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Mozart Festival

Feb/Mar 2014

Program Notes by Sanford Dole

Programming the music for tonight’s concert began with my desire to revisit one of the memorable musical experiences of my youth, a time that formed me as a person leading to my decision, at age 16, to pursue a career as a professional musician. It was in the 10th grade that I first performed Mozart’s Vesperae solennes de Confessore at Berkeley High School. I was moved by the presentation of the text with music that was direct but nonetheless lyrical and beautifully crafted. And it didn’t hurt that our orchestra of fellow high school students was first-rate, including a friend, Peter Shelton, who went on to become Associate Principal Cellist of the San Francisco Symphony. The soprano soloist—from the class ahead of me—was Lori Hunt, who later went on to international stardom singing under the name Lorraine Hunt Lieberson.

Curiously, the Solemn Vespers (as the work is usually called) is scored for a small orchestra that does not include violas. In looking around for other choral/orchestral works to pair with it and using the lack of violas as a criterion, the only works I could find were other Mozart pieces. Hence, a Mozart Festival was born. As I did more research I learned that all three of the works were composed within a year of each other in Salzburg, reflecting the constraints imposed upon Mozart by his employer.

But let’s back up and examine Mozart’s life and what led him to compose these works during 1779–80 in the manner in which he did.

Born in 1756 in Salzburg, Austria, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was the youngest of seven children, of whom only two (he and his sister, Nannerl) survived infancy. His father, Leopold Mozart, was an accomplished violinist and composer at the Salzburg court of the benevolent, music-loving Prince-Archbishop Siegmund von Schrattenbach. Leopold recognized the extraordinary musical talents of both of his children and devoted much of his life to shepherding their careers. He home-schooled them not only in music, but in a broad course of liberal arts, including mathematics, writing, languages, dancing, and religious formation.

Wolfgang began harpsichord lessons before he was four years old. By the time he was five, he was composing, and by the age of six was a well-known keyboard performer. From that time on, he was constantly composing music and performing, often traveling to different cities and countries with his father and his sister. In 1763, during a visit to London, he and his father met Johann Christian Bach, son of Johann Sebastian Bach. The younger Bach was to exert a lifelong influence on Mozart, as did Michael Haydn, younger brother of Joseph Haydn. A gifted and prodigious instrumentalist, Mozart was a master of the piano, violin, and harpsichord by the time he was 13.

The Mozart family thrived in Salzburg at the court of Archbishop Schrattenbach, who allowed Leopold Mozart and the children great latitude for traveling. Leopold took advantage of this, often introducing the children to courts around Germany and Austria. If the royalty was not in residence for a private concert, he would arrange for public performances. During an extended trip to Italy in 1770, they were in Rome during Holy Week. The family attended Easter services at the Sistine Chapel in Rome, where they heard a performance of Gregorio Allegri’s beautiful Miserere. At that time, the work was considered the exclusive property of the papal choir, and the score was kept secret from the outside world. After hearing the work only once, the 14-year-old Wolfgang was able to recall and transcribe it exactly. This caused a bit of a scandal, but all of Rome knew he had done it, and this only added to his growing fame.

In 1771, at age 15, the young Mozart attained the prestigious position of concertmaster of Archbishop Schrattenbach’s orchestra. Everything changed with the Archbishop’s untimely death in December of that year. He was succeeded in 1772 by Prince-Archbishop Hieronymous Colloredo, a much different personality with a different agenda. An authoritarian, autocratic ruler who appreciated the ideas of the Enlightenment, Colloredo prized economy and efficiency in government, artistic, and organizational operations. He also demanded economy and efficiency in his church services and in the music created for those services. For example, the Mass was to be no longer than 45 minutes. The lack of violas in the Cathedral orchestra was surely part of this streamlining.

Under these less than ideal circumstances, Mozart continued to look for work in other places. Leopold and Wolfgang spent extended periods in Vienna, where Mozart completed many commissions as well as an opera to be premiered in Munich. But they always returned to Salzburg as their finances ebbed. By 1777 his discontent with the situation in Salzburg came to a head when he petitioned the archbishop that both he and his father be released from his employment. Colloredo agreed, but Leopold decided he could not afford to leave and was reinstated.

Mozart went on his next journey accompanied by his mother, the first time he was ever away from his father. They went to Munich, Mannheim, and eventually to Paris. He did not like Paris, stating in letters that he despised French music and French taste. He refused to be deferential to possible patrons and therefore had trouble finding work. Then his mother came down with a fever and died a few days later. Upon hearing the news, Leopold suggested that Mozart return to Salzburg, where a better post had opened up. He would still be a Konzertmeister, but now as court organist with accompanying duties rather than violinist. The archbishop offered a salary increase and generous leave. So Mozart, who had hoped to escape the provincial atmosphere of Salzburg, returned home after 16 months away.

It is in this context that Mozart composed the three works that we will hear tonight. The years of 1779–80 were uneventful in his personal life and he busied himself writing a string of works for the church, the opera Zaide, and a variety of instrumental works, including three symphonies. The Coronation Mass was completed on March 23, 1779, and Regina Coeli sometime that year as well. The last work to be completed in Salzburg was the Vesperae solennes de Confessore during the spring of 1780.

