McGegan and Mozart

Friday, March 3, 2017 at 7:30pm
Sunday, March 5, 2017 at 3:00pm
Symphony Hall

“If ever a competition were held to demonstrate that classical does not equal stodgy, McGegan would sail through with ease.”
San Francisco Classical Voice

In his H+H subscription debut, the renowned music director of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra serves up a signature menu of masterful Mozart, gorgeous Gluck, and a rare aperitif from the composer known as “the Spanish Mozart.”

Nicholas McGeganconductor

Program Notes

After the English historian Charles Burney (1726–1814) met Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714–1787) on a visit to Vienna, he wrote that Gluck was an imposing personality, “a very dragon, of whom all are in fear.” Gluck’s music was just as impressive. Although he composed sacred and secular vocal music as well as sonatas and symphonies, it was through ballet and opera that Gluck reimagined music for the stage.

Gluck grew up in Bohemia, where he most likely had his first music instruction, both as a vocalist and instrumentalist. He traveled throughout his life, beginning with a trip to Prague, where he attended the university for a while, was a church organist, and most likely heard his first operas. Gluck’s reputation for blending instrumental colors may have roots in his interest in performing on unusual instruments, such as in England where he gave at least two performances on twenty-six drinking glasses tuned with water.

Gluck went to Milan in the 1730s where, according to one contemporary source, he studied with Giovanni Battista Sammartini from whom he learned “practical knowledge of all the instruments.” Sammartini was known as a symphonic rather than an operatic composer; nevertheless, Gluck’s studies with him, in addition to the operas regularly performed in the city, would have made for a well-balanced musical education that exerted an influence on Gluck’s later compositions.

In 1748, Gluck was commissioned to write an opera to celebrate Empress Maria Theresa’s birthday and the re-opening of the recently renovated court theater, the Burgtheater, in Vienna. Eight years later he returned to the imperial city, first at the court of Joseph Friedrich Wilhelm, Prince of Saxe-Hildburghausen, whose orchestra was well known for its concerts, then as a composer at the Burgtheater. By 1759, his duties at the theater included composing music for ballets.

Don Juan, with choreography by the imperial theater’s dancing master Gasparo Angiolini, who also danced the title role, was novel for its time in that it told a specific story through an equal balance of dance, pantomime, and music. For the October 17, 1761 premiere, Gluck constructed a cohesive musical score that brings to life the human and supernatural dimensions of the story through imaginative orchestral and harmonic colorings. The ballet was an unqualified success with one commentator writing that the music of the Furies became “all the rage.”
With a story familiar to his Viennese audience, Gluck’s Don Juan follows the exploits and consequences surrounding one man’s insatiable appetites. The Sinfonia sets the scene and briefly foreshadows the title character’s death. Part One opens at the home of the Commander, where Don Juan is serenading and seducing Donna Elvira in a movement for oboe and pizzicato strings. After being interrupted in his pursuit by the Commander, Don Juan kills him in a duel.

The setting for Part Two is a banquet at Don Juan’s house; we hear a dance that sets the scene for the festivities. With the appearance of the Stone Guest—a statue of the Commander that comes to life—the other guests scatter even as the dance continues, an indication of Don Juan’s indifference to this unusual turn of events.

Part Three takes place in a churchyard. Here the statue of the Commander demands that Don Juan repent his ways. Don Juan, however, does not take the situation seriously. In his reply to the Statue, we can hear him feigning sincerity whether it is in the grace notes of No. 27 or the pizzicato of No. 28. In the last two numbers, which depict Don Juan’s demise, Gluck uses trombones for the first time in the ballet to characterize this unearthly scene that was staged with 44 torches and 29 Furies.

Just as Gluck was drawn to Vienna, so was Wolfgang Amadè Mozart (1756–1791). Yet, from his first visit through his decision to reside there permanently, reality never met Mozart’s expectations. During the first trip to Vienna—when the young Wolfgang heard the premiere of Gluck’s Alceste with his father—Leopold Mozart found the family’s audience with the Habsburg family to be polite and warm, but he lamented the fact that it produced no income. Five years later, harboring hope for an imperial appointment for his son, Leopold was again disappointed by their reception.

In 1781, Mozart left his position with the court of the Archbishop of Salzburg, moved to Vienna, and married Constanze Weber. At first Wolfgang’s letters to his father expressed hope for a bright future before becoming more cautious: “It is true that the Viennese often change their affections, but only in the theater; and my special skill is too popular not to give me the means to support myself … And, even if they do tire of me, it will not be for a few years.”

