Viennese Classicism, French Esprit and Spanish Temperament
A New Year with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Maurice Ravel
New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day with the Mozarts. How did this family of musicians celebrate the New Year? Sitting together by candlelight, carrying on pleasant conversations and making music with the family, like many people do today during the time between Christmas and New Year’s Day? Far from it! The concert and carnival season that opened in December meant one thing in particular for composers and performers in the 18th century: a lot of work. Since childhood, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was used to being on tour during this time: Milan, Munich, Mannheim ... – his letters from those years document how much artistic activity was on the agenda.
A “straggler”: Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D major, K. 537
After Mozart had established himself as a freelance artist in Vienna, the subscription concerts during the Advent, Christmas and Lenten seasons were an important source of income. At these concerts Mozart not only introduced himself as a composer but also demonstrated his extraordinary skill as a pianist. Between 1784 and 1786 he composed twelve piano concertos for his own use, which were the most important contributions to the genre of that time. He set standards with his works in terms of their formal structure, melodic and harmonic imagination and sophisticated orchestration. After his extremely productive phase with this genre, he composed only two more piano concertos during the following years: K. 537 and K. 595, which are often referred to as “stragglers” in the Mozart literature.
Little is known about the origins and performance history of the D major Concerto, K. 537. Mozart completed it in February 1788. We do not know whether it was performed in Vienna. At any rate, it was a work that the composer was able to make use of during his journey to the Prussian court in 1789. On the way to Berlin he also made a stop in Dresden and – as a letter to his wife Constanze indicates – performed this “new Concerto in D” there. It was probably also heard during the festivities celebrating the coronation of Leopold II as emperor in Frankfurt am Main in 1790, which later earned it the nickname “Coronation” Concerto.
The first movement, whose main theme already exerts a rhythmic attraction from the first bar with its insistent repeated notes, is cheerful and festive. After the thematic exposition by the orchestra and soloist, Mozart structures the development section by stringing together various motivic ideas, often having the pianist execute unexpected harmonic modulations before bringing the movement to a close with the recapitulation and coda. The second movement, with its simple bel canto theme and songlike form, reflects the model of the romance so popular in middle movements at that time. In the finale, a rousing, dancelike rondo, the soloist can again display the full range of his virtuosic skill.
Dreamily flowing: Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte
Maurice Ravel composed the Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavan for a Dead Princess) in 1899, while he was still studying with Gabriel Fauré. This work for piano soon enjoyed great popularity in French drawing rooms. According to Ravel, the addendum “pour une infante défunte” was only made because he took pleasure in alliterations. The term “pavan”, on the other hand, refers to a solemn, stately processional dance in quadruple metre, which was fashionable during the 16th and 17th centuries. Although the composer later spoke disparagingly about this work, his Pavane is a wonderfully atmospheric picture full of grace and elegance. Its peaceful, dreamily flowing theme is introduced with a horn solo at the beginning of the orchestral version from 1910.
Spanish atmosphere: Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole and Alborada del gracioso
The folk music of Spain held great fascination for French composers from the second half of the 19th century. Its melodies and rhythms, influenced by oriental musical traditions, had an exotic charm of their own that none of the great French composers could resist. With his Basque roots, Ravel felt particularly drawn to the Iberian sound, which he had already become acquainted with as a child through his mother. Thus, it is not surprising that one of Ravel’s first published works was a habanera. It shows that Ravel was never interested in superficial folkloric effects but instead wanted to translate and integrate the unique rhythm and exotic tonal idiom of Spanish music into his own style. And he remained true to this approach in all of his Spanish-inspired compositions.
Although it was originally written for two pianos in 1895, Ravel later used the Habanera, with its characteristic dotted quaver rhythm, in orchestrated form in his Rapsodie espagnole, which he composed in 1907 and 1908. In the work he combined Spanish dance rhythms with the Impressionist tonal language so typical of French music at that time. The Rapsodie opens with a dreamy Prelude à la nuit(Prelude to the Night), followed by two brief dance movements, Malagueña and Habanera, and ends with a final section alternating between ecstasy and contemplation, which Ravel entitled Feria (Festival). This work shows Ravel to be a brilliant orchestrator with an unerring instinct for striking instrumental colours. The same is true of the Alborada del gracioso (Morning Song of the Jester), which was originally composed as the fourth movement of the piano cycle Miroirs (Mirrors) and was orchestrated by the composer in 1918. Ravel achieved the Spanish flavour with accompaniment figures that imitate the strumming of a guitar, a spirited, insistent dance rhythm and oriental-sounding melodic phrases. The two lively opening and closing sections frame a tranquil interlude during which the solo bassoon plays a lyrical pastoral melody.
One long crescendo: Ravel’s Boléro
Ravel’s best-known work in the Spanish style is Boléro, which he composed for the dancer Ida Rubinstein in 1928. In it, he carries the principle of stylization to an extreme by working simultaneously with several constant factors which continue unchanged throughout the entire work. First, there is the characteristic bolero rhythm, which the solo snare drum introduces at the beginning and relentlessly keeps up until the last two bars. This rhythm is the motor of the work, driving it forward inexorably, mechanically – one could almost say manically. It is joined by the constant ostinato of the double basses, alternating between G and C. The rhythm and ostinato form the foundation, above which two melodies are heard that resemble the antecedent and consequent of a longwinded, archaic-sounding melismatic theme. In interviews and various publications Ravel never tired of pointing out that his Boléro had no specific form, no musical development and no harmonic modulation; the appeal of the work was based solely on the orchestration, which was one long crescendo. Beginning with the first notes of the snare drum, which is gradually joined by all the instruments of the orchestra, Ravel slowly builds up to a tremendous intensification of sound, which – when it reaches the climax – ends abruptly. Ravel’s most celebrated comment was: “I’ve written only one masterpiece – Boléro. Unfortunately, there’s no music in it.” Nevertheless, this “non-music” made its composer world-famous.