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A Dream Team: Mozart and Mendelssohn

September 21, 2024

Our season opens with Mozart’s spirited “Haffner Symphony” and the Mendelssohn “Violin Concerto” performed by internationally acclaimed violinist Aisslinn Nosky.

Program

Marriage of Figaro: Overture, K. 492....Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Symphony No. 35 in D Major, K. 385 "Haffner"......Mozart
   I. Allegro con spirito
   II. Andante
   III. Menuetto
   IV. Presto 

INTERMISSION

Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64....................Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)
   I. Allegro molto appassionato 
   II. Andante - allegretto non troppo 
   III. Allegro molto vivace 
           Aisslinn Nosky, violin

Program Notes

Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in E minor (1844) by Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) 
 
On July 30, 1838, Felix Mendelssohn wrote to his friend, the distinguished German violinist Ferdinand David, "I'd like to write a violin concerto for you next winter; one in E minor sticks in my head, the beginning of which will not leave me in peace." With those lines, Mendelssohn began his last great work—a masterpiece to rebut claims of a career in decline and a concerto that would prove as popular as any ever written. A letter from the composer to David refers to the work: “How nice of you to press me for the violin concerto.  It is not an easy task.  You want it to be brilliant, and how am I to manage that?  The whole first solo is to consist of nothing but the high E!”  Sketches confirm that Mendelssohn knew very early on how this music would go, and an extensive correspondence with David, spanning six years, shows how much care went into the details.
 
Dispensing with the usual long introduction, the solo violin begins playing the elegant main melody after a single measure in the orchestra establishes the key of E minor.  While this melody sounds like it must have been created at once in a rush of inspiration, Mendelssohn’s sketches clearly show the huge amount of trouble it cost him to refine its contour and to perfect its rhythmic balance.  The first movement cadenza is famous, not only for its shimmering brilliance, but also because it is placed between the development and the recapitulation, rather than its traditional placement between the recapitulation and the coda.  The most magical moment of this sonata-form movement comes at the end of the development section when in a hushed, mysterious passage the soloist begins searching for the home key. Just as he seems to have found it, we hear the cadenza, which concludes with chains of rapid arpeggios that continue as the orchestra reprises the principal theme, thus fastening the cadenza effortlessly to the recapitulation.
 
At movement’s end, we hear a lone bassoon holding onto the note B. It rises a half-step to the new key of C major for the second-movement Andante, which the soloist begins after a brief orchestral bridge passage. This movement is in three-part (ternary or ABA) form — most appropriate here because Mendelssohn has given the soloist one of his “songs without words.” The B section is agitated and passionate without abandoning its lyricism.
 
Another bridge provides a harmonic and tempo transition to the E-major finale. Here we have one of Mendelssohn’s celebrated scherzos, a joyous, scampering romp for the soloist. Calling up the world of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the woodwinds are lively companions to the violin’s bounding scales and arpeggios..
 
How beloved is this work?  According to Michael Steinberg in his book The Concerto, Joseph Joachim, the supreme violinist of the late nineteenth century, said: “The Germans have four violin concertos.  The greatest, the most uncompromising, is Beethoven’s.  The one by Brahms vies with it in seriousness.  The richest, the most seductive, was written by Max Bruch.  But the most inward, the heart’s jewel, is Mendelssohn’s.”  (The quotations in this note are taken from R. Larry Todd’s excellent Mendelssohn:  A Life in Music.)

Symphony No. 35,  K. 385 (1782) “Haffner” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

 
In July 1782, Mozart was experiencing one of the most frenetic periods of his typically chaotic life. On July 16, he had just premiered his comic opera The Abduction from the Seraglio, the first major triumph of his Viennese career.  He was just 26 years old.
 
Preparations were also underway for his early August wedding to Constanze Weber, a marriage for which he had unsuccessfully sought his father’s approval for many months; Leopold Mozart had responded to this news by refusing to answer Wolfgang’s letters. When he finally did write his son, it was only to further complicate his life.
 
Back in Salzburg, the Mozart family had been assisted by the wealthy merchant family, the Haffners. In 1776, Mozart had written the “Haffner” Serenade with violin solo for a Haffner daughter’s wedding. Now in August 1782, the son, Sigmund, was to be raised to the nobility, and the Haffners again wanted a serenade from their favorite composer.
 
