Friday, April 4, 2008

Mozart: Serenade No. 13 "Eine kleine NachtMusick"

Even those who don't know the name Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) have probably heard at least part of his Serenade No. 13 for strings (K525), one of the most recognizable works in all of classical music.  It derives its more familiar title from the composer's own handwritten catalog entry: "Eine kleine NachtMusick, bestehend in einem Allegro, Menuett und Trio. -- Romance. Menuett und Trio, und finale. -- 2 Violini, Viola e Bassi."  

The listing of five movements here has remained a mystery: no one knows when or why the first minuet was omitted from the piece.  Even so, this light-hearted work in four movements is considered a shining example of Mozart's ebullient creative genius and mastery of classical symphonic structure.  Probably commissioned as party music to be played by a string quartet (as it is sometimes heard today), the piece is said to evoke the feeling of after-dinner conversation, an accurate reflection of Mozart's own loquacious personality and zest for entertainment.  It was one of several masterpieces of chamber music written in 1787, at the height of his career, while he was simultaneously at work on the brilliant opera Don Giovanni.

During an age when most composers relied on steady employment by church or state institutions, Mozart spent essentially his entire life in commercial pursuits.  As a child prodigy, he was introduced to the life of a traveling virtuoso by his enterprising father Leopold, and he later acquired his own keen style of self-promotion among wealthy and influential circles in many of Europe's great cities.  However, his personal fortunes tended to rise and fall at the whim of contemporary fashion, and he struggled to remain solvent despite his incredible volume and variety of work.

Mozart's legendary reputation as a superstitious bon vivant, thriving on competition and personal politics, is not documented nearly as well as the excellence of his art, an astonishing record of over 600 separate works that practically define the Classical era in music.

Gounod: Petite Symphonie in Bb

The French composer Charles Gounod (1818-1893) was one of two sons born into an artistic family, his father an accomplished painter and draftsman, and his mother a talented pianist.  He showed natural musical talent as a child, but it was at the age of thirteen when a peformance of Mozart's Don Giovanni first truly awakened his interest in composition.  By age 21, he had won the Grand Prix de Rome and moved to Italy where he concentrated on the renaissance works of Palestrina, and began a period of rather intense devotion to sacred music and theology.  

By 1850, a thirty year-old Gounod decides to seek more career satisfaction by composing for the theatre and the concert hall, writing the first of the twelve operas for which he will later be best remembered.  Gounod also writes his only two orchestral symphonies in 1855, perhaps following the personal advice of Felix Mendelssohn whom he had met in Leipzig years before, and whose music he considered a "precious model."  That same year, a young Georges Bizet writes his first and only symphony as a student (and later friend) of Gounod, and while their compositional similarities do not go unnoticed, it is Bizet's work that is the more widely performed.

Gounod's operatic output reaches its climax in 1867 with Romeo and Juliet, and for the next few years the composer seeks respite in Rome — and finds trouble in England — a period when his deep religious conviction and artistic gifts eventually come together in the makings of an overlooked Christian opera based on the story of the martyred saint, Polyeucte.

Among the works of Gounod's later years is the Petite Symphonie in Bb (1885), in four movements for wind instruments.  The piece was composed for a noted wind ensemble called "La Trompette," and features passages written specifically for its conductor, flautist Paul Taffanel (1844-1908).  The work is a charming tribute to the French wind instrument tradition, while exhibiting the classical formal structure that Gounod so admired in the craft of Mozart, his most important compositional influence.

Warlock: Capriol Suite

Philip Heseltine (1894-1930) was born in London into a family of bankers, solicitors and impresarios, but after losing his father at an early age, he was taken to his mother's family home in Wales, where he spent his childhood and would later return as an adult to produce some of his best work.  Throughout his youth he explored a variety of subjects, discovering in himself a particular fascination with music, but he achieved little satisfaction or success in any of his schooling, and at one point abandoned his hopes of a musical career.  Yet he gravitated toward artistic and literary circles as a young adult and spent his frequent periods of unemployment studying early music.

Among his close friends were the writer D.H. Lawrence; composer, critic (and later, biographer) Cecil Gray; and composer E.J. Moeran, with each of whom he indulged at different times in various aspects of publishing, intellectualism and bohemian lifestyle.  By spending alternating periods in Cornwall, England and Ireland, Heseltine managed to avoid military service during World War I instead finding opportunities to cultivate his love of Celtic languages and antiquities.  In 1916, not yet a composer, he published his first scholarly music article under the pseudonym Peter Warlock.  The following year he wrote his earliest, and some say his finest, songs for solo voice with piano accompaniment.

More musicologist than composer, the self-taught Warlock produced more editorial work than original music, including nine books and hundreds of articles, reviews, and early music transcriptions.   He was a champion of the music of the Dutch composer Bernard van Dieren, and also the Hungarian Bela Bartok; he authored a biography of his friend and mentor, the English composer Frederick Delius, whose music was his childhood inspiration.  Each of these, combined with his vast knowledge of Elizabethan music, had a decided influence on Warlock's own style.  

The years 1922 to 1928 were Warlock's most productive period as a composer, during which he wrote primarily solo and choral works, including the masterful song cycle The Curlew, scored for tenor and chamber ensemble.  However his best known piece may be the Capriol Suite (1926), originally written as a piano duet.  Warlock would often release music in multiple arrangements, and the Suite was indeed scored for string orchestra, and then in 1928, for full orchestra.

The Capriol Suite is based on Renaissance dance tunes published in Thoinot Arbeau's landmark 1589 manual on the subject, Orchesographie.  The suite consists of six movements, with which Warlock takes varying degrees of creative liberty: Basse-Danse ("low dance"); Pavane, for a line of couples; Tordion; Bransles, a country round dance; Pieds en l'air ("feet in the air"); and Mattachins, a sword dance.  The piece is dedicated to Paul Ladmirault, a French composer with whom Warlock shared a mutual admiration, and who had published a flattering article about him in 1927.

A period of deepening depression affected Warlock in 1930, and his mysterious death in December of that year could not be classified as either accident or suicide.  Since then the complexities of his character have been ignored, exaggerated, or given askance looks in print and film, especially his reputed interested in the occult (hence the name "Warlock").  Yet in this particular respect he is scarcely different from the other great English composers of this impressionist period like Delius, Holst and Vaughan Williams, who took far greater inspiration from nature and folklore than from established religion or scholarly technique.