Longing, Love at Second Sight and Patriotic Poetry
Works by Mozart, Walton and Kodály
Mozart celebrated his last birthday at home in Vienna. The 34-year-old composer had returned from Frankfurt am Main in 1790, where he had established new contacts at the coronation of the emperor and played a concert with his own works. Back in Vienna, scores of projects awaited him. He organized various private concerts as composer and interpreter of chamber music, dances he had recently composed had been published, Antonio Salieri conducted an academy concert at which Mozart’s Symphony in G minor, K. 550, may have been on the programme. And, a few days before his birthday, Mozart also completed his last Piano Concerto in B flat major, K. 595, probably for a similar academy, which he performed himself at a private concert with the clarinettist Joseph Beer in early March 1791.
Although the outward circumstances of the composer’s life improved again after the less profitable previous year, he suffered from deep melancholy. He had already described a poor psychological state earlier in letters, but now he complained to his wife Constanze about “a kind of emptiness”: “If people could see into my heart, I should almost feel ashamed. To me everything is cold – cold as ice.” The B flat major Piano Concerto can be heard as a reflection of this feeling of emotional alienation, as a work of inner experience in the entirely different circumstances of the outer world. According to Peter Gülke, this is music which “no longer appeals and addresses”. That already becomes obvious during the casual, almost trivial beginning. The opening bar coasts along in neutral, providing a harmonic footing for a constant pedal point and the first theme. The following Larghetto illustrates the glaring discrepancy between the soloist’s part, which revolves around one melodic idea, and the cohesive style of the orchestral accompaniment. A musical convergence is not noticeable until the end of the movement. The closing Rondo skips along, in Gülke’s words, like a “naïvely moderate midpoint between tarantella and hunting music”. Mildness also prevails here; the absence of an abyss or exultation seems like withdrawal, however. One need not go as far as Alfred Einstein, for whom Mozart’s last piano concert was ultimately “a work of farewell”, but even with what we know today this concerto can be understood as “the musical counterpart to the confession he made in his letters to the effect that life had lost attraction for him” – if only temporarily. Following Mozart there calls for an openness to nuances. Anyone who does not have that openness, Peter Gülke believes, “does not hear the intrinsic isolation in this music, regards it as if it is meant in the usual way, but it is not”.
William Walton seeks a violist and finds two friends
It was not his love for the instrument that prompted William Walton to compose his Concerto for Viola, since the English composer did not feel particularly drawn to it, nor did he have a performer’s understanding of its possibilities. Instead, it was the conductor Thomas Beecham who was able to persuade his 26-year-old musician colleague to compose a new work in 1928. Beecham, almost twice Walton’s age, was the impresario of the British musical scene – it was unthinkable that Walton would have turned down the proposal to compose a concerto for the violist Lionel Tertis.
The work went quickly. Walton only needed the winter of 1928/9 to complete the three-movement work. Tertis rejected the concerto, however, as he later recalled with shame: “I was unwell at that time; but what is also true is that I had not learnt to appreciate Walton’s style. The innovations in his musical language, which now seem so logical and so truly in the mainstream of music, then struck me as far-fetched.” Tertis recommended a colleague to the perplexed Walton, though: the German violist and composer Paul Hindemith was invited to give the premiere of the concerto at the Queenʼs Hall in London on 3 October 1929. The work met with an enthusiastic response from the press, and Hindemith’s playing attracted interest. Walton later recalled: “His technique was marvellous, but he was rough – no nonsense about it. He just stood up and played.”
A lifelong friendship developed between Hindemith and Walton, but the German musician never played the Viola Concerto again after the premiere. Instead, Lionel Tertis discovered his love for the work. He added it to his repertoire a year after the premiere and performed it on various occasions. Sometimes he enjoyed overwhelming success with it; after one performance, the conductor Adrian Boult even made Tertis repeat the entire work! But Tertis had not learned from his rash refusal. When he received the offer to perform Hindemith’s Second Viola Concerto with the Berliner Philharmoniker, Tertis again refused for artistic reasons. Shortly afterwards, in 1937, he was forced to end his solo career because of rheumatism – on the programme of his last concert was Walton’s Viola Concerto.
Zoltán Kodály composes a Hungarian evergreen
It was two young authors named Béla Paulini and Zsolt Harsányi who presented a new opera project to Zoltán Kodály in 1925. At the end of his life Kodály recalled: “A Hungarian poet had written it 100 years earlier, and two clever writers made a piece out of it, which I – although I never had a particular inclination towards the theatre – liked so much the first time I read it that I was immediately eager to compose the music for it.” The project was based on the epic poem Az obsitos (The Veteran), which the poet János Garay had written around 1845. The composer must have been pleased to note the patriotic echoes of the play, which was entitled Háry János: a retired Hungarian soldier entertains the guests at an inn with dubious accounts of his army career, his defeat of Napoleon, winning the love of the Austrian princess and finally his joyful return to his beloved Hungary. “What he recounts is actually the embodiment of Hungarian folk tale fantasy, so it is much truer than the truth itself,” the composer said later.
The Singspiel [opera with spoken dialogue] Háry Janos had its premiere at the Hungarian State Opera House in 1926 and attracted a great deal of media interest. Depending on which source one believes, it was either Kodály’s friend Béla Bartók or the Viennese publisher Universal Edition that suggested an arrangement of excerpts from Háry Jánosfor orchestra to reach a larger audience. A half-year later the six movements of the Háry JánosSuite were premiered in Barcelona. Both versions turned out to be works in progress. The sequence of movements from the Suite performed in Barcelona was soon modified. Moreover, in a barbarous act, the distinctive part of the cimbalom (Hungarian dulcimer) was initially replaced with a piano. Kodály himself had used this option but preferred a harpsichord as substitute. No modern world-class orchestra would dispense with the exotic sound of a cimbalom nowadays. The Singspiel, in particular, was subjected to extensive revisions, however. In 1928 Kodály presented a musically improved second version; the third version ultimately had a political component: at its premiere in 1953 Hungary was experiencing the heavy hand of Soviet control. Kodály’s arrangement – like many of his works – was understood as a declaration of Hungarian national consciousness. Even in old age the composer was still proudly hailed as the “father of Háry”, a clear indication of the enduring and identity-shaping importance of Kodály’s music in his homeland.