From the end of July through October 1783, Mozart and Constanze visited Mozart’s family in Salzburg. The visit was difficult because Mozart’s father and sister did not approve of the couple’s marriage. On their way back to Vienna, Mozart and Constanze made several stops, including a three-week stay in Linz at the home of Count Thun, an old family friend. In an October 30, 1783 letter to his father, Mozart wrote that a concert was planned for November 4 and, because he did not have a symphony with him, he was “writing one as quickly as possible.” In that symphony, now called the “Linz,” each movement is constructed beautifully, despite being written hastily.

In Symphony No. 36 in C major, K. 425, Linz, an imposing slow introduction, the first in a Mozart symphony, gives way to the faster main part of the first movement. Here, a gently rising theme contrasts with dramatic, repeated chords, which recall the introduction. There is a wonderful feeling of pushing forward and holding back throughout the movement with the ending becoming something of an enigma as Mozart hints at closing the movement several times before he accomplishes the task.

Mozart does not reduce the number of instruments scored for the inner movements, but uses them to shape the tender Poco adagio and the stately Minuet and Trio. The lilting quality of the second movement lends itself to a stroll and even suggests the lyricism of an aria. The Minuet is regular in its triple-meter dance patterns and yet the interspersed, short, fanfare-like rhythm feels as if it is a musical wink and nod to the listener. Instrumentation also defines moments of repose in the last movement, Presto, as passages for violins and viola provide a sense of release each time the intensity of the movement builds.

For the November 4, 1783 concert at Count Thun’s, Mozart also decided to compose a slow introduction for a symphony by the noted composer Michael Haydn, younger brother of Joseph Haydn. Because Mozart had copied out the entire Haydn symphony, including his slow introduction, as a present for Count Thun, it was previously assumed that this work was another Mozart symphony (No. 37).

Mozart sent the score of Symphony No. 36 to his father in Salzburg in February 1784, asking to have it copied, after which, he instructed “You can send it back to me or give it away or have it performed anywhere you like.” Leopold chose the last option: He led a performance in Salzburg on September 15 of that year.

In the late 19th century, Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga (1806–1826) was dubbed the “Spanish Mozart” and the newly built opera house in his hometown of Bilboa, Spain was named for him. Arriaga composed only a few works in his short life, including his only opera, completed before he turned 15 years old. In 1821, he became a student at the Paris Conservatoire where he studied violin with the great virtuoso Pierre Balliot and harmony and counterpoint with François Fétis. Fétis thought highly of Arriaga, commenting that he had learned the foundations of composition “guided only by his genius” and virtually without a teacher. Once at the Conservatoire, he said Arriaga obtained a “perfect knowledge of harmony” in only three months.

While the orchestra needed for Arriaga’s Symphony in D Major is somewhat larger than that of Mozart’s “Linz” Symphony, the proportions of the work are conceived on a grander scale. The briefest of fanfares opens the first movement. The woodwinds are highlighted with solo passages throughout the slow introduction, with the strings building a sense of anticipation through repeated notes. The interaction between the strings and winds continues in the Allegro vivace, creating an undeniable charm and drama to a movement that is built on an 18th-century sense of balance.

Arriaga’s deft hand at instrumental combinations is heard throughout the symphony. The second movement, Andante, features a conversational exchange between strings and woodwinds. The Minuet section of the third movement contains different instrumental groupings, while the Trio features the flute. Arriaga opens the final movement in minor, picking up harmonically where the first movement concluded. There are short transitions between sections: one of the most important of these leads to a resounding closing in D major.

Gluck, Mozart, and Arriaga each use motion—whether melodic, harmonic, or rhythmic—to establish a mood, scene, or character in their instrumental music. Specific techniques define each composer’s individual voice, but taken together, they help to shape what we identify today as the quintessential Classical sound.

© 2017 Teresa M. Neff, PhD
Christopher Hogwood Historically Informed Performance Fellow

Join H+H Historically Informed Performance Fellow Teresa M. Neff forty-five minutes before your performance in Higginson Hall in the Cohen Wing for Musically Speaking with Teresa Neff, a pre-concert conversation of the pieces on the program.

Gluck: Ballet music from Don Juan
Arriaga: Symphony in D Major
Mozart: Symphony No. 36, Linz

Audio Preview

Arriaga: Allegro con moto from Symphony in D Major
Concerto Köln

Gluck: Brillante from Don Juan
Bruno Weil, conductor

Mozart: Menuetto from Symphony No. 36, Linz
Academy of Ancient Music
Christopher Hogwood, conductor

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