Concert II – The Great Tradition Program Notes

November 20, 2016

Wolfgang Mozart (1756 – 1791): Don Giovanni Overture

Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni has had an immense impact on Western culture—artists, philosophers, and musicians have revered the work for its complexity, its beauty, indeed, for its perfection. Don Giovanni premiered in Prague in 1787, the result of the success of The Marriage of Figaro in that city the previous year. The plot concerns the resolutely unrepentant seducer Don Juan, his cold-blooded murder of the father of his most recent victim, and his terrifying end as he is dragged down to Hell. All of this is laid out in the overture, where the motifs heard at the outset prefigure the action to come. Although the bulk of the overture is typical of its genre, with a light-hearted busy-ness to prepare for the curtain opening, the enigmas and terror of the story are present in the short, powerful introduction, which features big leaps, unusual and unstable chords, and ominous pauses punctuated by syncopated offbeat rhythms. This culminates in the brooding upward and downward scales we hear just before the overture proper begins. After such an introduction, the dark and foreboding mood never quite leaves us.

One of the composers who especially admired this opera was Tchaikovsky, whose intense engagement with Mozart’s compositions is reflected in his “Mozartiana” Suite, our final work today. Tchaikovsky’s close friend, the famous singer Pauline Viardot, owned Mozart’s original autograph score of Don Giovanni. Tchaikovsky visited her in Paris in 1886 and, in the words of historian Mark Everist, “worshipped at the Don Giovanni shrine,” viewing the score with reverence. “I cannot express the feeling that overcame me when I was looking at this holy musical object!” he wrote later. “It was as if I had shaken the hand of Mozart himself and conversed with him.” It is no coincidence that the date of Tchaikovsky’s “Mozartiana” Suite is 1887, the centenary of Don Giovanni’s premiere in Prague.


Johannes Brahms (1833 – 1897): Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 77

Brahms’ Violin Concerto confronts us immediately with the contradictions that form the essence of a concerto: the contrast (or confluence?) of the orchestra and soloist; the blend of the delicate and the forthright; the mingling of virtuosity with clarity. The work resulted from the composer’s collaboration with the famous violinist Joseph Joachim (1831‒1907); the two had been friends since both were young men, just barely in their twenties. Brahms’ discouraging experience with his first concerto, the Piano Concerto No. 1, written in 1859, caused him to wait for twenty years before attempting the genre again. He and Joachim corresponded intensively during the composition of the concerto, and their work shows in the masterly treatment of the violin throughout. Brahms, in the first movement, took the unusual decision not to write out the cadenza, reverting to the 18th-century practice that had largely been abandoned in his time. The cadenza was written by Joachim and, although other cadenzas have been composed over the years, Joachim’s is regarded as the gold-standard, and we will hear it in today’s performance.

The opening of the hefty first movement, which makes up over half the work’s total length, is a study in contrasts. It begins with a soft unison in the strings which is then echoed by the oboe, an instrument that will be highlighted throughout the piece. The strings introduce big unison leaps, which feature a Brahms stylistic fingerprint, playing with the tension between groups of two and three, moving fluidly back and forth and blurring our sense of a steady rhythm. The orchestra sets up the spectacular entrance by the soloist; indeed, this entrance is almost a cadenza in and of itself, elaborating on the initial thematic material, adding delicate exchanges with the winds. The tensions set up here play throughout the rest of the movement: the full orchestra vs. the soloist; strings vs. winds; two vs. three; bold leaps vs. extended melody, and the transformation of one into the other.

The second movement opens with a melting oboe melody, laying out intricate conversations among the rest of the winds. The soloist enters delicately and, in spite of the increasing rhythmic and sonic intensity, Brahms sustains the tranquil mood throughout. Thus the jubilantly physical main motif of the third movement provides another contrast. Brahms returns to the more massive writing of the opening movement, with prominent focus again on playful rhythmic ambiguities, which come to the fore near the end. The timpani initiates a propulsive drive to a conclusion that features complex manipulations of the rhythmic elements of the main theme, carrying us through to the final climax.


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): Suite No. 4 in G Major, Op. 61 “Mozartiana” 

Tchaikovsky loved Mozart above all other composers, and his “Mozartiana” Suite is not just a respectful nod from one great composer to another, but is rather Tchaikovsky’s way of sharing the joys of this most beloved master. Tchaikovsky sets out his goals in the preface to his score: orchestrating some of Mozart’s smaller works in order to bring them to a wider audience. The first three movements are all quite short, especially the first movement, based on one of Mozart’s keyboard gigues. It is followed by a minuet and then by a prayer, based on Mozart’s Ave Verum (K. 455)—probably the best-known piece Tchaikovsky uses.

Tchaikovsky’s orchestral writing is not at all like Mozart’s, nor is it meant to be. You’ll hear this especially in the third movement in his use of the harp, which creates an overtly warm and “Romantic” flavor. Indeed, the treatment of the orchestra throughout takes us to the heart of Tchaikovsky’s suites, which are concerned with variety, contrast, and sprightliness. The historian Richard Taruskin, as usual, says it best when he describes Tchaikovsky’s shimmering orchestral suites as Fabergé eggs, invoking another of the highly cultivated arts at the Russian Imperial court.

The last movement is much longer, almost twice the length of the first three movements combined. It is a theme and variations, with the initial theme laid out clearly, and then elaborated, with clarinet embroidery entwining throughout in the second variation, and even introducing cymbals in the third. The structure becomes more complex as we proceed. Listen, for example, to the loud, obvious, and obviously “wrong” chords—this is a joke based on Mozart’s original: not only are the chords clearly “wrong” but they are different each time we hear them, which violates the repeating structure of the theme that both composers have so carefully set up. The two composers are clearly on the same comic musical wavelength.

As the variations pile up, Tchaikovsky pulls out all the stops. The last big section is devoted to grand solo violin playing—we feel as if we’ve parachuted into a big Romantic violin concerto. This section builds up to a brass fanfare, at which point the clarinet, with some difficulty, pulls us back to the original theme. It isn’t an easy task; the clarinet has to try twice and even gets distracted itself, imitating that grandiose violin, but eventually it brings us back to the original theme, where we end the work comfortably, back to the world of Mozart as heard through the sensibilities of his biggest fan.

Bradley Clem and Claudia Jensen