Symphony Concert Notes

Concert Program Notes

kabaretti conducts mozart & mahler

November 16 and 17, 2019
Author: Dr. Richard E. Rodda ©
kabaretti conducts mozart & mahler Program Notes (download PDF)

Exsultate, Jubilate, Motet for Soprano and Orchestra, K. 165 (1773)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

On October 24, 1772, Mozart and Papa Leopold left Salzburg for Milan, at that time under Austrian domination, to oversee the production of Wolfgang’s opera Lucio Silla. They arrived on November 4th. Mozart completed the opera before the end of the month and began rehearsals on December 12th, though preparations were hampered by frequent cast changes and difficulties with facilities. The problems continued right through the premiere on December 26th, which began three hours after the appointed time and ended six hours later. Despite the mixed quality of its first production, Lucio Silla proved popular with the Milanese audiences (many of whom were Austrian, or at least would-be Austrian, and in tune with Mozart’s expressive northern musical language), and the new piece was repeated no fewer than 26 times during the Carnival season.

The outstanding vocalist at the premiere of Lucio Silla was the eminent Roman castrato Venanzio Rauzzini, whose singing of the role of Cecilio stirred Mozart’s admiration. In appreciation, he wrote for Rauzzini the lovely motet Exsultate, jubilate. This delightful work, whose text is religious but not part of the regular liturgy, was first heard in the Theatine Church on January 16, 1773. Mozart père and fils lingered in Milan for two months more (Leopold feigned illness since his leave from his Salzburg post expired directly after the New Year) in the hope that the Grand Duke of Tuscany would offer Wolfgang regular employment. No such offer materialized, and the travelers left for home in March to bring the young Mozart’s last trip to Italy to a close on a note of disappointment.

The Exsultate, jubilate, premiered on January 16, 1773, six days before Mozart’s seventeenth birthday, was written as a brilliant showpiece tailored to Rauzzini’s considerable vocal talents, which boasted florid fioritura, easy flexibility of range and limpid lyricism. While religious in subject, the Exsultate, jubilate is so joyous in mood and winged in spirit that John N. Burk observed of it, “In none of his music is the innocent exuberance of the boy Mozart more apparent.” Of the work’s style, Alfred Einstein noted, “When Mozart gave himself to Italian brilliance or lack of seriousness, he did not forget ... his instrumental schooling. The larger and more festive portion of his church music is outspokenly symphonic in conception — the symphonic mixed with the concertante.” Einstein offered the Exsultate, jubilate as a perfect example of Mozart’s blending of vocal and instrumental genres: “Except for the short recitative that introduces the middle movement, it is simply a miniature concerto with an Allegro, an Andante, and a Presto or Vivace, hardly inferior, in brilliance or ‘tenderness,’ to a true instrumental concerto.”

The opening movement, Exsultate, jubilate (“Exult, rejoice”), with its instrumental introduction and interludes, its contrasting but balanced thematic groups and its technical display, supports Einstein’s evaluation that this work is a “vocal concerto.” Following a recitative (Fulget amica dies — “The friendly day glows bright”), there comes a sweet song to the Virgin (Tu virginum corona — “Thou, O crown of virgins”) imbued with Mozart’s incomparable elegance of expression. The sparkling finale, based on the single word Alleluja, is one of the most delightful and familiar movements from Mozart’s sacred pieces, and it provides a luminous ending to this wonderful work of the sixteen-year-old Salzburg prodigy.

I. Allegro

Exsultate, jubilate, o vos animae beatae. Dulcia cantica canendo, cantui vestro respondendo, psallant aethera cum me.

Exult, rejoice, O happy souls.With sweet music, let the heavens resound, making answer, with me, to your song.

Recitativo

Fulget amica dies, jam fugere et nubila et procellae; exortus est justis inexspectata quies. Undique obscura regnabat nox. Surgite tandem laeti, qui timuistis adhuc, et jucundi aurorae fortunatae. Frondes dextera plena et lilia date.

