Saturday, May 2, 2015

Two Musical Diversions

Classical music is supposed to be something serious. It is, after all, High Art. You have to dress up and sit quietly while other very well-dressed people render, with great exactitude, the Profound Thoughts of Great Composers. And sure, there is certainly a fair amount of truth in that. For a few concerts, at least. But this blinkered view of classical music is far from complete. A great deal, probably most, classical music is, and is intended to be, simple (or not so simple) diversion. A relief from the worries of the day. A delight and pleasure.

As examples, I want to introduce to you two of my favorite pieces by Mozart. By happenstance they are both called, by him, divertimenti, though they are very different pieces. The first he wrote in his youth, in Salzburg, where he was in the employ of the archbishop, in between two visits to Italy, where he was given great honors and exposed to the best of Italian music. We don't know what the occasion was, but the just-turned-sixteen years old Mozart wrote three divertimenti for strings, each with three movements. Most divertimenti from this period have, as we will see, more movements, but 18th century composers were not too fussy about following that sort of rule.

My favorite is the third one, K. 138 and it begins like this:

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This is an eight-measure sentence that isn't quite typical. What Mozart could do, even as a very young composer, is compose a seemingly endless flow of beautiful, balanced, fresh and delightful melody. Perhaps this is a consequence of his Italian journeys. The movement that I love the most is the meltingly beautiful Andante, the second movement:

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The phrase that really stands out is not the conventional first one (eight measures, but at this slow tempo probably best seen as two periods, the first ending on the tonic and the second on the dominant). No, it is the next eight-measure sentence with its heart-breaking Corelli seconds that catches the ear. It ends with a full cadence in the dominant followed by a five-measure extension using a repeated cadential formula. The last movement is a sparkling Presto.

Let's listen to the whole piece. This is Ton Koopman conducting the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra:

The whole piece is, in that performance, just a bit over 13 minutes long. Much later, towards the end of his life, Mozart wrote another divertimento that, while it does follow the typical divertimento format of an opening and ending allegro with two slow movements interspersed with two minuets and trios, in all other aspects completely transcends the genre. For one thing, instead of being for winds or mixed ensemble, it is for string trio, very nearly the first string trio ever written. It is also a formidably long piece, not much short of an hour in length. Each of the first two movements, an allegro and an adagio, is as long as the whole Divertimento K. 138. But it is not a complex piece, with excessive virtuosity or dense textures. It has the simplicity of great maturity, as if the music had been distilled down to its essence. It was written in 1788, the year of his last three symphonies and the "Coronation" Piano Concerto. Here is the beginning:

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I just posted a performance of this the other day, but I didn't say anything about it. We don't know anything about the circumstances of the composition, but it is dedicated to a fellow Mason, Michael Puchberg, from whom Mozart frequently borrowed money when he was short. In his book The Classical Style Charles Rosen comments on this piece that after showing his mastery of writing for the string quartet in the years 1782 to 1786 Mozart went on to expand the scope enormously in the two great string quintets of 1787, then with this piece he does something no other composer except Bach really succeeded in: mastering how to concentrate musical texture into only three voices. As Rosen says, this string trio really stands above all others and offers a model, in its transference of the multiple movements of the divertimento into a piece of chamber music, for the late quartets of Beethoven, which often exceeded the standard four-movement layout. Without further discussion, let's listen. The performers are François Fernandez, violin; Ryo Terakado, viola; Rainer Zipperling, cello:

UPDATE: I forgot to mention the name of this second divertimento! It is the Divertimento, K. 563 in E flat major.

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