Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Tom Service on Mozart

Tom Service's symphony guide in the Guardian, after a few stumbles early on, seems to be getting better and better. Today's article is on one of the greatest symphonies ever written, the Symphony No. 41 of Mozart. I have written about this here where I show the different themes that Mozart used in his remarkable finale. But Tom's article is really excellent with a lot of good research. I didn't know about the connection between the aria "Un bacio di mano" and the first movement. Now I think he rather overdoes the significance of this. One of Mozart's stylistic traits (and gifts) was the ability to weave a lot of different themes into the fabric of a composition. Just the opposite of Haydn who was able to weave a whole movement, ofttimes, out of a single theme. Tom has an excellent discussion of the sources of the counterpoint in the finale in the works of other composers. But surely we could have used a bit more information about the themes themselves? Oh, I am forgetting, it is verboten to include any musical notation in the discussion of music. Never mind, for the themes, just go read my post, linked above. Oh, I have another post, here, in which I talk about the use of that four-note motif in the prior symphony by Haydn. Tom Service has the occasional tendency to let colorful language run away with him, such as in this phrase:
Which all means that Mozart’s composition of the finale of the Jupiter Symphony is a palimpsest on music history as well as his own.
"Palimpsest" is one of those words that people think lend instant cachet to their writing. No-one is quite sure what it means, but it is very learnéd. Here, from Wikipedia:
palimpsest /ˈpælɪmpsɛst/ is a manuscript page from a scroll or book from which the text has been scraped or washed off so that it can be used again.
The significance to scholars is that sometimes long-lost manuscripts have been discovered lurking underneath a later text that can, through chemical, optical or digital means, be made visible. One example is the recovery of a work by Cicero, de Republica, in a 4th century version that was overwritten by a discussion of the Psalms by St. Augustine, written in the 7th century. So, tell me, just exactly how is the finale of the Jupiter Symphony a palimpsest? It is a complex contrapuntal fabric, to be sure, with many layers, but it is rather a metaphoric bridge too far from that to a palimpsest, don't you think? But enough of my pettifoggery! Let's have a listen to the Symphony No. 41 by Mozart, one of the pinnacles of the symphony:

We have been keeping score on how many symphonies appear by each of the great masters. With today's we have four by Mozart (nos 38, 31, 29 and 41), and two each by Beethoven, Haydn and Sibelius. All other composers mentioned so far have appeared only once. So Mozart is currently well in the lead.

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