The friendly day glows bright, now clouds and storms have fled. A sudden calm has arisen for the just. Everywhere dark night held sway before. But now, at last, rise up and rejoice, ye who are not feared, and happy is the blessed dawn. With full hand, make offerings of garlands and lilies.

II. Larghetto

Tu virginum corona, tu nobis pacem dona, tu consolare affectus unde suspirat cor.
Thou, O Crown of Virgins, grant us peace, and assuage the passions that touch our hearts.

III. Allegro non troppo

Alleluja! Alleluia!

Fuel for String Orchestra (2007)

Julia Wolfe (born in 1958)

Julia Wolfe was born in Philadelphia in 1958 and played piano as a teenager, but did not begin serious music studies until she was so strongly affected by a general musicianship course at the University of Michigan that she changed majors, began composing, and earned a bachelor’s degree in music and theater in 1980. On a trip to New York, Wolfe met Michael Gordon and David Lang, both recent Yale School of Music graduates, and they encouraged her to apply at the school. She entered Yale in 1984, married Gordon that same year, studied composition primarily with Martin Bresnick, and received her master’s degree in 1986; she completed her doctorate at Princeton in 2012. Wolfe, Gordon and Lang began the New York concert series Bang on a Can in 1987, which has become one of the most significant catalysts in American contemporary music, established the publisher Red Poppy Music in 1993, and founded the record label Cantaloupe Music in 2001. Wolfe joined the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music in 2001 and remained there until being appointed Professor of Music Composition at New York University in 2009. In addition to many commissions and international performances and recordings, Wolfe’s distinctions include the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Music for Anthracite Fields (an oratorio about the coal mining community in her native Pennsylvania), a 2015 Herb Alpert Award from the California Institute of Arts, a 2016 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship, and an honorary degree in 2018 from Drew University in New Jersey.

Wolfe wrote, “The idea for Fuel began in conversation with filmmaker Bill Morrison [with whom she was collaborating on a film that could be shown during the piece]. We talked about the mystery and economy of how things run — the controversy and necessity of fuel — the global implications, the human need. The music takes its inspiration from the fiery strings of Ensemble Resonanz [of Hamburg, Germany, for whom Fuel was composed]. The members of the group challenged me to write something rip-roaring and virtuosic, asking me to push them to the limit. This request merged with the sounds of transport and harbors — New York and Hamburg — large ships, creaking docks, whistling sounds, and a relentless energy. Fuel was premiered in the Kaispeicher B Warehouse at the port of Hamburg on April 26, 2007.”

Symphony No. 4 in G major for Soprano and Orchestra (1899-1900)

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

“To write a symphony is, for me, to construct a world.” This dictum, expressed in many ways, was Mahler’s self-professed philosophy of music. He tried to channel all his experiences — mundane, transcendent, terrifying, sensual — into music, and then to weave them all into a giant quilt of variegated emotional colors so that almost all of his symphonies reveal a surprising number of different “kinds” of music — marches stand beside love songs; pedantic contrapuntal constructions beside peasant dances; boisterous drinking ditties beside profound spiritual probings. Similarly, the entire body of his symphonic work shows evidence of comprising one great “world”: one cosmic thought in a given symphony being balanced by another of a different stripe in the succeeding symphony. Thus, Bruno Walter, that magnificent conductor of recent memory and a dear friend of Mahler and champion of his music, was able to write about the first four symphonies in the following manner:

“In [them] an important part of the history of Mahler’s soul is unfolded. The force of spiritual events is matched by the power of musical language. The correlation of the world of sound and that of imagination, thoughts and emotions is thus common to them. While, however, in the First the subjective experience with its tempest of emotions is exerting its influence upon the music, metaphysical questions strive to find an answer and deliverance in the music in the Second and in subsequent symphonies. Three times he gives the answer and every time from a different point of view. In the Second he asks the reason for the tragedy of human existence and is sure its justification is to be found in immortality. In the Third, with a feeling of reassurance, he looks out upon nature, runs the rounds of its circles, and finishes in the happy awareness that it is ‘almighty love that forms all things and preserves all things.’ In the Fourth, he assures himself and us of a sheltered security in the sublime and serene dream of a heavenly life.”

Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, the most modest in length and orchestral requirements of his ten, had its roots as far back as 1892, when the composer was 32. These were the years, extending through the composition of the Fourth Symphony, during which Mahler was imbibing the folk traditions of Germany as they were set down in an early-19th-century anthology of poems titled Des Knaben Wunderhorn (“The Youth’s Magic Horn”). Edward Downes, program annotator of the New York Philharmonic from 1960 to 1974, noted a deep-seated personal need in Mahler’s interest in these simple peasant verses: “Like most German Romantic artists, Mahler felt a love for folk art amounting almost to worship. In part this may have been the nostalgia of the complex intellectual city-dweller for an Eden of lost innocence, of freshness, of naïveté.” This vein of innocence, of child-like simplicity is at the heart of this lovely Fourth Symphony. In 1892 Mahler set to music one of the Wunderhorn poems, Der Himmel hängt voll Geigen (“Heaven is chock full of violins”). He completed the song, which he named after its first line, Wir geniessen die himmlischen Freuden (“We revel in heavenly pleasures”), in February 1892, and made an orchestral arrangement of it the following month. When he set to work on his Third Symphony in 1895, he intended to include this song as the last of its movements. The vast musical panorama of the Third Symphony, perhaps the best example of “the world in a symphony,” was conceived to address individual movements to such matters as “What the flowers tell me,” “What the forest creatures tell me,” and so forth for “the night,” “the angels” and “love.” The finale was to have included Wir geniessen die himmlischen Freuden to elucidate “What the Child tells me.” Mahler, however, decided to drop this song from the Third Symphony, probably because it would have been an anti-climax after the stentorian ending of the preceding movement. Instead, Mahler determined to explore the world of this “child of heaven” more extensively, in a separate work. Thus was the Fourth Symphony born.

It is important to understanding the Fourth Symphony to realize that its entire mood and structure are built to lead to the finale — the first three movements serve to prepare for and illuminate the closing vision. The composer is reported to have said, “In the first three movements there reigns the serenity of a higher realm, a realm strange to us, oddly frightening, even terrifying. In the finale, the child, which in its previous existence belonged to this higher realm, tells us what it all means....” The child-like simplicity and open-faced sincerity of the last movement supply not only the general emotional framework of the Symphony, but also influence some of its musical materials. The development section of the first movement, for example, contains a chirruping theme for four unison flutes derived from the concluding song. It is not the normal course of creation for a work to proceed forward from its ending. In this instance, however, this is what happened, and the first three movements need to be viewed as the various steps through which the listener is prepared to understand the full implications of the finale. (Incidentally, Wagner followed a similar “working-backwards” procedure in the conception of his Ring operas.)

Again, it is informative to turn to Bruno Walter to gain insight into the progression of the Fourth Symphony: “In the fairy tale of the Fourth Symphony everything is floating and unburdened rather than mighty or pathetic; the mellow voice of an angel confirms what, in the Second and Third Symphonies, a prophet had foreseen and proclaimed in loud accents.... The first movement is dominated by a droll humor which is in strange contrast to the beatific mood forming the keynote of the work. The scherzo is a kind of uncanny, supernatural episode. Its demonic violin solo and its graceful trio forms an interesting contrast to the other sections of the symphony without abandoning their tone of lightness and mystery. Mahler told me that the profound quiet of the slow movement was caused by a vision of a church sepulcher showing the recumbent image of the deceased with arms crossed in eternal sleep. The poem set to music in the last movement depicts in words the general atmosphere from which the Symphony as a whole arises. The child-like delights which it portrays are symbolic of heavenly bliss and only when, at the very end, music is proclaimed the sublimest of joys is its humorous character changed to one of exalted solemnity.”

The composer, as well, left a fascinating description of the finale. “What I envisioned for the last movement was very difficult,” said Mahler. “Try, if you will, to imagine a heaven of undifferentiated blue, which is much harder to suggest than changing, contrasting hues. This is the fundamental mood. But it darkens sometimes, grows spooky, even terrifying. It is not that heaven itself really dims: on the contrary it shines on and on in its eternal blue. It is only that we sometimes react to it with sudden terror, just as on the most beautiful day, when the woods are drenched in sunlight, one is often gripped by a panic fear.” This quotation says as much about Mahler, the man, as about his composition, but it does give an important point of approach for appreciating this beautiful work. 

The Symphony opens in G major with the distinctive sound of sleigh bells that recurs at important structural points throughout the movement. A number of melodic ideas are tossed out to comprise the main theme group before the music moves, properly enough, to D major for the second theme, a sweet, Viennese melody high in the cellos. The sleigh bells mark the beginning of a lengthy development section that thoroughly explores much of the material heard thus far, with a particular emphasis on the clear pipings of the augmented woodwind choir. After one of the few large climaxes of the Symphony, the development quiets before it comes to an abrupt stop. The music takes a quick breath, and the recapitulation begins in the sunny mood of the opening. The exposition themes are again assayed to bring the movement to an invigorating close.

Mahler’s original designation for the second-movement scherzo was Freund Hein spielt auf (“Friend Hein plays”). “Hein” was the character of German legend who used his fiddle to lure reluctant travelers to the Great Beyond. This eerie movement, perhaps inspired by the not dissimilar visions of Liszt, Saint-Saëns and Berlioz, alternates a diabolical scherzo with brighter trios. Much of the mood comes from the solo violinist, who is instructed to tune a second instrument a full step higher than normal to produce a more strident tone quality. Of this movement, Mahler wrote, “The scherzo is so uncanny, almost sinister, that your hair may stand on end. Yet in the following Adagio, where all complications are dissolved, you will feel that it was not really all that sinister....” Rather like a bad dream followed by a reassuring sunrise.

The serene third movement is in the form of a variation on two themes, though it follows the formal outlines of each theme only tenuously. The first is one of those superb, otherworldly visions (another occurs in the Fifth Symphony) which owes much of its atmosphere to the transcendent Adagios of Anton Bruckner. This first set of variations, dominated by the string choir founded upon a resonant pizzicato bass line, alternates with the second set of variations, given largely to the winds. (The oboe introduces the second theme.) Enumerating the details of this rather complex structure is beyond the scope of these notes, but it can be observed that the alternations of variations-chains is usually matched by a switch from predominantly string sonority (note the pizzicato bass line) to wind timbre. After a surprisingly explosive climax, the third movement comes to a subdued close (Mahler’s use of the harp here is a particular joy) which connects it, with only pause for a child-sized breath, to the finale.

The vision of the Fourth Symphony’s closing movement (Sehr behaglich — “Very leisurely”) is couched in the simplest of musical forms — the strophic song. Each verse of the text, filled with images of an idealized Medieval peasant life, ends with a chorale-like refrain borrowed from the music of the alto solo in the Third Symphony. The stanzas are marked by recalling the sound of sleigh bells and the accompanying music from the first movement (which the eminent English musicologist Sir Donald Tovey dubbed, rather ingloriously, “farm-yard noises”). For the concluding stanza, Mahler executed a harmonic sleight-of-hand as the music moves from its G major base to the ethereal key of E major. More than just a technical device, this gesture gives a special meaning to the closing text sung by the heaven-blessed child: “There’s no music at all on earth, Which can ever compare with ours.” Its beauty, calm and simplicity are among the most pacific moments in all of music.

Max Kalbeck, the distinguished critic, wrote following the Viennese premiere in January 1902, “What touches us most in Mahler’s Symphony is the feeling which emanates from the work. The longing for simplicity — ‘Unless you become like children you will not enter God’s realm.’ Mahler’s G major Symphony is a work for children and those who would become like children.”

Das Himmlische Leben (“The Heavenly Life”)

(see pdf)

 

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