Shortly thereafter, in the summer of 1780, his life changed considerably—he received the commission to write the opera Idomeneo, and he moved to Munich to oversee the premiere. In 1781 he moved to Vienna, and from that point what had been a steady outpouring of sacred music waned as he was able to concentrate on operas and instrumental works. It was also in 1780, in Munich, that he met Constanze, whom he would marry two years later.

We’ll begin tonight’s program with a short setting of Regina Coeli. The text is one of the four Marian antiphons sung during Eastertide. It is the last of Mozart’s three works that use this text and the only one to proceed in a single concertante movement. Like much of his sacred music, the texture alternates between the soloists and the chorus. If you think you detect the influence of Handel in this work, you’re not imagining things. Mozart was a big fan of Handel and in the prior years had re-orchestrated and conducted four of his works. There are three spots in Regina Coeli where Mozart quotes a bit of the “Hallelujah” chorus from Messiah.

The Coronation Mass was completed just in time to be performed at Easter services in 1779. The Archbishop demanded very brief musical settings whenever he was officiating at the Mass. However, because this was for Easter, he also insisted that it include brass, woodwinds, and timpani. The result is a blissfully short, splendidly orchestrated “Solemn Mass” in which there are very few repetitions of the text. Like most of Mozart’s compositions, the nickname for the Mass was assigned by his publishers. The title Coronation Mass was likely given because of the work’s prominent performance during the coronation of Francis I in Prague in 1792 (one year after the composer’s death), although some have suggested it may have been named for Salzburg’s annual celebration of the anniversary of the crowning of the Shrine of the Virgin. As in much of Mozart’s sacred music, this Mass is filled with text painting, especially in the Credo. Listen for the descending lines in “descendit de coelis” (descended from heaven”), the forte dissonant chords during “crucifixus,” and the joyful choral fanfare, “Et resurrexit tertia die” (And he rose on the third day).

Vespers is the Christian prayer service held in the late afternoon or early evening. It is part of the Divine Office, a series of eight daily prayer services held at different times of the day. The service comprises five psalms, each concluding with the Minor Doxology (Gloria Patri), followed by a canticle, the Magnificat. In monastic settings the psalms would be chanted. Twice Mozart set these texts for special services at the cathedral. The title of the first setting, composed in 1779, Vesperae solennes de Dominica, means that the composition was written for a Sunday Vespers service. The title of the second, Vesperae solennes de Confessore, means that the work was composed to honor a saint. In this context, “Solennes” merely means accompanied by an orchestra, and “Confessore” is a title applied to saints. Most discussions of Vesperae solennes de Confessore have been unable to name the saint whom the composition honors. In an interesting article, J. Frank Henderson proposes that it may have been composed for September 24, the feast day of St. Rupert (660?–710), the patron saint of Salzburg.

The first movement, Dixit Dominus (Psalm 110), is an upbeat opener featuring the chorus. Only at the concluding “Gloria Patri” does the solo quartet enter. Mozart has fun exploring his love of chromatics at the line “confregit in die irae suae reges” (crushes kings in the day of his wrath) as well as playing with sudden dynamic shifts. The flow and energy of the first movement continues directly into Confitebor (Psalm 111). This time, however, the soloists sing for extended periods in a call-and-response with the chorus, with the chorus taking over for the final “Gloria Patri.”

Beatus vir (Psalm 112) is also energetic—like the first movement, it is marked Allegro vivace—but has a slightly different feel, with a switch to triple meter. Note the ascending scale motive used frequently throughout. This contrasts with the dominance of the descending scale heard in Laudate pueri (Psalm 113). Perhaps my favorite movement in the Vespers, Laudate pueri is a brilliantly executed fugue, a veritable textbook example of the form. As the movement proceeds we hear such techniques as the theme turned upside down and in stretto (stacked on top of itself) along with the running descending scales. Unusually for a fugue, each entering voice uses the next verse of the Psalm, allowing Mozart to cover a lot of the Psalm in a short amount of time.

Laudate Dominum (Psalm 117) unfolds as one of the most lyrical soprano solos Mozart ever wrote, and it is often performed as a standalone work. Accompanied by a gently rocking violin obbligato, the soprano line spins out in shimmering beauty. The chorus takes over at the “Gloria Patri” with a harmonized version of the melody, bringing the movement to a gentle conclusion, but not before the soprano returns for a final turn at the “Amen.”

The final movement, Magnificat, is a hymn in which the Virgin Mary expresses joy and thanksgiving. It begins with emphatic triplets in the accompaniment and dramatic, staggered entries on the text “Magnificat anima mea Dominum” (My soul magnifies the Lord) for the chorus. The soprano soloist returns with a jaunty “Et exaltavit spiritus meus” (And my spirit has rejoiced) before the chorus and all the soloists trade phrases right up to the triumphant concluding “Amen.”

We hope you enjoy tonight’s program and we look forward to seeing you at our next show. Poet’s Corner” on June 7, 8, and 9 will feature a delightful selection of contemporary composers’ takes on classical poetry. These a cappella works are sure to enthrall you! The oldest work is Paul Hindemith’s 1939 opus, Six Chansons, setting the French poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. Most of the works are by living American composers, including three women. Two Bay Area composers are featured: my own Invitation to a Voyage (text by Charles Baudelaire) and Michael Kaulkin’s witty setting of Emily Dickinson’s Are Friends a Delight or a Pain?