Thursday, November 7, 2013

Mozart: Symphony No. 36, "Linz"

A commentator suggests looking at some Mozart symphonies so as to compare them with Haydn's, which seems like a pretty good idea. Mozart did not have the advantage of constant access to his own orchestra as Haydn did--his symphonies tended to be put together on the spot rather than being the fruits of long experiment. An example is the "Linz" symphony, written in 1783 when Mozart was twenty-seven years old. He was on his way back to Vienna from Salzburg and stopped in Linz for a few days. Of course, they wanted him to give a concert so he wrote this symphony especially for the occasion in four days. Mozart wrote to his father:
When we arrived at the gates of Linz, a servant was standing there to conduct us to the Old Count Thun's, where we are still living. I really cannot tell you how they overwhelm us with kindness in this house. On Thursday, the Fourth of November, I am going to give a concert in the theater, and, as I have not a single symphony by me, I am writing away over head and ears at a new one, which must be ready by then.
 Mozart had been married for just over a year and he and his wife were returning from visiting his father--an unhappy occasion as his new bride and his father did not get along. But this stopover in Linz was a happy contrast and the symphony reflects this.

There are some aspects of the music that clearly reflect the influence of Haydn, the leading symphony composer at the time. One is the slow introduction to the first movement, a first for Mozart, but very common in Haydn's symphonies. This introduction makes use of mixture from the minor mode and short chromatic scales to give it a mysterious quality. The opening theme of the following allegro is rather more asymmetrical than Haydn would likely have used: it begins with a 17-measure sentence. The first part, the presentation, is extended by two measures, but the continuation is shortened by one measure! Haydn was certainly capable of odd phrase lengths, but he wrote them fairly rarely. Without analyzing the symphony in detail, I have the impression that the way it is put together is looser than we would find in Haydn. At the same time, there are rhythmic details that make for a brilliant surface. The basic material, instead of being very focused as in Haydn (who often made one simple thematic idea provide all the material for a whole first movement) tends to be more various and in constant flux. For example, the opening theme, which begins with two whole notes ascending by step, is answered in the next phrase with whole notes descending by step, and this continues into a new fanfare passage.

Here is that opening theme:

Haydn, at this point in time, is smoothing out and making more consistent his rhythmic writing, while Mozart's seems much more variegated. His wonderful gift for melody compensates for this as does his command of harmony, but one still has the impression that, at least in 1783, Mozart is not writing symphonies at the same level of mastery that Haydn is. Of course, Mozart has complementary abilities to Haydn's. While Haydn had to write quite a number of operas for his patron, none of them have made it into the core repertoire. Nearly every one of Mozart's operas is not only in the repertoire, but, as in the case of Don Giovanni, they are some of the very finest operas ever written. The same could be said of Mozart's piano concertos, which I need to explore in another series of posts. But, up until his final symphonies, numbers 38 to 41, Mozart does not offer the kind of profound symphonic writing and emotional depth that Haydn does.

I know this might seem heretical! But have a listen to the symphony for yourself and leave a comment. Here is the Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Karl Böhm:

Just for comparison, here is a link to my post on a Haydn symphony written around the same time.


Rickard said...

Recently I've been score reading (or rather been trying to follow the score on youtube videos) almost all of Mozart symphonies and a few things I've noted are that the orchestration consists mostly of string orchestra (with the 1st violin almost always having the main melodic part), oboe & french horn and that pretty much every symphony has the same movement structure. The symphonies are great for the most part, there are a few cases where things (the melody part mostly) don't sound good/interesting though. I haven't listened to many Haydn symphonies recently so can't really compare, maybe I should try to listen through the ones you've posted at least to get an idea.

Anyways, I have a suggestion for an interesting topic: It seems like in most cases if a piece is more popular/more famous if it has a more specific name, such as in for example the "Linz" symphony or lets say the "Appasionata" sonata by Beethoven and so on. Would you say this popularity is generally a result of the naming (after all a specific name while reducing interpretation of the meaning says much more than another string quartet or another prelude (Debussy said something like that about why he named his pieces)) or a result of how good the piece is (after all many pieces without more specific names got named afterwards by publishers, for example many of Chopin's famous works)?

Finally, last month you wrote a post called "Will the 1960s and 1970s Never End?" and I can confirm that indeed that, this, what I would call "extreme-modernism", is still alive. Yesterday I went to listen to the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. The program was Arvo Pärt's Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, Benjamin Britten's Senerade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, Anders Hultquist's Stone after Stone and Jean Sibelius' Symphony No. 7. Everything was good except of course Anders Hultquist's Stone after Stone. Anders Hultquist is a part of the academia (Gothenburg's Music University) and the piece was part of his doctoral desputation. But as I've learnt to expect from new classical music played by the orchestra, I didn't expect anything else than "extreme-modernism" and indeed my expectations were right. The first part was completely electronic, it sounded like good sound effects for a horror movie, but not much like music. The second part was the usual orchestral mumbo jumbo of clusters, atonality, unpleasentness, total chaos, extended techniques in every corner and so on. There were glimpses of hope (decent sounding parts) only to be terminated by complete chaos. So, I think that as long as the academia will be a swamp infested with "extreme-modernism" the 1960s and 1970s will never end.

