Sunday, December 14, 2014

Mozart's Divertimenti

All 18th century music, in the second half of the century at least, is usually meant to be diverting. This even extends to the church music of Haydn and Mozart, which is typically rather too bouncy and cheerful to be entirely suitable for religious meditation (Mozart's Requiem aside). But, interestingly, the pieces Mozart wrote titled "Divertimento" are often more substantial than the supposedly more serious chamber music titled "string quartet" or "sonata". Since we think of divertimenti as being rather trivial, they are often neglected. So let's have a look at some of Mozart's divertimenti. We will have lots of choose from as in the 170 CDs of his complete works, 41 discs are devoted to divertimenti.

Mozart's divertimenti often run up to forty minutes in length, i.e. longer than his symphonies or string quartets which run typically to 20 or 30 minutes. Many are of similar quality. So let's look at some. I have chosen three examples. The first is an early one for strings, the Divertimento in F major, K. 138 written in 1772 when Mozart was only fifteen or sixteen. He was in the employment of the Archbishop of Salzburg and had just returned from an extended journey to Italy with his father. Much of his musical training as a composer took place on this and other travels where he met composers like J. C. Bach in London and studied counterpoint with Giovanni Battista Martini in Bologna. We can hear some of the Italian influence in the limpidity and charming melodies of this divertimento. This and its two companion pieces are often called Salzburg Symphonies. Usually I like to look at the beginning of the first movement for a clue as to the character, but this piece has such a lovely Andante middle movement that I want to quote it. Measures 9 to 12 in the second phrase are very touching with their "Corelli seconds":

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Here is that movement. You hear those harmonic clashes first at the 36 second mark:

And here is the whole divertimento with Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. Total duration is only 14 minutes:

Mozart biographer Alfred Einstein said of the much later Divertimento in F major, K. 247 that it, along with its companion pieces, "belong to the purest, the liveliest, the most cheering, the most perfect compositions that ever assumed a musical form." Dating from 1776, when Mozart had turned 20, this is more typical of the genre with its six movements, including two minuets (with trios) enclosing an adagio. There is also a second slow movement in the form of an Andante grazioso theme and variations. Together with quicker opening and closing movements this makes up the usual divertimento layout. The total duration is about 31 minutes and it is scored for string quartet plus two horns. Here is the first page:

And here is a complete performance:

Honestly, has there ever been more delightful and diverting music?

Late in life, immediately after composing his two great string quintets Mozart wrote one more, final, divertimento. This piece, the Divertimento K. 563, benefits from all his experience in writing chamber music and is a distillation of his talents into the concentrated form of the string trio. Charles Rosen says that "no other composer of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries ever understood the demands of writing for three voices as Mozart did, except for Bach..." Rosen describes this piece as being far above all other works in the string trio form. It is also the only string trio he composed. Mozart manages to perfectly synthesize the demands of three-part counterpoint with those of a popular genre. Here is the opening:

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And here is a performance by the fairly stunning trio of Isaac Stern, Pinchas Zukerman and Leonard Rose. The total duration is about 45 minutes:

UPDATE: I forgot to include the movements. As in K. 247, there are six movements laid out as follows (from Wikipedia):

  1. Allegro (E-flat majorsonata form, 4/4)
  2. Adagio (A-flat major, sonata form, 3/4)
  3. Minuet - Trio (E-flat major, ternary form, 3/4)
  4. Andante (B-flat major, theme and 4 variations, with the third variation in B-flat minor, 2/4)
  5. Minuet - Trio I - Trio II (E-flat major, rondo form, with the first trio in A-flat major and the second one in B-flat major, 3/4)
  6. Allegro (E-flat major, sonata rondo form, 6/8)


Rickard Dahl said...

Hmm, haven't really paid attention to Mozart's Divertimenti (unlike his String Quartets or Symphonies for instance) yet and didn't realize it's almost 1/4 of Mozart's output (given the assumption that the Divertimenti CD lengths are on average roughly equal to the lengths of the other CDs which may or may not be true). Will be looking into that. By the way, where did you find the Mozart box with 170 CDs?

Bryan Townsend said...

Yeah, he wrote a lot of divertimenti! Yes, all the CDs are roughly similar in length. I got the complete Mozart from Amazon:

But it looks like they are sold out. Mine was about half this price.