All Good Themes Come in Threes
Works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Anton Bruckner
Where the two clarinets are playing: Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488
The path from unfathomable genius to solid pragmatism can be surprisingly short. In 1786 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart offered several compositions to the “Prince de Fürstenberg” from which His Highness selected, among others, the piano concerto which Mozart entered in his catalogue of works (Verzeichnüss aller meiner Werke) on 2 March of that year and which can be found now as number 488 in the Köchel catalogue. In his correspondence, Mozart noted that “there are two clarinets in the A major concerto. Should His Highness not have any clarinets at his court, a competent copyist might transpose the parts into the suitable keys, in which case the first part should be played by a violin and the second by a viola”. As easy-going as Mozart seems to have been about the conditions for performing it, the work was close to his heart. In the same letter of 30 September 1786, he made a distinction between his popular works and special pieces like this one, “which I keep for myself or for a small circle of music-lovers and connoisseurs, who promise not to let them out of their hands.” The two clarinets are one of the A major Concerto’s salient features, lending the orchestra its particular colouring while other instruments (for example, a pair of oboes and a second flute) are omitted.
The Allegro begins softly and delicately, blithely avoiding the fundamental pitch “A” at first and sparing in the use of forte chords. No less gentle and lyrical, the second theme leads to another peculiarity: after some 140 bars, Mozart introduces a new idea which is related to neither the first nor second theme group and flows directly into the development section. This formally unconventional introduction of a third theme looks ahead to Anton Bruckner who habitually constructed his symphonic first movements with three themes. The cadenza towards the end of the movement was written out by Mozart; he would hardly have needed it for himself, more likely for a pupil such as Barbara Ployer. Mozart wasn’t so easy-going about performance practice after all.
The biggest surprise comes with the Adagio. It is in F sharp minor, a key rarely used at the time and, by Mozart, almost never. It would most likely have reminded that “small circle of music-lovers and connoisseurs” of Haydn’s “Farewell” Symphony in the same key. In 1784, two years before the completion of this concerto, the theorist Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart noted in his Thoughts on Musical Aesthetics: “F sharp minor. A gloomy key: it tugs at passion as a dog biting a dress. Resentment and discontent are its language. It really does not seem to like its own position: therefore it languishes ever for the calm of A major or for the triumphant happiness of D major.” After the first theme’s swaying threnody in siciliano rhythm, there does appear a consoling idea in A major which is related to themes of the opening movement. Yet the Adagio concludes in pianissimo lamenting that works its way well into the concluding rondo in exuberant A major.
Where the splendid trumpet is sounding: Bruckner’s Third Symphony
Same city, 104 years later. In 1890 Anton Bruckner presented his Third Symphony in Vienna – again. The Vienna Philharmonic had premiered it in 1877 under the composer’s baton although Bruckner was inexperienced as a conductor. The resulting fiasco caused him protracted suffering. Then in 1890, under Hans Richter’s direction, the symphony was suddenly a success. Even the famous critic Eduard Hanslick could not deny as much in his otherwise scathing review: “In Bruckner’s compositions we miss logical thinking, a refined sense of beauty, clearly discernible artistic understanding. It would be an understatement to say that the D minor Symphony was roundly applauded. It was met with clamorous stomping and raving. The grateful composer was obliged to come forward repeatedly after each movement.”
No other work occupied Bruckner as long as the Third; and when the original version is given, as in this evening’s concert, none of his other symphonies is so vast. Ignoring any practical advantages of the second and third versions, not to mention questions of taste, the first – playing some 15 minutes longer – is especially impressive for its clearly delineated musical sculpturing and the space it allows for thematic unfolding. By completing a symphony in D minor, Bruckner also satisfied his desire to compose in the tonality of two of his favourite works: Mozart’s Requiem and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. In his own early Requiem (1849), in his first great mass setting (1864) and in his discarded symphony (the so-called Nullte, or “No. 0”), he had already explored this key and relished its archaic expansiveness. Predictably, his last symphonic creation was also in D minor, the Ninth, which Bruckner dedicated to the Almighty.
The Third Symphony can already be interpreted along these lines, especially the noble motto with which the trumpet opens the work. That this simple motif, joining a descending 4th to a descending 5th, is not the actual main theme soon becomes apparent with the entrance of a unison interrupted by abrupt general pauses. It is this idea that will become the basis of the sonata form. Bruckner contrasts it with a shapely second theme that he labels “Gesangsperiode”, or “lyrical period”. A third theme is developed from his characteristic rhythm, again presented in dramatic unison – a phenomenon that is repeated in the final movement.
The connection between Misterioso and theatrical thunder suggests the model for this work: Richard Wagner, to whom Bruckner dedicated it. In the Feierlich (“Solemn”) second movement, the father figure is clearly evident. The sustained hymn culminates in slowly celebrated “Tristan chords”, and though the magnificently extended second theme leads to other realms, similarly suggestive of religion, Wagner’s ill-starred hero continues to hold sway until strains of Tannhäuser pipe up in a richly embellished reprise.
Back in D minor, the brief Scherzo rolls in – a spooky movement at first, which stamps insistently on the tonic and whose effect can occasionally be a bit mechanical. By contrast, the waltz-like second theme in B flat major seems even livelier, as does the folksy A major Trio introduced by a buoyant octave leap on violas. The da capo section prepares the finale’s approach in eerie D minor. This Allegro’s apocalyptic opening is marked by ferocious build-ups, monumental intervallic leaps and surging strings, yet the second idea is surprisingly dancelike. Its exotic F sharp major tonality hints at what Bruckner is ultimately aiming at: he needs this note, F sharp, as the 3rd degree in the resplendent final D major chord. Just how much is at stake here is suggested by the bifurcation of the second subject – the dance is followed by a chorale. Contemporaries saw earth and heaven symbolized in this juxtaposition, a meditation on Media vita in morte sumus – “In the midst of life we are in death”. When at the end of the recapitulation, shortly before the final turn to D major and the return of the trumpet motto, Bruckner has the preceding movements pass in review, the effect is like the near-death experience of seeing one’s whole life flash before one’s eyes. Appearing in the course of three interpolations are visions of the opening movement’s second theme, the chorale from the Adagio and the figure that begins the Scherzo. A turbulent life comes to an end.