Bryan Townsend said...

One of the exercises music students often have to do is to read--albeit slowly--orchestral scores on piano. This involves reducing the parts to what you can play with two hands as well as transposing instruments like clarinets, trumpets and horns into concert pitch. That is what we usually mean by "score reading".

Good idea about a post on nicknames for famous pieces!

I should write another post on the motivations, career and ideological, behind the persistence of high modernism. But the short answer is that it still has a patina of prestige. If you write something jagged and dissonant you can still claim, to the concert promoters and to your dean at the university, that you are pursuing high aesthetic goals. The more simple your music is, the greater danger that you will be accused of pandering to pop music. These are still issues, at least in some cultural circles.

Rickard said...

That's not how I understood what score reading is. I've learnt what it is by watching the videos on the topic by this Youtube user:

Basically, it seems like score reading is reading the actual score (all the details, not just some sort of piano reduction) while listening to the piece or hearing it in your head how it sounds. Although I guess there are different types of score reading and the one you've mentioned may be just another type.

About the modernist persistance, it sounds like interesting thoughts. The avoidance of sounding like pop music is probably in the minds of most classical music composers but that doesn't alone seem to be a reason why to completely avoid to write music that sounds good. After all much classical music not only sounds good but also great or amazing and the pop distinction wasn't really there all the time. So it seems to be an avoidance of sounding like older classical music and since older classical music typically sounds good they (the extreme-modernists) avoid writing something that sounds good. Thankfully there are composers who reject this ideology and follow their ear instead.
One thing harder to understand is why orchestras embrace this sort of extreme-modernism. Most of the audience members probably don't enjoy it (especially ones who aren't as open to all sorts of classical music as I am) and the musicians probably don't enjoy it either for the most part (make so much effort using extended techniques and having hard parts to play without even a decent sounding result). Anyways, I'm looking forward to your post on this topic.

Bryan Townsend said...

About score reading, I had a look at the video and yes, I see what you mean. This fellow is doing a good introduction to a number of musical ideas, including score reading. But you can get the wrong impression just from his video. Score reading is a long-standing element in the training of musicians and he does not give a very clear or detailed idea of what it involves--probably because, in this video at least, he is just introducing some things about what an orchestral score is. I think I will put up a post on score reading.

Real musical creativity is incredibly difficult! Every time I hear a piece by Haydn or Beethoven or Bach or Shostakovich or Lennon and McCartney I am awestruck at what they managed to do. The truth is that a lot, probably more than 90%, of music is not terribly creative. It is derivative, cliched, dull, annoying or just bad. This being the case, it is not unusual for the less-good composers to seek out ways of avoiding the problem of having to be really creative. How do you write a piece if you just don't have any good ideas? Well, that is where systems and ideologies of composition come it. When I hear an interview with a composer and he says something about wanting to fight for social justice in his music or explore new chance procedures or create bliss by focusing on certain note frequencies or whatever, then I strongly suspect he just didn't have any musical ideas!

Rickard said...

Well, he goes more into details about score reading in subsequent videos and videos where he talks about different aspects of orchestration. For example he goes through some Mozart:
So it's obviously about all lines, reading them, seeing what they do and so on.

I think the problem with these uncreative composers nowadays is that they want some kind of shortcut to recognition instead of practicing improvisation, ear training and composition itself. Like Nathan Shirley said numerous times those composers don't even play any instrument in some cases. The shortcut to creativity on the other hand is improvisation, ear training and composition practice, although it isn't really a shortcut, just how it normally works I think.

Bryan Townsend said...

This is a really useful series of videos, but it is more what I would call "looking at scores". The reason music schools make you play score excerpts on piano is so that they can hear that you are able to read the score. The teacher can hear if you are having trouble with that alto clef or transposing clarinet part.

Rickard said...

Well, it's a good system to for schools to test students but I think what you call "looking at scores" is far more common and practiced more often. But anyways, I guess it's more or less the same thing, just different approaches.

Bryan Townsend said...

You can engage with scores on a lot of different levels. The videos you linked to are a good introduction to music scores and what they contain. But in music school you are trained to work with them. A preliminary is score reading where you actually read the score instead of just following along with it. Reading the score means playing it. Yes, you can, with a lot of practice, "hear" a score in your head, but that is a lot less concrete than reading it on piano. Also, no-one else can tell how well you are hearing it. But if you play it on piano, we know for sure. Another level of engagement with a score is analyzing it. This is a very interesting subject that I definitely plan to write some posts on. When we analyze or study a score, we do so in an attempt to determine what is going on in the music. What is its structure? This usually starts with harmonic or motivic analysis. Schenker offered a new way of analyzing that looks at the deep structure of a piece. But there are a lot of other possibilities. You can look at theme types and phrase structure, for example. In other words, studying a score can be a creative act. said...

The Linz symphony was written in 1783. At the time very few of the symphonies composed by Haydn had a slow introduction; I have not counted them, but I would say something like 5 out of 70. Haydn begins to use slow introduction consistently from the later symphonies, that Mozart had not chance to know. We should always remember that Haydn lived much longer than Mozart and his later works were composed after Mozart death.

Bryan Townsend said...

Oh yes, quite so.