Monday, July 6, 2009

Reading Mozart's 36th

Ah, Linz! We'll always have Linz! Linz who, you ask? Linz, Austria, silly. It's, like, the third-largest city in the country, after Vienna and Graz; it's only slightly smaller than Little Rock, Arkansas! Who wouldn't enjoy a pleasure trip to the town whose bosom brought forth Johannes Kepler, Anton Bruckner, and... er... Adolf Hitler... (*audible gulp*)

Well, okay, but that didn't stop Mr. and Mrs. Wolfgang Mozart from dropping in toward the end of 1783. And anyway, Hitler hadn't been born yet. Maybe they should have kept going all the way to Vienna, but if they had, his wonderful Symphony No. 36 in C (nicknamed "the Linz Symphony") wouldn't exist.

They only meant to pause for a night or two en route from Salzburg to Vienna. But a funny thing happened in Linz. The mayor, or some local nobleman anyway, heard that the Mozarts were in town, and announced a concert to take place in 4 days' time. Caught flat-footed without a symphony up his sleeve, poor Wolfgang had to write this masterpiece in time for its first performance. Yes, folks, you heard me right. He wrote it in four days!

It's scored for a modest, classical orchestra consisting of pairs of oboes, bassoons, and horns, with a proportionate number of strings, plus two trumpets and timpani. It has the usual four movements, three of them in sonata form. In the video below, the supremely relaxed Carlos Kleiber conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in the first of four videos where, unfortunately, the breaks between the videos do not coincide with those between the movements.Movement I opens with a dignified Adagio, beginning emphatically but tending toward lyricism. The main Allegro spiritoso begins gently, though its main theme is well-calculated to bring out the exciting possibilities of trumpets, timpani, and C major. The second theme introduces a dialogue between winds and strings in which major and minor keys are set in contrast. This makes it an unusually sensitive movement for a C-major symphony; the second-group passages in the development are especially lyrical.

Movement II is an Andante in the 6/8 rhythm of a stylish, slow dance. Nevertheless, it is a sonata that graces us with its tender sentiments. I listen especially for the tiptoe passage -- you'll know it when you hear it -- and for the pounding of the horns and timpani of the codetta, in which the dreamy character of the movement seems to shake itself awake.

Movement III is the obligatory "Menuetto." (How many spellings does that word have, anyway?) Here Mozart demonstrates his ability to make much out of little, combining a descending phrase, a trill, and another pounding, repeated-note motif into a dance number full of charm and wit. The Trio spotlights an oboe soloist, later joined by a bassoon, with a truly lovely melody. Then, of course, the main Minuet returns in all its pomp, concluding however with a gentle phrase.

The Finale, the traditional Presto in sonata form, sets up a contrast between a gracious opening phrase and the brusque, muscular utterance that follows it. A similar polarity generates as much energy in a later C-major symphony by the same composer. This split-personality theme gives way directly to a bustling transition to the butter-smooth second theme. The exuberant codetta begins hushed, then bursts forth like a bottle of fizzing champagne. You may note that the second group contains more moments of harmonic and expressive richness somewhat unusual for a C-major symphony of the period, including a thread of chromatic motion.

The development interests itself solely with a musical idea from the transition passage, tossing it around between sections of the orchestra while passing through various keys and moods ranging from stern to waggishly humorous. Understandably, this bit of the transition is omitted in the recap, in which little other than a series of musical throat-clearings separates the first theme from the second. The movement ends with a coda in which the first theme returns in a burst of masculine joy that effectively synthesizes the two sides of its split personality.

You may or may not consider the city of Linz worthy of being included in your next tour of Europe. But if you don't drop in and visit this symphony, you're really missing something worth your while.

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