Musical Renaissance Men
The Golden Mean and Symmetries in Works by Enescu, Bartók and Mozart
Proportions modelled on nature: George Enescu’s Prélude à lʼunisson
“In the depth and range of his gifts,” declared Pablo Casals, “Enescu is the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart.” Casals’s emphasis hereon George Enescu’s all-round talent was echoed in statements by Zoltán Kodály and Yehudi Menuhin, who refer to Enescu’s personal union of exceptional violinist and violin teacher, pianist, conductor and musicologist. His pupil Menuhin regarded Enescu’s music-making as speech-like, as if the violin were a human voice so that he could attribute a precise verbal significance to each tone. His teacher advised Menuhin to play Mozart so as to make him understandable, so that every note he composed has an exact meaning, like a syllable or a gesture.
Along with Mozart’s concertos, early in his career Enescu also began playing the Third Concerto of Camille Saint-Saëns, to whom he later dedicated his Orchestral Suite No. 1 in C major, op. 9, composed in 1903. Its unusual, forceful opening movement, Prélude à l’unisson, is scored for unison strings (without double basses but with a single kettledrum). As pointed out by the Romanian composer and Enesco scholar Pascal Bentoiu, its naturally derived proportions are in almost exact accord with the Fibonacci series, in which the sum of any two consecutive numbers equals the next (1+1+2+3+5+8+13 etc.), their ratio corresponding to the “golden section”.
A high point of classical modernism: Béla Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta
Enescu’s early Prélude and Béla Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta are linked by the application in both works of the Fibonacci series. In the first movement of the latter, a cautiously probing fugal theme (first five, then eight notes, with the entry of a new voice at bars 5, 8 and 13) is slowly spun out and built up to a unison climax. Bartók wrote the work for Paul Sacher and his Basle Chamber Orchestra. Like the Enescu, it is scored for string orchestra and percussion, but with the addition of a celesta and calling for considerably larger forces. Bartók includes the harp and the piano as stringed instruments. In the three following movements, the strings are divided into a double orchestra, whose groups in the second movement seem to be competing antiphonally on a folklike dance theme. The symmetrically constructed slow movement that follows is laid out in Bartók’s typical “bridge” form (ABCBA), with quotes from the strings’ fugal theme embedded in the novel instrumental effects and iridescent timbral combinations. The rondo finale on a possibly original Bulgarian main theme makes for a rousing concertante conclusion in which the two orchestral groups are whirled like a spinning top, interrupted only by another appearance of the fugal theme, now in majestic parallel 6ths.
Mozart’s music between opera house and concert hall: dramas with and without the stage
1. Milan, 1770-71
Barely two weeks before the premiere of Mozart’s Mitridate, re di Ponto (king of Pontus) K. 87 on 26 December 1770, the Milan opera public must still have believed that “it was impossible for such a young boy, and, what is more, a German, to write an Italian opera” – as his father Leopold Mozart wrote to his wife. Wolfgang had received Vittorio Amedeo Cigna-Santi’s libretto for Mitridate, based on Racine’s tragedy of the same name, at the end of July 1770, but had still composed only the recitatives and a single aria for the soprano castrato Pietro Benedetti, known as Sartorini. According to Leopold, he “prefers to wait for his arrival so as to fit the costume to his figure”. And indeed, it did not fit straight away. Sartorini asked for the aria “Lungi da te, mio bene” (“Far from you, my love”) to be expanded. During the orchestral rehearsals, it had to be revised yet again, with Mozart adding a solo horn to the scoring of strings and paired oboes and horns for this aria in which the king’s loyal son Sifare, in love with his father’s betrothed, bids farewell to Pontus in order not to stand in Mitridate’s way.
2. Munich, 1780-81
Ten years later, at the beginning of November 1780, Mozart travelled to Munich to complete and supervise the premiere of his opera Idomeneo, which he hoped might lead to a position at the Bavarian court. Already during the first orchestral rehearsal, as Mozart reported in a letter to his father in Salzburg, the prince-elector Karl Theodor was effusive in his praise, declaring: “Who would believe that such great things could be hidden in so small a head?” One of the last pieces Mozart composed while in Munich was the concert scena “Misera, dove son!” – “Ah! Non son’ io che parlo” K. 369, for the countess Maria Josepha Paumgarten. The text is taken from Pietro Metastasio’s opera libretto Ezio, which had been set by over 40 composers. The protagonist Fulvia’s suffering, caused by a criminal father and the unjust accusations against her beloved Ezio, is represented by insistently repeated violin figures until the character’s distraught state finally breaks out in dramatic coloratura writing.
3. Prague, 1786-87
The symphony Mozart completed in Vienna on 6 December 1786, No. 38 in D major, K. 504, was nicknamed after the city where it was first performed. Following the wildly acclaimed Prague premiere of Le nozze di Figaro, he went to the city on the Moldau in December to conduct one of the opera’s subsequent performances himself and to present himself in concert as a pianist. The “Prague” is the only one of Mozart’s last four symphonies for which we know the exact date as well as the place of its premiere. A few days after the performance of Figaro at the Nostitz National Theatre (later known as the Estates and now the Tyl Theatre), the symphony was heard at that venue as well on 19 January 1787, in one of Mozart’s “academies”. On 29 October of that year, also at the National Theatre, his new opera Don Giovanni had its premiere.
There are conspicuous allusions in the symphony, some quite detailed, to the sound worlds of both operas. The lofty solemn introduction to the first movement offers surprising changes of mood that look forward to the overture and the Commendatore scene from the second act of Don Giovanni with the protagonist at first arrogant, then thunderstruck. To the listener who knows the opera, composed shortly after the symphony, it will already seem like encountering the seducer, hand in hand with Zerlina on the way to his palace, in the Andante second movement – as though Mozart, with a pp bar and a brief pause, were drawing our attention to this intimate duet from the first act. Over a pedal point on horns and basses, the violins intone a melody resembling “Andiam, andiam, mio bene” (Come, come, my darling).
The main theme of the turbulent presto finale is unmistakably derived from the Figaro duet of Susanna and Cherubino, “Aprite, presto aprite” (Open up quickly). The wealth of invention with which Mozart in the first two movements of the symphony has already opened door after door, disclosing the wondrous creations of his genius, is unleashed even more in the rondo-like conclusion, generating a complex ensemble of musical figures unfolding simultaneously through the orchestra.