Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Mozart's birthday

Yesterday was Wolfgang Mozart's birthday, born January 27, 1756. His full name was Johannes Christian Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart.

What, no Amadeus?

Well, yes and no. Gottlieb is German for "loved by God." During a stint in Paris, he jokingly referred to himself as "Amade" (pronounce ahm-a-day), which was later Latinized as Amadeus after his death.

He also had a pet name, "Wolfie," given to him by his wife Constanze.

There's an interesting story about how Mozart came to be a free-lance musician in Vienna. At his father Leopold's insistence, Mozart and his mother went to Paris in order for him to find a position as musician and composer. On the way to Paris, they stopped in Mannheim, where he spent a few months composing and teaching. There he met and fell in love with Aloysia Weber.

Leopold was upset; he insisted that his son quit Mannheim and depart for Paris, which Mozart did, leaving Aloysia behind.

Paris was a disaster. He never really found work, nor was he popular. During the visit his mother fell sick and died. He went broke. His father blamed him for his mother's death, even though it was Leopold who insisted she accompany Mozart to Paris. Leopold secured a job for Mozart in Salzberg as organist and concertmaster for Leopold's employer, the Archbishop Colloredo. Mozart, dejected went home.

But life had another disappointment waiting for Mozart. On his way home, he passed through Mannheim and proposed marriage to Aloysia. She turned him down.

Mozart detested the Archbishop, and felt that his talents were wasted in Salzberg. He managed to get a commision for an opera, Idomeneo, from the elector of Munich. Wolfgang obtained a six week leave-of-absence from Colloredo, and in November of 1780 he left for Munich.

Idomeneo was a big success. Mozart's six weeks of leave came and went, while he made excuses as to why he had to stay in Munich. However, eventually Archbishop Colloredo went to Vienna, and directly ordered Mozart to attend him there. It was the Archbishop's intention to show off his musicians to the aristocracy of Vienna.

While in Vienna, the Archbishop made it very plain who was the servant and who the master. He refused to allow Mozart to perform concerts for his own benefit. Mozart became surly and insubordinate. As tensions mounted between Mozart and his employer, a minister for Colloredo was directed to bring Mozart in line. After a series of confrontations, Mozart tendered his resignation. The minister railed at Mozart, and after taking abuse, Mozart railed back. Eventually Mozart was physically removed, with the minister literally giving Mozart a kick in the butt as he was shoved out the door.

In 1781, at the age twenty-five, Mozart was a free man in Vienna.

In an interesting twist, the Webers had relocated from Mannheim to Vienna. Mozart took an apartment in the Weber home. His former love Aloysia was now married, but Mozart fell in love with one of her younger sisters, Constanze. In 1782, they were married.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Mozart's "Haydn" Quartets

In a previous post I wrote about Franz Joseph Haydn's six "Russian" quartets, Op. 33. These quartets inspired Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to write six quartets over a period of a few years, and dedicated the quartets to Haydn when they were published.

As part of a special deal from The Teaching Company's course Chamber Music of Mozart, you can get The Alexander String Quartet's recording Homage: The Six Quartets Dedicated to Haydn.

The six quartets are: G Major, K.387; D Minor, Op. 421; E-flat Major, K. 428; B-flat Major, K. 458, subtitled "Hunt"; A major, K. 464; and C major, K. 465, subtitled "Dissonant."

The quartets each have four movements. They are structured in the fashion that Haydn had introduced in his quartets, mainly, that each instrument (two violins, viola, and cello) has a voice in the pieces and therefore are not subservient to the first violin.

To explain the subtitles of two of the quartets, the "Hunt" is so named due to the resemblance to hunting horns in one of the themes of the first movement. It does not appear that Mozart gave either of these quartets their subtitles. It is interesting to note that Mozart's father, Leopold, wrote a "hunting" symphony, Sinfonia di caccia, which featured real hunting horns, gunshots from the drums, shouts from the orchestra, and even barking dogs. The "Dissonant" quartet (the sixth and last) takes its name from the very dissonant opening of the first movement.

Haydn is said to have been confused with the opening of the sixth quartet, but said of it, "Well, if Mozart wrote it, he must have meant it."

At a quartet party in February of 1785, Haydn, after hearing the quartets and reading the score, made this somewhat famous comment to Wolfgang's father Leopold, who was visiting Vienna at the time; "Before God and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition." This was high praise from the inventor of the string quartet, and one of the most renown composers in Europe in that age.

Personally, I have mostly enjoyed full orchestral works, but these quartets have opened new possibilities for me. I find myself exploring chamber music of other composers as well as of Mozart's. The Alexander String Quartet, which has won numerous awards, plays these pieces quite well. Even the last quartet, which has such and odd beginning, is still wonderful in the passages and movements which follow.

The quartets were somewhat controversial at the time of their composition. A friend of Mozart's, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, complained of the "overwhelming and unrelenting artfulness" of the quartets. Indeed, many of Mozart's contemporaries thought that Mozart used too many notes, and his music was too complex for the audiences of the day. Yet now to modern ears these quartets are vintage Mozart and are very enjoyable.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Haydn's Russian Quartets

Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) was born in the village of Rohrau in Austria, the son of a wheelwright. He spent some years making a living teaching violin and keyboard, as well as playing as a musician. He came to employment as Vice-Kapellmeister to Prince Paul Anton Esterhazy. He was to remain in the employ of the house of Esterhazy for most of his life.

