Works by Mozart, Adams and Tchaikovsky
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 35 in D major, K. 385 “Haffner”
Vienna, July 1782. More than a year has passed since Mozart suffered an affront from Salzburg court chamberlain Count Arco, who dared to “boot [him] out of the room with a kick in the arse”. But this spectacular ending of his service to Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo was also the kick-off to Mozart’s freedom: getting him away from the hated treadmill of his position as Konzertmeister and court organist; away from the strict supervision of his father Leopold, who cared only about obedience, morality and money; away from Salzburg – and off to Vienna! Does Mozart really believe he will be able to go his own way without resistance from his father? For months, the correspondence between Salzburg and Vienna revolves almost exclusively around Leopold’s reproach and Wolfgang’s defence, one moment self-confident, the next moment submissively imploring.
Against the biographical background of these tensions, Die Entführung aus dem Serail was composed between August 1781 and May 1782. At the express wish of Emperor Joseph II, its premiere took place at the Burgtheater on 16 July 1782. While Mozart was trying as quickly as possible to capitalize on the opera’s success by preparing a wind arrangement, he received a new commission from Leopold in Salzburg. On 20 July, he wrote back to his father: “... And now you ask me to write a new symphony! How on earth can I do so? … Well, I’ll just have to spend the night over it, for that is the only way.” It may have been haste that prompted Mozart to borrow some material for the symphony from the recently completed Entführung: the main theme of the finale, for example, recalls Osmin’s aria “Ha! Wie will ich triumphieren”.
The new symphony was commissioned by Sigmund Haffner the younger, a Salzburg merchant, to celebrate his forthcoming ennoblement (on 29 July). Leopold and Wolfgang had long enjoyed close relations – virtually a friendship – with the Haffner family. In June 1776, he had composed the large-scale “Haffner” Serenade in D major, K. 250, for the wedding of Sigmund’s sister Elisabeth and Franz Xaver Anton Späth of Salzburg. Once again now, the music was intended to be celebratory: to be scored for large forces (with pairs of oboes, bassoons, horns and trumpets in addition to timpani and strings) and in the old serenade form with two minuets and an introductory march. But Mozart found composing it anything but easy: “My heart is restless and my head confused – in such a condition how can one think and work to any good purpose?”, he wrote on 27 July 1782. That may account for how quickly he erased the work from his memory; on 15 February 1783, he confessed to his father: “My new Haffner symphony has really surprised me, for I had forgotten every single note of it.”
At least this was a pleasant “surprise”. Four months after completing it, Mozart wrote to Leopold: “I also asked you to send me by the first opportunity which presents itself the new symphony which I composed for Haffner at your request. I should like to have it for certain before Lent, for I should very much like to have it performed at my concert.” For this performance (on 23 March 1783), Mozart revised the work, giving it the now-familiar four-movement layout: the march was dropped along with one of the minuets, which has since disappeared (or, possibly, the original symphony had only a single minuet). The instrumentation was also enlarged with the addition of two flutes and two clarinets. But even in this version for Vienna, the symphony betrays its serenade origins: the splendour of the orchestration and the extreme swiftness of the outer movements are more festive than symphonic in character.
John Adams: The Wound-Dresser
The brilliance of the “Haffner” Symphony is followed by the nocturnally dark confrontation with death that Walt Whitman experienced as a hospital volunteer during the American Civil War and reflected in his poem “The Wound-Dresser”: “Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarm, and urge relentless war, / But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d myself, / To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead.”
Another “restless heart”. What attracted John Adams in this poem was its extraordinarily sombre and pessimistic tone. “I was plunged into an awareness,” the composer recalls, “not only of dying, but also of the person who cares for the dying... The essence of the poem is deeply human and full of love and great tenderness. I tried to bring out that tenderness in the music.” And indeed, the horrors in the text and the restrained beauty of its setting form a remarkable counterpoint that evokes the longing for peace and deliverance, without any pathos.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B minor, op. 74 “Pathétique”
It is a very different “restless heart” – passionate, often tragic – that the epithet “pathétique” suggests. It was not until after its premiere (on 28 October 1893), however, that Tchaikovsky’s sixth and last symphony received its nickname, as the composer’s brother reports: “He didn’t want to leave it with only a number, or call it Programme Symphony, as he originally intended. ‘How can I call it Programme Symphony when I don’t want to disclose the programme?’ I suggested calling it Tragic, but he didn’t care for that. Then I left the room and left him behind, pondering. Suddenly the word patetichesky came into my head. I went back and – I remember as if it were yesterday – I stood in the doorway and uttered the word. ‘Excellent, Modya, bravo, patetichesky!’ and before my eyes he wrote on the score the title by which it has been known ever since.”
Found among Tchaikovsky’s papers from his last years was the plan for a “Life” symphony, whose movements would deal with “youth”, “love”, “disappointment” and “death”. The finale would “die away at the end”, just as the Sixth fades away on a B minor chord on cellos and basses, pppp and diminuendo. Is then the Pathétique that projected “Life Symphony”? Could the idiosyncratic Allegro con grazia second movement – a waltz in (characteristically Russian) 5/4 time – be the cipher for a “love” of Russia that vacillates between Westernism and Slavophilia? And what “disappointment” is reflected in the furious scherzo marked Allegro molto vivace?
The whole symphony is “pervaded by the mood of a requiem”, Tchaikovsky explained shortly before the premiere. “Its programme is suffused with subjectivity but it will remain an enigma to everyone... I myself consider it the best, and especially the most sincere of all my works. I love it as I never have loved any other of my musical creations.”
The composer’s death only eight days after the work’s premiere under circumstances which are still unclear has given the symphony an added aura of finality. When all those enigmatic words are said and done, what remains has no need of a programme: Tchaikovsky’s restless heart communicates so directly and frankly with the listener that the boundaries between “pathetic” and “empathetic” seem to have been eradicated.