This is your shovel. The music is your earth. Dig in.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) :: Adagio & Fugue, K. 546
When Mozart reached his mid-twenties, he effectively made a break for it—to Vienna, one of the great cultural capitals on the European continent. His father, Leopold, though perhaps well meaning, was often an overbearingly dominant figure in his son’s life. Seemingly, he also sent somewhat mixed messages by parading Wolfgang around Europe during his childhood as a prodigy, and then coercing him to remain in Salzburg, a bit of a backwater in comparison with the glittering cities with which Mozart the son was well acquainted.
To prove to his father he could manage his career independently, Mozart set to work immediately finding creative ways to make ends meet, and quickly securing a position as one of the “must see” acts around town (perhaps building on his reputation from childhood, and playing to the crowd curiosity of seeing what the child prodigy had become). Sometime in those early Vienna years, Mozart penned a fugue for piano duet, which he revisited five years later by transcribing it for strings. Even in the eighteenth century the fugue was considered an old musical form (Bach, who died just six years before Mozart’s birth, was considered a bit antiquated for continuing to dwell on them). Among serious pupils of music, however, it was much revered and admired as a distinguished tradition in which to make one’s own contribution, and Mozart and his colleagues admired and studied the old master Bach with diligence—hence, perhaps, the fugue. In order to round out the work in the transcription (and perhaps harkening back to the pairing of prelude and fugue), Mozart prefaced the counterpoint a grand, somber, adagio.
Osvaldo Golijov (b. 1960) :: Three Songs (2002)
Within a generation filled with minimalism, Golijov’s compositional voice stands apart as deeply personal in a very audibly translatable way. In his songs and instrumental music are the mixes and influences of his experience of the world, from Klezmer to Piazzolla, gypsy music and the standard Western classical canon. They are the sounds of life, unfettered by compositional techniques that, while beautiful or interesting in their own way, mitigate or hide the element of the personal behind structures.
These three songs were freestanding or part of other projects (though Golijov’s frequent collaborator, the American soprano, Dawn Upshaw, premiered all three) before Golijov was commissioned by the Minneapolis Symphony to orchestrate them as a set for their 100th anniversary celebration.
Night of the Flying Horses, was carved out of the soundtrack Golijov did for Sally Potter’s film The Man who Cried, about love, ethnicity, and the terrible prices paid for both during World War II. It is a lullaby sung in Yiddish which, in the words of the composer, “metamorphoses into a dense and dark doina (a slow, gypsy, rubato genre) featuring the lowest string of the violas. The piece ends in a fast gallop boasting a theme that I stole from my friends of the wild gypsy band Taraf de Haïdouks. The theme is presented here in a canonical chase between two orchestral groups.”
Lúa Descolorida, is set to the poetry of María Rosalía Rita de Castro (1837-1885), and harkens back to the French Baroque, “The song is at once a slow motion ride in a cosmic horse, an homage to Couperin's melismas in his Lessons of Tenebrae.” Sung in the dialect of Gallego (found in Spain), it also functions as the “Peter’s Tears” aria in Golijov’s La Pasión según San Marco.
How Slow the Wind, the final song in the group, was written after the sudden death of Golijov’s friend, Mariel Stubrin, and embodies the feeling of going through life in slow motion after a shocking emotional blow. Golijov has said of the piece, “'I had in mind one of those seconds in life that is frozen in the memory, forever-a sudden death, a single instant in which life turns upside down, different from the experience of death after a long agony.” The music, dark, low, with tolls and a pulsation that both drives the music forward and lends it a static quality is paired with the beautiful, sometimes soaring, lyricism of the soprano singing “How slow the wind/How slow the sea. Is it too late to touch you, dear? We this moment knew: Love marine and love terrene, love celestial too/Oh, how late their feathers be.” (Text, Emily Dickenson.)
Michael Tippett (1905-1988) :: Fantasia Concertante on a theme by Corelli
In 1953, the Edinburgh Festival commissioned the English composer, Michael Tippett, to write a piece in commemoration and celebration of the three-hundredth anniversary Arcangelo Corelli’s birth. Italian domination of the arts during the Renaissance and much of the Baroque was felt across the continent, and carried over across the channel (Francesco Geminiani, thought to be a student of Corelli’s, capitalized on this popularity during his lifetime, immigrating to live out his life and career in England and Ireland). In particular, it was the art of the violin where the Italians excelled; even today, Stradivarius are the most coveted violins, and Paganini’s compositions are still amongst the most difficult in the repertoire. Corelli, though perhaps not as widely recognized today as Paganini, was another of the most renowned and skilled violinists/composers of his era, whose work had a profound influence upon his contemporaries and successors.
For the Fantasia Concertante, which is a hybrid of a fantasy (where the music tends to just unfurl, relying less upon rigid form) and concerto (highlighting certain soloists or pairings within the larger ensemble), Tippett used the melody of the Adagio from Corelli’s Concerto Grosso op. 6, no. 2. Clearly stated in the opening bars, it then undergoes a distinctly twentieth century metamorphosis, fracturing off like broken shards of a mirror, showing us the Adagio from a variety of angles and perspectives: sometimes angular, sometimes sparkling, other times reflecting a singular moment of exquisite beauty.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) :: Symphony no. 29 in A major, K. 201
In 1774, Mozart was a teenager, and the number of symphonies pouring out of his pen outnumbered his age: eighteen years old, twenty-nine symphonies. While this is admirable from the simple perspective of workload, it is remarkable because the music is not just a collection of typical classical gestures (antecedent-consequent phrases, alberti bass, etc.) pulled together prettily and cleanly, but displays the distinct hallmarks of Mozart’s compositional voice. It is a space where light and shadow dance, where the play between bustling and dense musical content is paired with, or suddenly parts for, spaciousness (note the opening bars, where the shimmering upper registers play off the deeper, slower moving waters of the bass like sunlight off waves), and where serene beauty is balanced with drama, and the dance gives way to a frolic.
It has been noted by several observers that Mozart is unique in this sense, that he seems to find and know his compositional voice much earlier than others. Part of the reasoning for his distinct sound out of an era when many pieces sound, quite frankly, ubiquitous, was that he had an advantage through being taken all across Europe as a child prodigy. In an era long before recording, he was exposed to the variety of sounds from the Italians, French, Germans, English, and Scandinavians, and was able to then take snippets from all their traditions and layer his sound. In short, restless curiosity fed with extensive travel, and melded with emotional sensitivity (and just the right amount of Germanic practicality to keep any one element from becoming excessive), gives us something beyond the sound of a student work: it gives us the sound of Mozart.
by Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot
Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot is a pianist/harpsichordist, musicologist, music & cultural critic, and freelance writer. She is a graduate of New England Conservatory, and writes program annotations for ensembles nationwide.