Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), arr. Wood :: Variations on Ah! vous dirais-je, Maman, K. 265/300e
Mozart was twenty-five years old, and very ambitious. It was 1781, and he had relocated to Vienna. In the city, culture and glittering entertainment were in high demand from the bourgeoning middle class to the aristocracy, who, in particular, viewed patronage of the newest young talent a key to social superiority (over the next two decades that fervor rose to fever pitch, forcing some over zealous benefactors deep into debt, teetering on bankruptcy). In order to survive, as well as validate his reputation beyond the child prodigy paraded around Europe, Mozart had to secure either a court position, or devise ways to make it on his own as a freelancer. There was another motivation: to emancipate himself from his domineering father, and prove he could manage his own affairs. After some experimenting, Mozart discovered a winning formula, one that would support him for at least several years before changing his creative direction: 1) produce his own concerts in unconventional venues (the formal concert halls were always solidly booked, the logistics of which prohibiting him from presenting enough concerts from which to earn an adequate living), and 2) present himself as soloist. If he could sell enough tickets, he could make this venture work. Additionally, he would teach to pad his income.
Of course, if you’re a talented composer, you can write your own piano lesson curriculum, and that is exactly what Mozart did. During 1781 he wrote multiple works on well-known French melodies for his students, including his Variations on Ah! vous dirais-je, Maman (Ah! Would I Tell You, Mama?), a tune to which both romantic poetry and children’s song lyrics were set. For those of us in English speaking countries the tune has yet another set of lyrics by Jane Taylor, published in the early 1800s: Twinkle, twinkle, little star.
Galina Ustvolskaya (1919-2006) :: Concerto for Piano, String Orchestra, and Timpani
By the time Ustvolskaya died in 2006, her career spanned 70 years with an official catalog of just 21 pieces. She did not count the works she had to write for official Soviet pomp and circumstance. She only acknowledged the music she wrote for herself.
This bit of information should provide a clue that Ustvolskaya was one of the most staunchly individual creative artists of the 20th century. But, of course, she started as a student—as a member of the next generation learning the craft of composition. Her school years were spent at the Leningrad Conservatory studying with Dmitri Shostakovich. He became both a champion and admirer of her work, going so far as to quote musical passages of her Trio in his String Quartet No. 5. In turn, the music of her earlier period, before 1950, owed much to Shostakovich and other teachers and predecessors, melding traditional forms with angular melodic material infused with the rhythms of folk music. The Concerto for Piano, String Orchestra, and Timpani was written in 1946 and comes at the end of this period of her style. Things would change dramatically in the years immediately following.
On trait unfailingly noted about Ustvolskaya is the unique quality of the works from her mature period. After the show is over, spend some time listening to her compositions written after 1950, or head to YouTube and watch the documentary “Scream into Space,” which follows the composer on a trip to Amsterdam late in life (one of her only visits outside of Russia/Soviet Union in her lifetime) for a performance of her Second Symphony. What you will find are works of breathtaking intensity and conciseness that convey deeply personal emotions. Dynamics are extreme, between silence and fffff, and instrumentation is unorthodox—something perhaps previewed with her specific inclusion of timpani in this piano concerto.
Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) :: Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10
Many of us have one or more very influential teachers or mentors – individuals who recognized potential and strove to encourage its ultimate expression within a student. For Benjamin Britten it was Frank Bridge. Britten – the only composition student Bridge ever taught – commenced his studies at age 13. Of the teacher who impacted his development more than any other, Britten said, "He really taught me to take as much trouble as I possibly could over every passage, over every progression, over every line...I, who thought I was already on the verge of immortality, saw my illusions shattered."
In 1937 Boyd Neel commissioned Britten to compose a work for his orchestra to perform at the Salzburg Festival. Britten fulfilled order in a matter of weeks – his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, the theme of which was culled from Bridge’s sublime Three Idylls for string quartet. After an arresting opening that grabs the listener, demanding attention, the lyrical theme emerges and travels through a breathtaking variety of iterations.
Bridge sadly faded from public consciousness after his death – but thanks to his student, he was immortalized beautifully, faithfully, and fondly.
Kathryn J Allwine Bacasmot is a pianist/harpsichordist, musicologist, music and cultural critic, and freelance writer. A graduate of New England Conservatory, she writes program annotations for ensembles nationwide.