This week’s music is Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, performed by the London Mozart Players.
Mozart wrote his final three symphonies in the summer of 1788. His untimely death was drawing near, and he had already begun reducing the number of performances he gave. This symphony, in addition to being one of his final musical statements, forecasts the stylistic changes that would soon arrive on the world stage with the birth of Romantic-era music. It hints at a lyricism that is often absent in earlier Classical-era works and begins to expand the orchestral role of previously-ignored instruments like the clarinet, bassoon, and timpani.
The first movement’s hushed, urgent melody and its luscious accompaniment texture are a favorite of listeners around the world. Listen for the ways that Mozart brings this opening theme back throughout the first movement. For instance, in the development (middle) section of the first movement, he suddenly drops into the seemingly random key of F-sharp minor while toying with variations on the original melody.
The third movement is also of interest. At the time of this piece’s composition, the oboe and clarinet were rarely featured in orchestral music. Mozart, however, gives both instruments a prominent role in this part of the symphony. Listen for the oboe solo that recurs throughout the third movement.
Our music for this week is the Keyboard Concerto No. 4 in A Major by Johann Sebastian Bach. It is performed by David Fung and the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra.
When Bach wrote this concerto in 1721, the piano (or, in his day, the harpsichord) was a relatively new discovery. It is therefore tempting to think that the concerto was written as a way to showcase the range and versatility of the keyboard. However, Bach originally wrote this concerto for the oboe. When the piano burst onto the musical scene in the early 1700’s, he transposed the oboe concerto into a piano part to try to capitalize on the public frenzy over the instrument.
As is typical of most concerti from the Baroque era, this concerto contains three movements. The first and third movements are faster, while the second movement is more restrained. Those of you who have been with us for a while may notice that the piano solo part is not as prominent as the solo parts from Classical or Romantic-era concerti. In the Baroque era, composers sought to emphasize the ways in which the soloist wove in and out of the accompaniment parts, but later eras sought to feature the soloist in a more virtuosic setting. It is interesting to see that modern concerti (composed after the year 2000) are trending back toward a more Bach-like blended concerto style.
This week’s music continues our series on the Top 25 Greatest Pieces of Classical Music with J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3. The music of Johann Sebastian Bach simply must be on any “top hits” list, and there may even be a legitimate argument that the entire list be dedicated to Bach. Such is his importance and position in the world of classical music.
Bach wrote the six Brandenburg concerti around the same time that he wrote his six sonatas and partitas for solo violin, showcasing Bach’s preoccupation with numerology and symbolism. They were initially not very popular. Bach had written them as a resume-of-sorts in a kapellmeister job application for a local Duke. Ironically, he was rejected by the job that he had applied for using the Brandenburg concerti, leading snarky commentators to title them “the most successful failed job application of all time.” They now stand atop the world of music as some of the most foundational pieces ever written. They define the Baroque era of music while simultaneously stretching the boundaries of that genre. They incorporate German, French, and Italian stylistic elements, and they feature a wide range of solo instruments.
You will hear the most famous of the Brandenburg concerti today. In this concerto, Bach utilizes the concerto grosso (small multi-movement ensemble featuring a group of soloists) format that gets introduced in the first concerto, but he decides not to feature a soloist. This was actually quite a controversial move, since the concerto grosso format was distinctly Italian (not his native German) and the featuring of soloists was considered a requirement of the genre. Bach, however, wasn’t deterred by the possibility of a negative public reaction. He continued to create controversy by adding something that we don’t often see until the mid-Classical period (18th century) – a cadenza (an opportunity for the solo instrumentalist to impress the crowd by improvising on top of the composition’s main themes). Listen for the lead violinist’s cadenza in the middle movement of this concerto.
Welcome back to our series on the Brandenburg concertos. This week will be hearing the second concerto, which features the trumpet, recorder, oboe, and violin as solo voices. This strange conglomeration of solo instruments becomes a delightful ensemble in Bach’s masterful hands. He expertly balances their different sonorities by including the most detailed dynamic markings in the entire set of six concerti. He also includes conversational elements with the entire orchestra to ensure that no one instrument overpowers the others (although in the final Allegro movement, it seems that he can’t help but let the trumpet loose at full strength for at least a few bars 🙂 .
You will notice right away that this concerto is much more virtuosic than the first concerto. Bach wastes no time in making sure we experience the power and range of the trumpet, whose part regularly soars above the accompanying orchestra during the first movement. The trumpet backs off, however, in the second movement, which features that same melancholy sighing theme that we heard in the first concerto. We also hear a fragment of the first concerto in the final movement of this concerto, which is structured as a fugue.
I found it interesting that Bach was writing the six Brandenburg Concertos at the same time he was writing his famous six solo sonatas for violin. He also wrote six miniatures for solo piano (much lesser known) and six sonatas for solo cello. This numerical pattern is typical of Bach, who was fascinated with numerology and was constantly experimenting with representations of numbers in his music.