Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart / January 27, 1756 – December 5, 1791
Overture to The Magic Flute
Mozart wrote The Magic Flute in 1791 as a hopeful commercial venture, not on commission from an aristocratic source, which was his normal source of patronage income. He was in ill-health, in debt, and in desperate need of money, and he intended this work to entice and excite the paying public.
Set in ancient Egypt, the opera’s storyline is laced with improbable fantasy and populated with magical and unusual characters. Think the Wizard of Oz and Harry Potter. Many believe it was a cleverly veiled allegory involving Freemasonry and secret fraternal Masonic rites and themes promoting a belief in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of mankind.
Mozart reportedly wrote the opera’s overture shortly before the premiere – in one day! After a puzzling opening featuring three mysterious chords – three being an important symbolic number to the Masons – the music is off to the races. It is clever, witty, compelling, action-packed, and optimistic – everything he was not when he wrote it. All of a sudden the music halts in the presence of declamatory chords. Then the fun begins as Mozart has a musical ball developing and playing with the material presented in the first half. In six minutes, he pulls out all the stops and gives us in capsule form the epitome of the high classical style at which no one was his equal.
Mozart conducted the premiere of the opera on September 20, 1791. He died sixty-five days later and was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave. An improbable and a sad end for a great genius.
How great a genius was he? When someone from Prague wrote Haydn in 1787 asking him to write a comic opera, this was Haydn’s reply: “If I could only impress on the soul of every friend of music, and on high personages in particular, how inimitable are Mozart’s works, how profound, how musically intelligent, how extraordinarily sensitive! For this is how I understand them, how I feel them — why then the nations would vie with each other to possess such a jewel within their frontiers… Forgive me if I lose my head, but I love this man so dearly.” Don’t we all.
Franz Peter Schubert / January 31, 1797 – November 19, 1828
Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major
Pick up any music book with a title such as “The 50 Greatest Composers” and you will find Franz Schubert comfortably ensconced in the Top 10, with giants like Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. You might be surprised to learn, however, that during his short lifetime, he lived in relative obscurity, virtually unknown and unheralded outside his intellectual circle of middle-class adoring friends in Vienna. Not one of his symphonies was ever performed while he was alive. When he died, his music disappeared, and he did not begin to get the recognition until 40 years after he was buried.
Three reasons explain these bizarre circumstances. First, Schubert is the only composer on the list who was neither a virtuosic performer nor a successful conductor. He never ventured far from his hometown. Second, he was barely 5 feet tall and corpulent enough to be nicknamed “Tubby.” He was shy and timid, never mustering the courage to introduce himself to his contemporary hero, Beethoven. Third, he died at just 31 after suffering a debilitating illness.
The story of how Schubert’s genius came to light after his death would make a perfect Masterpiece Theater special. Legend had it that somewhere in Austria lay a hidden treasure trove of his lost works, and the hunt was on.
Who discovered many of them? Two enterprising Englishmen: Arthur Gilbert — soon to be of Gilbert and Sullivan — and George Grove — who wrote Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Excited by the unexpected find in 1865 by Robert Schumann of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, Gilbert and Grove located in the hands of a Viennese doctor a pile of Schubert’s forgotten works, including the parts to his Fifth Symphony.
Grove tells the story. He asked the doctor, “Might I go into the cupboard and look for myself? Certainly—if I had no objection to being smothered with dust. In I went. After some search, during which my companion kept the doctor engaged in conversation, I found, at the bottom of the cupboard, and in its furthest corner, a bundle of music books two feet high, carefully tied round, and black with the undisturbed dust of nearly half a century. What we now know is that this diminutive giant left behind 634 German art songs called Lieder (147 of them along with his Third Symphony written in just one year), 9 symphonies, 19 string quartets, 21 piano sonatas, 7 masses, and 10 operas — not to mention a mountain of other works. He said of himself, “I was born to compose,” and he often slept with his glasses on so as not to lose any time so doing when he awakened.
What we will hear tonight is quintessential Schubert. To quote an adoring scholar, “Schubert wrote only for his own delight, and that delight shines in every page. His music has a youthful kind of innocence about it, which does not depend on sophistication or passion. His greatest gift was melody, lyrical melody.” Written at the age of 19, this delightful classical four-movement symphony is fresh, light, and tuneful, an homage to late Mozart and early Beethoven. Right out of the box, Schubert’s tuneful first theme is the kind that stays with you long after the concert.
Schubert carried a torch during Beethoven’s funeral procession. At his wish, he was buried in Vienna close to Beethoven’s grave. His tombstone reads, “Music has here entombed a rich treasure, but much fairer hopes. Franz Schubert lies here.”
Ludwig van Beethoven / December 16, 1770 – March 26, 1827
Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor”
Vienna at the close of the Eighteenth Century was a cosmopolitan crossroads and the unrivaled center of music in the Western World, the home of Mozart and Haydn. As a brash twenty-two year old, Beethoven moved in 1792 to Vienna from Bonn, Germany to be part of the action. He was not yet a polished composer – far from it – but his dramatic piano style soon became the talk of the town. In particular, his astonishing ability to improvise on a musical idea stunned everyone who heard him play. His talent for generating striking new material from a simple theme would later become a hallmark of his mature compositional style.
Early on, Beethoven began to try his hand at challenging orchestral forms. Naturally, he tackled the piano concerto, writing a total of five. The first three were in the style of Mozart: balanced, refined, graceful, and lyrical – each consistent with the mode then in vogue. He wrote them for himself as a performing virtuoso. By the time he wrote his fourth piano concerto in 1805, however, he was no longer a Mozart clone. His bold dramatic style reflects a sea change in his method. Gone completely is the polite classical restraint that characterized the style of his predecessors. Beethoven as we now know him had arrived.
What caused the change? Two things: his reaction to the crisis caused by his progressive loss of hearing, and his fanatical adoption of the ideals of the Enlightenment.
“To be, or not to be,” that was the Shakespearian question forced upon Beethoven at a young age by his loss of hearing. For Beethoven’s answer, listen to any of his heroic music. He embraced the battle. He said, “I will take fate by the throat. It shall not overcome me. How beautiful it is to be alive!” His music is life affirming, exploding with energy and joy. His unflinching resolve to live his life by design, not by default, marks every one of his compositions. No other music ever written is more inspirational.
Moreover, he adopted and lived the Enlightenment ideal that the individual counts, not just the state or the church. Beethoven was nobody’s “subject,” he was a pugnacious freestanding “citizen,” and he boldly let everybody know it. Consequently, he wrote powerful music not just to entertain the royals or the aristocrats, but as dramatic oratory to express his innermost emotions and reflections on the human condition. The Third Symphony, the Eroica, written in 1804 marks the beginning of the Romantic Era in music. “Music,” he said, “is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy, the wine which inspires one to new generative processes, and I am the Bacchus who presses out this glorious wine for mankind and makes them spiritually drunk.”
Beethoven’s belief in the importance of the individual and the artist as a hero explains the dramatic opening of this concerto, indeed every note of it. Before Beethoven, piano concertos always began with the orchestra spelling out the main themes in the first movement. Then, and only then, the soloist would politely enter with the same themes. What? The group dominates and controls the individual, the artist? Beethoven would have none of that. So in this concerto, the orchestra – the group – gets one short chord and Beethoven – the hero – grabs the bit in his teeth and takes over with a dazzling display of virtuosity. The orchestra tries twice again, but each time Beethoven shuts them down until he decides they can proceed with the main themes. Then, after he has established that he is the boss, the collaboration begins – and magnificent it is. The result is a virile showpiece of creative exuberance and flair. Yes, the Emperor it is!