Although he was already “up to my eyeballs” with work and personal pressures, Mozart could hardly refuse this family that had done so much for him. But he protested futilely: “By Sunday week I have to arrange my opera for wind instruments, otherwise someone will beat me to it and secure the profits instead of me. And now you ask me to write a new symphony too! How on earth am I to do so? . . . Well, I must just spend the night over it, for that is the only way; and to you, dearest father, I sacrifice it. . .. I shall work as fast as possible, and, as far as haste permits, I shall write something good.”
 
Mozart indeed managed to “write something good” — and get married, too. However, it is not surprising that, when in December he asked his father to return the score so he could refashion it for his Viennese Lenten concert, his memory of the work was a blur. “Most heartfelt thanks for the music you have sent me. . .. My new Haffner symphony has positively amazed me, for I had forgotten every single note of it. It must surely produce a good effect.”
 
The “Haffner” Symphony produced a excellent effect on the audience and the Emperor Joseph himself when Mozart premiered it in Vienna on March 23, 1783. He writes to his father:
“The theater could not possibly have been more crowded, and all the boxes were taken . . ..  But what pleased me most was that His Majesty the Emperor was there too, and that he was so pleased, and what loud applause he gave me …. It is his custom to send the money to the box office before he comes to the theater, otherwise I might really have expected more from him, for his satisfaction was boundless . . ..  He sent twenty-five ducats.”
 
The composer made a few changes: removing an opening march and an additional minuet to bring his serenade to four-movement symphonic form. Shorter than most of his later symphonies, it is a model of succinctness and high energy. The first movement (which Mozart instructed should be played “with great fire”) is built out of one sky-rocketing theme heard at the beginning; in this Mozart imitated his friend Haydn, who often created monothematic sonata forms. The power of this theme, the rushing scale passages and aggressively accented trills in the violins, and the brilliance of trumpets and timpani all contribute to the sense of unstoppable momentum.
The lightly scored second movement is all grace and elegance — music written to please 18th-century partygoers. It is succeeded by a minuet created from bold masculine proposals and languishing feminine responses — perhaps a musical dialogue between Mozart the groom and his bride-to-be. A rustic woodwind-colored trio section adds charm.
 
Mozart asked that the finale be played “as fast as possible.” Breathing the comic-opera atmosphere of The Abduction, the mischievous principal theme, which returns over and over like a rondo refrain, is related to an aria sung in that opera by Osmin, the harem overseer. Macho drum rolls suggest a composer feeling his virility on the wedding eve.  (Quotations are taken from The Letters of Mozart and His Family, Volumes 1 and 3, by Emily Anderson.)
 
 Overture to The Marriage of Figaro, K. 492 (1786) by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
 
On November 11, 1785, Leopold Mozart complained that he had scarcely heard from his son Wolfgang: "He is up to his eyes in work on his opera The Marriage of Figaro," he wrote. Lorenzo Da Ponte, Wolfgang's librettist, later recalled the whirlwind pace of their collaboration: "As fast as I wrote the words, Mozart set them to music. In six weeks, everything was in order." That is no doubt an exaggeration by a man often given to overstatement, but much of the four-act comic opera apparently was composed between October 16, when Mozart finished his piano quartet in G minor, and the first of December.
 
As usual with Mozart, the overture to The Marriage of Figaro was left until the very last second.  The manuscript is dated April 29, 1786, the same day he entered the work in his personal catalog of compositions. By then the orchestral parts for the opera had been copied and rehearsals had started. Figaro opened on May 1 at the Burgtheater in Vienna, with the composer conducting from the keyboard. It was a hit, and after it was given in Prague that December, Mozart enjoyed a popularity seldom known to composers during their lifetimes. "Here they talk about nothing but Figaro," he wrote when he visited Prague in January. "Nothing is played, sung, or whistled but Figaro. No opera is drawing like Figaro. Nothing, nothing but Figaro."
 
The overture is a perfect curtain raiser. It crackles with excitement and is full of promise. The combination of frantic music and a hushed dynamic suggests intrigue and conspiracy from the start; the warm glow of horns and winds assures us that this is, above all, a comedy. The pace is unrelentingly fast (we now know that Mozart tore up a page of slower music he intended as a contrasting middle section). In Peter Sellars's famous and controversial staging of the opera, set in New York City, the overture accompanied a typical Manhattan rush hour. Of course, Mozart was thinking of something far less metropolitan, but the human heart has always been animated by complicated attachments and great expectations.
 
(Excerpts from Mozart’s letters to his father are quoted from Emily Anderson’s Letters of Mozart and His Family, Volume 3.)