberty of rearranging the order of the variations and even dropping one. Tchaikovsky was outraged when he learned that his publisher was being urged by Fitzenhagen to print the latter’s unauthorized version, but still he permitted the publisher to go ahead with it. The original score, not made available until 1941, has received several recordings, but most cellists and conductors continue to favor Fitzenhagen’s version.
After a brief but enchanting prologue with winds answering strings, ending with a horn solo, the solo cello introduces the “rococo” theme, in two halves, each repeated, with a graceful “tag-end” or codetta for the woodwinds. The cello answers the woodwinds with a lead-in to the first variation; these lead-ins will become more and more elaborate cadenzas before each new variation.
The first variation features the cello decorating the theme with triplets, while the brilliant second variation tosses fragments of the theme between the cellist and the orchestra. In the Andante sostenuto third, the theme becomes a heartbreakingly beautiful, utterly Tchaikovskian melody in three-quarter time. With delicate woodwind accompaniments, this variation could almost be for a dance solo in one of the composer’s classic ballets.
The fourth variation is more playful in mood and features the cello rising to its highest register, while the woodwinds interject their “tag-end” at several points. A solo flute plays the original “rococo” melody during the fifth variation, which concludes with the longest cello cadenza yet. The sixth variation is slow and melancholy, with lovely clarinet and flute accompaniments to the solo cello, while the seventh, serving as the finale, is brisk and joyful.
PYOTR ILYICH TCHAIKOVSKY
Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Op 17 (“Ukrainian”)
Written 1872 and premiered in Moscow at a Russian Musical Society concert, 26 January 1873, Nikolai Rubenstein conducting; revised 1879-80, the new version premiered in St. Petersburg, 31 January 1881, Karl Zike conducting that city’s own RMS orchestra. The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, bass drum, cymbals, tam-tam and strings. Duration 35 minutes. The most recent SSO performance was 13 March 2010 with guest conductor Jeffrey Stirling.
From the 1300s to the end of the 19th Century the territory now comprising the nation of Ukraine was commonly called “Little Russia.” The term fell out of use in the 20th Century, and Ukrainians unsurprisingly consider it highly derogatory; but it still clings to Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony, which uses three Ukrainian folk tunes.
Tchaikovsky was very pleased by the enthusiastic reception given his Second Symphony, which was cheered not only by the public but by the circle of composer friends (Rimsky-Korsakov, Borodin, Mussorgsky and others) for whom he had “previewed” the symphony in a piano reduction. He was also angry with his publisher for being so slow in getting the full score into print. Yet in letters to his family and friends he also expressed considerable dissatisfaction with the symphony, and in the long run the publisher’s neglect worked in Tchaikovsky’s favor by giving him time for revisions. In 1879-80 he drastically rewrote the first movement and cut a chunk out of the finale, along with making minor changes in the inner movements. He burned the original full score, though after his death it was reconstructed from the parts, and performances have been recorded. Still, the revised version continues to be favored, as it is in tonight’s performance.
I. Andante sostenuto; allegro vivo. The symphony opens boldly with a statement on solo horn of the first of the folksong quotations: a Ukrainian variant of the Russian tune “Down by Mother Volga.” A bassoon takes up the tune, and then the whole orchestra. The allegro that follows is bursting with drama, and eventually “Down by Mother Volga” is heard again: first on the clarinets, then interwoven with the movement’s other themes. Finally the solo horn returns us to the very beginning, followed by fragments of the tune on the bassoon and clarinets to end the movement quietly.
2. Andante marziale, quasi moderato. The “slow movement” is not so slow: it’s a moderate march, with solo timpani beats gently opening and closing the movement. The march has its jaunty moments but it’s also quirky in its shifting moods. Tchaikovsky took the material from his never-completed opera Undine, a fairy tale in the Little Mermaid tradition in which the tune served as the water sprite’s wedding march. The movement’s middle section features the second of the folk songs, “Spin, O My Spinner,” heard first in the woodwinds. This section is more lyrical than the rest, but the steady rhythm of the march never quite disappears.
3. Scherzo: Allegro molto vivace. Compared to the even pace of the second movement, the scherzo is headlong, almost breathless. The tricky syncopation, startling changes in dynamics and odd harmonies give it an air of the fantastic, a little like Hector Berlioz’ “Queen Mab” Scherzo in his Romeo and Juliet Symphony. The Trio is in duple rather than triple meter, and sounds like another folksong, but it’s entirely Tchaikovsky’s invention.
4. Finale: Moderato assai; Allegro vivo. Tchaikovsky called this movement “The Crane” because its main theme is based on the folksong of that name. The tune is first embedded in a grand, festive introduction with the full orchestra. (A number of commentators have remarked that if we are in “Little Russia,” we must be entering the Great Gate of Kiev—perhaps Mussorgsky had the music in his head when he wrote the finale of his Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874.) When the movement proper takes off in a spirited allegro, “The Crane” is played quietly but incisively by the first violins, then passed around amongst the other players, with ever more brilliant iterations. A more relaxed second theme, dancelike and syncopated, offers a contrast, but the momentum continues. When the energy finally subsides, a grand stroke of the tam-tam is heard—then the music starts up again at Presto speed and builds to a spectacular finish.