Struggling to Find Favour with the Public
Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Anton Bruckner
The soloist as strategist and partner – Mozart’s Piano Concerto K. 595
“It is perfectly true that the Viennese are apt to change their affections, but only in the theatre,” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote to his father on 2 June 1781, “and my special line is too popular not to enable me to support myself. Vienna is certainly the land of the Clavier!” A few days later the 25-year-old already escaped from the clutches of his native Salzburg for good, was released from the service of the hated archbishop and began to build a life for himself in the imperial capital as a freelance musician. And, in fact, Vienna seemed to mean well by the young musician to begin with. Within a short time, Mozart had established himself as an acclaimed piano virtuoso, respected composer and popular piano teacher.
Mozart made his last documented public appearance as a soloist on 4 March 1791. He played the Piano Concerto in B flat major, K. 595, which he had completed at the beginning of the year, before an audience that was probably not very large. With its original formal structure, brilliant treatment of the various orchestral sections and instrumentalists as well as its wealth of ideas and emotions, the work is on a par with the great concertos of the mid-1780s. At the same time, however, Mozart’s last contribution to the genre of the piano concerto seems to be less concerned with external dramatic effect, but is more like chamber music in texture and more personal and lyrical in tone.
The songlike qualities of the concerto and its inherent theatricality are apparent from the start. The first violins present the cantabile main theme of the first movement above a gently animated accompaniment. The three phrases of the expansive melody are punctuated by two fanfare-like, descending triadic motifs in the winds. With this juxtaposition of different melodic and tonal characters, Mozart lays the foundation for the subsequent development of the Allegro. At the same time, in the initial bars he already calls attention to the interaction and opposition between the various instrumental sections (here strings versus winds) typical of the concerto. What Mozart is able to achieve with this seemingly simple opening becomes apparent in the middle section of the movement – the development. In contrasting interplay and direct dialogue, the soloist and the orchestra – in constantly changing combinations – lead elements of the lyrical main theme and the descending triadic motif through various tonal and expressive regions. The bold harmonic development of this section alone is breathtaking. For example, the piano begins the development section in B minor, the key most remote from the home key of B flat major.
A particularly appealing aspect of Mozart’s late piano concertos is the fact that the soloist acts as the first among equals: he is both strategist and partner. Although the thematic material of the first movement is first presented by the orchestra, the pianist takes on this task himself as the work continues. Both the slow middle movement and the rondo finale – whose main theme Mozart also used in the song “Komm, lieber Mai” [Come, dear May], which was composed at the same time – begin with the solo piano. Moreover, the role of strategist repeatedly requires the pianist to go beyond the notated score. “One look at the solo parts of Mozart’s piano concertos should be enough to show the Mozart player that his warrant leaves that of a museum curator far behind,” comments the great Mozart interpreter Alfred Brendel. “Mozart’s notation is not complete. Not only do the solo parts lack dynamic marking almost entirely, the very notes to be played – at any rate in the later works that were not made ready for the engraver – require piecing out at times.” In the case of the late B flat major Concerto, that applies particularly to the middle movement, “when relatively simple themes return several times without Mozart varying them himself”.
Conceived in terms of the sound – Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony
“Even Bruckner was not spared the age-old, bitter experience that the prophet counts for nothing in his own country,” the young Hugo Wolf observed in spring of 1886. “Struggling in vain for decades against the ignorance and maliciousness of the critics, rejected by concert institutions, plagued by envy and malevolence, he was an old man when fortune smiled on him and the ungrateful world placed a laurel wreath on his head.” In fact, a larger musical public did not become aware of the oeuvre of the late-blooming composer until the last decade of his life – Bruckner did not make music his full-time occupation until the age of 31 and completed his First Symphony when he was over 40. When the professor of harmony and counterpoint at the Vienna Conservatory celebrated his 60th birthday in September 1884, only one of his monumental orchestral works had been published – the Third Symphony, dedicated to Richard Wagner. And Bruckner no longer had any illusions about the receptiveness of the Viennese public or the favour of the critics by then. His first six symphonies had for the most part met with incomprehension, derision and harsh rejection, if they had been premiered in their entirety at all by then.
Despite these countless failures, it can be assumed that Bruckner looked ahead with a certain amount of optimism at the beginning of his seventh decade. A letter from the 28-year-old Arthur Nikisch had already reached him from Leipzig in spring of 1884. After the future chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker had played through Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 in E major – which was composed between September 1881 and September 1883 – with Josef Schalk at the piano, he wrote: “I am extremely delighted and thrilled ... and from now on consider it a point of honour for me to spread your works.” Bruckner travelled to Leipzig before the end of the year, full of expectation. There he attended the successful premiere of the Seventh Symphony by the Gewandhaus Orchestra under Nikisch on 30 December. In March of 1885 he spent the “happiest week” of his life in Munich, as he recounted in a letter. In the stronghold of Wagnerism, the renowned Wagner conductor and director of the Munich Court Orchestra, Hermann Levi, helped Bruckner finally achieve his breakthrough with a “superb and exemplary” performance of the work.
In an essay that is well worth reading, the composer and musicologist Dieter Schnebel, who died in Berlin last year, impressively described the fascinating appeal of Bruckner’s music: “The remarkable thing about Bruckner’s music stems ... from the characteristic presence of the sound, whether its luminescence or its dimmed darkness, its raw power or the mellifluous mellowness. And the movement of the sound – its rushing along or its gentle flowing, the insistent pounding or the swelling pulsation – also exerts a strange fascination. The themes are integrated into the sound ... The musical development is also revealed more by the sound than, say, the thematic work.”
One of the tonal peculiarities of the Seventh Symphony that already fascinated contemporary listeners is the darkened colour palette of the work. For example, Bruckner augmented the brass choir in the second and fourth movements with four Wagner tubas. Their dark, aristocratic timbre contributes substantially to the solemn character of the Adagio. Wagner’s death in February 1883 was a decisive factor in this expansion of the orchestral forces. Devastated by the demise of the “master of all masters”, Bruckner decided to incorporate the instruments used for the first time in the Ring des Nibelungen into the symphonic texture and composed the moving funeral music with which the Adagio comes to an end.