Conceived in Terms of the Sound
E flat major works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Anton Bruckner
Composed “in haste” – Mozart’s Piano Concerto in E flat major, K. 482
In early June of 1781 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart assured his concerned father from Vienna that “my special line is too popular here not to enable me to support myself. Vienna is certainly the land of the Clavier!” A few days later the 25-year-old turned his back on his native Salzburg for good and began to build a life for himself in the imperial capital as a freelance musician. It is not surprising that Mozart chose to win favour with the public in particular with new piano concertos during his first years in Vienna. The genre provided him with an ideal platform to show off his compositional, pianistic and improvisational skills to equal effect. Fifteen of Mozart’s 27 piano concertos were composed during the relatively short period from autumn of 1782 to December of 1786. Most of them were performed for the first time at public “academies” or subscription concerts which Mozart organized himself, and they contributed substantially to both Mozart’s reputation and his livelihood. The Piano Concerto in E flat major, K. 482, belongs to the last group of this impressive series. Composed in late 1785 for several hastily scheduled subscription academies, it was written in a short time and presented to the Viennese public by Mozart before Christmas.
One of the characteristic features of the E flat major Concerto is the prominent role of the (wood)winds, which are already put to effective use in the first movement. The opening bars are dominated by the interplay and counterplay of different sections of the orchestra typical of the concerto. The fanfare-like opening theme, which is based on the notes of the E flat major triad, is presented forte by the entire orchestra in unison. The contrasting melodic idea that answers it is played in piano by a “chamber ensemble”. The first time the two horns play accompanied by the bassoons; in the restatement the two clarinets are joined by the violins. Immediately afterwards Mozart focuses on the expressive range and soloistic qualities of the winds. The flute, clarinets, bassoons and horns are heard in quick succession, each with a two-bar melodic figure.
The close connections between Mozart’s concertos and his operas become clear in the second movement. Listeners of Mozart’s day were apparently so moved by the profound Andante in C minor that it had to be repeated during the concert. Conceived as a dramatic scene in variation form, various tonal and expressive characters alternate and enter into a dialogue.
A particularly appealing aspect of Mozart’s mature piano concertos is the fact that the soloist acts as the first among equals: he is both “principal” and “partner”. Whereas the thematic material of the first two movements is initially presented by the orchestra, the pianist takes on this task himself in the last movement. The rondo theme of the finale, whose typical horn melody refers to the genre of hunting music, is first heard in the piano. In addition, the role of “strategist” frequently requires the soloist to go beyond what is set down in the notes: after a long fermata and a momentary pause, instead of the anticipated dynamic development passage an unexpectedly interpolated Andantino cantabile abruptly begins. Although Mozart notated the orchestra parts of this slow minuet completely, he only made a rough outline of the solo part. In this key passage of the finale the pianist is thus confronted with the challenging task of going beyond what is written in the score and working out a convincing solution of his own.
“Sounds from other worlds” – Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony
During the second half of 1868 the Linz cathedral organist Anton Bruckner left his home in Upper Austria to assume a professorship in harmony, counterpoint and organ teaching in Vienna at the Conservatory of the Society of Friends of Music. Like Mozart 90 years earlier, the 44-year-old stepped into new territory with this move. The son of a village schoolmaster had already made a name for himself beyond the boundaries of his homeland as an organist and brilliant improviser. As a composer, however, he was still a largely unknown quantity at that time. By moving to Vienna Bruckner intended to fundamentally change this situation. Instead of organ playing, teaching would be the main source of his livelihood from then on. In the inspiring environment of the European musical capital he hoped to find enough time for the work that he wanted to focus his creativity on in the future: the composition of large-scale symphonies.
Despite his various teaching duties, Bruckner wrote the original version of the Symphony No. 4 in E flat major between January and November of 1874. It is not surprising that this work soon became his most popular composition. The Fourth Symphony combines important characteristics of Bruckner’s symphonic music in an almost prototypical form and is at the same time “more accessible” than many of his other works. The famous opening already impressively demonstrates typical features of Bruckner’s compositions. An E flat major triad in the tremolo strings appears almost imperceptibly out of silence – a form of opening that would henceforth become a trademark of the composer. Embedded in the soft chord thus produced the principal horn plays the basic musical idea of the work: a calling figure presenting the key interval of the fifth. But with the entrance of the second call there is already a moment of increased tension. Instead of the fifth note of B flat, the horn begins a semitone higher, on C flat. This seemingly insignificant step allows a harmonic sphere to emerge for an instant which contrasts with the home key of E flat major and will be of central importance to the development of the symphony.
The composer and musicologist Dieter Schnebel, who died in Berlin last year, impressively described the fascinating power that emanates from Bruckner’s characteristic treatment of the orchestra: “The special quality of Bruckner’s music is due ... to the characteristic presence of the sound, whether its luminescence or its dimmed darkness, its raw power or the mellifluous mellowness. ... The musical development is also derived more from the sound than, say, the thematic work.”
The “characteristic presence of the sound” is manifested in various ways during the symphony: in the wave-like build-ups of intensity typical of Bruckner, in the solemn brass chorales often found in the middle or at the end of a movement and even in the timbral structure and variation of the themes. The fact that the sound can thus become the vehicle of poetic meaning is obvious from the composer’s own characterization of the work as “romantic”. This dimension can be heard most clearly in the third movement. Bruckner completely refashioned it when he revised the symphony in late 1878. At the beginning of the Scherzo we think we hear the calls of hunting horns at daybreak which first answer each other from afar, then come closer and closer in an impressive crescendo. The trio, on the other hand, has the character of a stylized Ländler, reminiscent of a street organ tune with a circling melody over a repeated bass note.
The Finale is in a sense the goal of the entire symphonic structure. Here the conflict already presented at the beginning of the work between two different sound spheres – the principal key of E flat major and a tonal area around the central note of C flat – is taken up, intensified and overcome in a breathtaking coda.