Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Concerto Guide: Mozart

This post is part of a year-long project that will present fifty or so concertos in weekly posts. The inspiration for the project comes from a couple of year-long series at the Guardian presented by Tom Service. One was a very useful one on contemporary composers and the other was on the symphony. The latter was a bit less useful as it brought out the fact that Tom, while a good fellow, is basically a journalist so he is always looking for some sensational "news" to tell us. In the case of contemporary composers this is less a failing than with the symphony where you need more of a historical sense.

So far in my series on the concerto I have looked at Corelli and the origins, Vivaldi, and three Bachs: J. S., J. C. and C. P. E. Bach. Today I am going to start a series within the series as I begin to look at who is perhaps the finest concerto composer of all: W. A. Mozart.

It is not necessarily the case that history is a progress. Perhaps the finest poetry ever written was by Homer, 800 years BC. Sometimes the greatest achievements come in the first flush of creation, when all is fresh and new. That might have been the case with Homer, whose great epics were almost the first to be written down simply because the Greeks had just caught on to this whole writing thing.

Similarly, the 500 concertos of Antonio Vivaldi stand almost without peers, save of course for the far fewer, but very fine, ones by J. S. Bach. The next great wave of concerto composition comes with Mozart. There are several reasons why he was such a great composer of concertos. First of all, the classical style, newly constructed largely through the efforts of Haydn, was fresh and offered immense possibilities in a new musical grammar. Second, Mozart picked this up almost instantly because, as his father wrote to him: "you can imitate anything." Third, and most important, I think, Mozart was, from his early teens, a master of opera (he got his first opera commission at age 14). Why is this important? Because the way of structuring an opera aria had a lot of influence on how concertos came to be structured: they both have the texture of an overwhelmingly prominent solo voice or instrument, accompanied by an orchestra. Mozart is perhaps the only composer in music history who was equally the master of both opera and instrumental genres, so he was uniquely positioned to write the finest concertos.

I think that you could make the argument that, ever since Mozart, nearly every composer has tried to outdo him in the concerto genre and some, like Beethoven, Brahms and Mendelssohn, have come close. But I think you might conclude that no-one has outdone him both in quantity and quality and variety of concertos.

Mozart had a lot of financial incentive to write concertos, especially for his own use, as his Lenten concert series, which he originated, was very profitable (as we learn from his father's letters). Mozart wrote over thirty concertos for piano and orchestra (even a few for more than one piano) and these are among his finest creations. He also wrote five concertos, also possibly for his own use, for violin and orchestra while he was still in Salzburg. This makes him the only composer I know of who was virtuoso enough on more than one instrument to be able to write concertos for himself. There is also the unusual concerto, the Sinfonia Concertante, for violin, viola and orchestra that he also wrote for himself to play, but this time on the viola!

Apart from all this, there are numerous concertos for wind instruments including flute, oboe and four for French horn, written for a friend. These are lesser works, though with beguiling details.

So, as you can see, I have my work cut out for me. I will be spending at least five or six posts on the Mozart concertos starting later today with the Sinfonia Concertante. In the mean time, here is one of his minor concertos (which Rosen calls "hack work"), the one for flute and harp, demonstrating that even Mozart's hack work is pretty good:


Rickard Dahl said...

5 or 6 posts on Mozart's Concertos? Quite a lot.

It's hard to find something written by Mozart that doesn't sound good.

Bryan Townsend said...

I must have done twenty posts at least on Haydn symphonies, so five or six on Mozart concertos is probably about right!