While being considered by some historians the Father of the Symphony, it is generally accepted that Haydn invented the string quartet, consisting of two violins, a viola, and a cello. He established the form of the quartet as having four movements, similar in form to the symphony. It is not known exactly how many quartets Haydn composed, but he himself listed 83.

Haydn completed his Russian Quartets in 1781 as his Opus 33. The quartets take their name from their performance before the Russian Grand Duke Paul, (later Tsar Paul II), and his wife who were visiting Vienna.

I was able to find a Naxos recording of three of the quartets locally. This recording features quartets numbered 1, 2, and 5, performed by the Kodaly Quartet of Hungary.

The first quartet is in the key of B minor. The first movement is a sonata form that shifts to the key of D major. The second movement is marked scherzando and includes a trio in B major, followed by a third andante movement in D major. The finale returns to B minor.

Quartet number 2, which has been given the title "The Joke," is in E flat major. The name comes from the ending of the fourth and final movement, in which there is a change in speed and a coda which plays a joke on the listener. The joke is a series of silences and a whispered ending, which fools the listener.

Quartet number 5 is in the key of G major, and has been given the title "How Do You Do?" This is due to sound of the initial figure of the first movement, which suggests the question.

All in all, the quartets provide wonderful listening. Like most of Haydn's compositions, they employ the Classical style which inspired many of the composers that followed. This is light and easy listening, but with enough content to please those who look for structure in classical music works.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a friend of Haydn's, and it is said that the former was inspired to write quartets after seeing the score of the latter's Opus 33. Mozart wrote six quartets that he then dedicated to Haydn. I will take up these quartets in a later entry.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Classical music forms

In Lecture One of the Teaching Company's The Chamber Music of Mozart Robert Greenberg details the architecture of various musical works. The four forms he explains are: theme and variations (used in classical as well as jazz music, hence, the reason for the naming of the blog), minuet and trio form, rondo form, and sonata form.

Theme and variations form is the simplest. At the beginning of a movement, the theme is clearly stated. Each section thereafter in the movement is a variation on the theme. The variations may be as simple as a change in key or accompaniment, or a complicated restatement of the theme which may not be recognizable as the original theme. There may be any number of variations on the theme. The end of the movement will have a coda, an extended conclusion to the movement.

The minuet and trio form comes to us from the Baroque era dance. The minuet is a "stately, moderately paced three-step." (The same rhythm as a waltz.) The music form has an A-B-A structure, where the A is a minuet, B is a contrasting minuet, and the last A is a restatement of the original minuet. The contrasting B minuet was sometimes scored for only three instruments, hence it became known as the trio.

The rondo is a form in which the music in the movement returns periodically to the main, or rondo, theme. (In some ways, the minuet and trio is a rondo, in that the movement returns to the original theme at the end.) The rondo takes the form of A-B-A-C-A-coda, where A is the rondo theme, B and C are contrasting (but different) themes, and the coda ends the movement.

These three forms explained so far have in common that they are based on a single theme.

In the sonata form (sometimes refered to as sonata-allegro form), multiple main themes (at least two) are stated, varied, and then restated. The statement of the main themes occurs in what is called the exposition. Typically, the first theme is played in the home key of the movement. This is followed by a modulating bridge ("modulating" because it often is where a key change is made) before the statement of the second theme.

Following the the last main theme in sonata form is usually a cadence, part of the music that brings the exposition material to a close. Frequently, to help emphasize the main themes, the exposition will be repeated.

The development section will then play on the main themes in general ways; combining, varying, and so on. There may be multiple key changes, which makes the development a very active part of the movement.

The recapitulation in sonata form will bring back the main themes, usually with one change: where before the themes would be in contrasting keys, they will now be in the home key of the music. Finally, the movement will end with a coda.

These are general outlines of the forms, but many composers didn't stick strictly to them. Sometimes new themes were played in the development section or in cadential material. Sometimes themes from one movement are reintroduced in another movement. What is important is that there is a structure to classical music, and a listener can develop a greater appreciation for classical works when the structure is recognized.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Artie Shaw

Artie Shaw
Originally uploaded by mwthomas87.
Artie Shaw died last week at the ripe old age of 94. He was one of the giants of the jazz era.
On the cover of “Pocket Full of Gold,” the Bing Crosby biography by Gary Giddins, there is a quote from Artie Shaw in which he calls Bing the “first hip white man in America.”
I always thought that was a really nice compliment and an interesting observation from someone who was once in tune with what was hip in America.
For the longest time that quote and the jazz tune “Begin the Beguine” summed up everything I knew about Shaw. “Begin the Beguine” is Shaw’s sole contribution to the Ken Burn’s Jazz series, but it is also one of my favorite pieces of music in the whole collection.
The tune seems so very familiar even when you are hearing it for the first time. Shaw builds anticipation with his clarinet while the orchestra keeps a beat that is just on the mellow side of being “swing.” The whole song seems to slowly build on that anticipation until the very end when Shaw’s clarinet rides one note right off the scale and fulfills everything you were waiting for.
But that one song fulfilled even more for Shaw as it grew in popularity and overshadowed everything else he did. He eventually came to resent the song for that reason and went so far as to give up playing clarinet during the latter part of his life in favor of writing.
I’m sure that Shaw was a fine writer, but he never achieved the kind of fame for his literary efforts as he had acheived in music. But then it is rare that anyone is able to catch more than one shooting star during a lifetime. I also think it is quite admirable that Shaw chose to live his life pursuing the things that interested him and did not allow fame and fortune to dictate his path and lock him into one area where he would have felt trapped.