Friday, February 10, 2012

Masterpieces of Music: W. A. Mozart, Part 2

In my last post I rather backed into Mozart so let me start from the beginning. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is the archetypal composer in many people's minds. Here is the Wikipedia article on him.

Mozart c. 1780

He was born in 1756 and died in 1791, just short of his thirty-fifth birthday. In this short life he composed an astounding amount of superb music in every important genre (and many unimportant ones). He wrote some of the finest operas, symphonies, concertos and string quartets ever composed by anyone. He started very young, touring Europe with his father and sister from age six. His compositions date from five years old. He was capable of feats of musical talent that were simply too sensational to be included in the excellent movie about him, Amadeus. I included a link to my post on this earlier, but here it is again:

Let's listen to a few sample pieces by him. The piano concerto genre was largely the creation of Mozart. Here is a very popular slow movement that was used in the famous film from 1967, Elvira Madigan:

Here is the overture to Don Giovanni, one of the greatest of Mozart's operas:

Here is the first movement of a string quintet in G minor:

Perhaps the most famous piece by Mozart is his Requiem, which was unfinished at his death. I did a post on that piece here:

Mozart also wrote more than forty remarkable symphonies of which my favorite has always been the 41st, known as the Jupiter. In the finale Mozart manages to combine five different themes into a fugue-like texture that seems to ascend to the very gates of heaven. Here are Jeffrey Tate and the English Chamber Orchestra with the last movement of the Symphony No. 41:

These ten minutes of celestial music are based on five very simple themes, one of which dates back to the middle ages: the plainsong Pange Lingua. Here are those five themes:

Click to enlarge

I would like to suggest a way of listening to this music. I'm sure we have all had times when we have gotten a bit obsessed with a piece of music and played it over and over again (or is it just me?). This piece is definitely worth the time. Go and just listen to it through a couple of times. Then listen to it and see if you can hear every time that chant theme in whole notes comes. It appears in the violins at the very beginning and comes in different instruments, including in the bass. Go through the whole movement listening just for that theme. Then go and see if you can hear the second theme. Again, go through the whole movement listening for it. Do the same with the other themes. Even if you don't read music you should be able to pick them up because the cool thing about music notation is that it is a kind of analogue of the sound: if the black dots go up, that means the notes go up and vice versa. Big hollow notes are long and black notes with bars over top are short. The tempo is really fast (allegro molto) so those are really quick. After you have gone through listening to each theme individually, listen again and hear how Mozart puts them together. A lot of the time, the themes are in stretto meaning that they overlap one another. The second theme does that a lot.

Music doesn't get any better than this movement... Woody Allen is reported to have said that this symphony by Mozart proves the existence of God.

No comments: