Mozart & Beethoven

Program Notes by Laney Boyd

Overture from Guillaume Tell (“William Tell”)
Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868)

 Gioacchino Rossini was a rapid and prolific composer; by age 38, he had 38 operas to his credit, including such masterworks as Il barbiere di Siviglia (“The Barber of Seville”) and L’italiana in Algeri (“The Italian Girl in Algiers”). Rossini’s composed his 39th and final opera, Guillaume Tell (“William Tell”), in 1829 before going into semi-retirement. Though the composer would live almost 40 more years, his huge artistic success had made him a wealthy man and allowed him to compose at his leisure for the remainder of his life. Grander and more ambitious than all Rossini’s operas that came before, Guillaume Tell was a fitting conclusion to the composer’s operatic writing career.

Based on the play Wilhelm Tell by Friedrich Schiller, Guillaume Tell takes place in Austrian-occupied Switzerland and tells the story of William Tell, the Swiss folk hero who rallied his countrymen against their oppressors and helped liberate Switzerland. Today the opera is best known for its overture due to its use in popular media, most notably as the theme song for the television series The Lone Ranger. The overture remains a popular concert piece with modern orchestras. With a performance time of about 12 minutes, the work is a musical portrayal of life in the Swiss Alps and is divided into four distinct parts, each with its own descriptive title.

The overture begins with a section entitled “Prelude: Dawn”; this slow passage is scored for a cello quintet accompanied by double basses. Minimal yet rich instrumental coloring provides a serene depiction of a sunrise over the Swiss countryside, but hints of a coming storm break through in the form of timpani rolls mimicking the sounds of distant thunder. The section ends with a high sustained cello note that gives way to the “Storm” section, scored for full orchestra. Each instrumental section layers one on top of the other: the strings enter first, followed by the woodwinds, and finally the full violence of the tempest breaks loose with the entrance of the brass and percussion. The storm diminishes in much the same way, with instruments gradually dropping out until a single flute remains. The pleasantly rustic “Ranz des vaches” (“Call to the Cows”) is the calm after the storm; this pastoral musical scene imitates a cowherd’s call in the English horn with flute accompaniment. Finally, we come at last to one of the most recognizable and energetic tunes in all of classical music, “Finale: March of the Swiss Soldiers.” A trumpet fanfare announces this closing section, immediately followed by an exuberant, dynamic cavalry charge meant to depict the Swiss soldiers’ victory in the battle to free their homeland.

Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major, K. 543
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed his final three symphonies – Nos. 39, 40, and 41 – very quickly in the summer of 1788. It is uncertain whether Mozart ever heard these symphonies performed; while records show that a series of concerts was planned for the summer of 1788, it is some question whether they actually took place. The first known performance of Symphony No. 39 was at a memorial concert in honor of Mozart in March 1792, three months after the composer’s death. Thanks to written eyewitness accounts from this concert we know the work was very well received.

Symphonies during Mozart’s time were not what we think of them as today. While the immense, dramatic works of Romantic-era giants such as Beethoven and Brahms have become synonymous with the genre, Classical-era symphonies were generally much shorter and lighter. Mozart’s final three symphonies, however, bridge the gap between the two styles by maintaining Classical characteristics while also edging toward the scope of Romantic works; they are Mozart’s longest and most complex symphonies both in terms of structural form and music content. On the surface, Symphony No. 39 is a bit less on the Romantic side than the two following symphonies – the “great” G minor Symphony (No. 40) is so called because of its moments of intense passion while No. 41’s resplendent heroics earned it the nickname Jupiter – but it is no less a masterwork for that. Spanning four movements and clocking in at around 30 minutes in length, Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major tells a subtle yet powerfully intriguing story.

The work begins with a slow introduction, a rarity in Mozart’s symphonies. Grand and stately and featuring majestic brass fanfares, this opening passage moves seamlessly to the singing lines of the Allegro, which builds steadily from the merest breath of sound to an intensely sonorous surge that is both bold and lovely in its musicality. The Andante is a relaxed yet elegant movement characterized by lovely meandering melodies interspersed with moments of sublime passion. A frolicsome Minuet and Trio follows. The trio features a particularly pleasant clarinet line and is actually a Ländler, a lively Austrian folk dance. The finale is a brisk perpetual motion allegro that is developed entirely from a single scalar theme. The ascending and descending lines find new dramatic heights with each iteration, eventually rushing enthusiastically towards a concluding energetic burst.

Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Opus 58
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

Composed in early 1806, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major was the last work written for his own personal performance (by this time, the 35-year-old composer was all but deaf). Beethoven first performed the work in March 1807 at a private concert, but it is the concert at which the work’s public premiere took place nearly two years later that has gone down in classical music history.

Beethoven made his last appearance as a soloist with an orchestra at the December 1808 concert in Vienna, and in addition to premiering the Fourth Piano Concerto, he also premiered his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies and the newly composed Choral Fantasy (Op. 80). Several sections of the Mass in C major and numerous other earlier works were also included on the program. The mammoth concert lasted over four hours, and we know from eyewitness accounts that it was not a very smooth experience: the hall was cold, the orchestra had not had enough time to prepare the huge amount of music, and most of the works were new and therefore unfamiliar to the concertgoers. Add to this the fact that Piano Concerto No. 4 broke from traditional concerto form and it is perhaps unsurprising that the work was not initially well received. The concerto fell into relative obscurity until almost a decade after Beethoven’s death when 27-year-old Felix Mendelssohn, who helped rescue many such works from unwarranted neglect, performed it at a concert in Leipzig. The concerto was successfully revived and today holds a solid place within the standard piano concerto repertoire.

Piano Concerto No. 4 has a performance time of approximately 35 minutes and its three movements follow the standard fast-slow-fast concerto format. The opening Allegro breaks the mold right from the start: most concertos up to this point – including Beethoven’s first three piano concertos – began with the full orchestra playing a lively introduction including the movement’s main themes. In contrast, this concerto opens with a soft, intimate murmuring of straightforward chords from the piano alone; even when the orchestra does enter, it is somewhat hesitant. The piano is the driving force behind the movement, but it retains its sweet temper throughout.

Agitated unison strings open the second movement Andante, and the piano immediately answers with a lovely, flowing passage. The whole movement carries on in this way, a conversation of shadows answered by light; in fact, the movement has been likened to the Greek mythical figure Orpheus, represented by the piano, taming the beasts of Hades, evoked in the strings. The piano eventually wins the day and the lyrical, unassuming ending leads directly into the finale, a spirted and rhythmic Rondo. Though full of energy, the final movement’s musical material seems always held in check. This restraint holds until the brief yet dazzling coda in which the exuberance finally slips its bonds, bringing the concerto to a climactic close.