Program Notes by Chris Morrison

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber

Born: Aug 12, 1644, Wartenberg, Bohemia (Czech Republic)
Died: May 3, 1704, Salzburg, Austria

Born in a small town in what is now the Czech Republic, Biber played in the orchestra of the Bishop of Olmütz, Prince Karl II Liechtenstein-Kastelkorn, for many years. He left that post in 1670 and moved to Salzburg, where he remained for the rest of his life. There he served as the city’s deputy Kapellmeister, trainer and then dean of the school for choir boys, and eventually Kapellmeister, writing much sacred music for Salzburg Cathedral – including works on a grand scale like the Missa Salisburgensis (1682) for 16 voices and 37 instrumentalists – as well as many adventuresome instrumental works. Biber was a famous violinist in his day, perhaps the greatest of the seventeenth century, and his works for the instrument explore a variety of techniques, from retuning of the strings (scordatura) to multiple stops to, in the Rosary (or Mystery) Sonatas, numerical symbolism and programmatic writing. In many cases he was the first composer in history to make use of such techniques.

Battalia à 10, C. 61

Composed: 1673
Duration: 12 minutes
Instrumentation: strings, continuo (harpsichord)

Depictions of war are by no means unusual in music history. Well before such famous examples as Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, and the “Battle on the Ice” from Sergei Prokofiev’s cantata Alexander Nevsky, there was a brief burst of enthusiasm for such descriptive pieces in the late Renaissance and early Baroque, with examples by composers like Andrea Gabrieli, William Byrd and Clément Janequin.

Among the most colorful of these is Biber’s Battalia, possibly composed for a carnival pantomime and dedicated to Bacchus, god of wine, fertility, theater, and (perhaps most appropriately in this case) ritual madness. Some historians have speculated that Battalia was Biber’s response to the Thirty Years’ War. Lasting from 1618 and 1648, this war, initially between Protestants and Catholics, eventually engulfed much of Europe and, between the fighting itself and the associated disease and famine, resulted in the deaths of some eight million people (including perhaps a third of the population of Biber’s native Bohemia).

The opening Sonata is a lively flurry of activity employing pizzicati, col legno (using the wood rather than string side of the bow, in perhaps the technique’s first use in history) to imitate the soldiers’ footsteps, and contrasts of soft and loud passages. In the second movement, “The Lusty Society of Common Humor,” the troops have gathered in their separate campsites. No fewer than eight different songs – Czech, German, Slovak, Italian, and more – are heard, in seven different keys, all at once and each starting at a different time. Biber gets his point across by remarking in one of the string parts that “hic dissonat ubique nam ebrii sic diversis Cantilenis clamare solent” (“Here it is dissonant everywhere, for thus are the drunks accustomed to bellow with different songs”). This short, bizarre movement anticipates similar juxtapositions by Charles Ives of unrelated music by over two hundred years.

After a short Presto recalling the opening music comes “Mars,” in which a drum-like rattle from the low strings (produced by having the bass players place a piece of paper within the strings) accompanies a wild passage for solo violin that suggests a military fife. The ensuing Presto features a galloping rhythm and a hunting-horn quality to the melody, and the Aria – perhaps a prayer by the soldiers before the fight – is a sweet, song-like interlude.

Then comes the actual “Battle,” short but aggressive. To imitate the firing of cannon, Biber employs what in later days came to be known as the “Bartók pizzicato,” where the string is plucked forcefully enough to snap against the finger board. Battalia concludes not with a song of victory but rather with the “Lament of the Wounded Musketeers,” a funeral song of genuine pathos with some biting dissonances.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Born: January 27, 1756, Salzburg, Austria
Died: December 5, 1791, Vienna, Austria

No reminder is really needed of the unique stature of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the history of Western music. His vast catalog of compositions – over 600 of them, including some 15 operas, 17 masses, 50 symphonies, 20 piano concertos, 23 string quartets, and much more – epitomizes the German-Austrian Classical style. His music is recognized and loved all over the world for its melodic, harmonic, and textural richness and beauty. The son of a well-known violinist and pedagogue, Mozart was one of the greatest prodigies ever, playing his first public concert at age five and composing his first music at seven. Before reaching the age of ten he had already played recitals in front of the likes of Marie Antoinette and King George III of England. He traveled throughout Europe through his teens. After failing to find a secure post elsewhere, and having grown dissatisfied with his career in Salzburg, Mozart moved to Vienna, where he spent the last decade of his life. While he enjoyed some successes with his new operas and piano concertos, life there grew more and more precarious, leading to his early death at age thirty-five.

Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219 “Turkish”

Composed: 1775
Duration: 28 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 oboes, 2 horns, strings, solo violin

Known later in life as a formidable piano virtuoso, Mozart was also a fine violinist and violist. At age six he was given his first violin (a half-size model) by his father, and over the succeeding few years Mozart largely taught himself the instrument. While the viola was his preferred string instrument, Mozart became a good enough violinist to serve as concertmaster of the court orchestra in Salzburg from 1769 to 1772. He wrote the only five violin concertos of his career in close succession between April and December of 1775 (No. 1 may have preceded the others by a year or two), likely for either himself or his successor as Salzburg concertmaster, Antonio Brunetti, to perform as soloist. Interestingly, once he left Salzburg for good in 1781, he never again performed in public as a violin soloist, and on his death didn’t even own a violin.

Each of Mozart’s violin concertos is more ambitious than its predecessor, and the last of them, the Concerto No. 5, is the most popular of the series and much valued by both student and professional violinists even today. It has been praised by Mozart biographer Alfred Einstein as “unsurpassed for brilliance, tenderness and wit.” The first movement features two fast-paced main themes heard at the outset. The music suddenly slows to adagio as the soloist enters, a magical moment described by Donald Francis Tovey as “one of the greatest surprises ever perpetrated in a concerto.” As the tempo increases again, the soloist repeats the second of the opening themes, with the first now serving as an accompaniment. A new lyrical theme appears in the central development, and after the soloist’s cadenza, the movement ends abruptly on a rising arpeggio, one of many examples of the gentle humor Mozart brings to this work.

The slow movement is largely based on the long-limbed opening melody, first heard in the muted strings of the orchestra, then taken up and elaborated on by the soloist. Two other ideas are featured as this lovely movement develops, with occasional wanderings into the minor mode. The finale is in rondo-form, specifically ABACADAEA. The opening refrain begins with the soloist and is completed by the orchestra, and each of its returns features slight variations and elaborations. Interludes B and E are variants of a new tune, and the related C interlude features some minor key coloration. The concerto’s nickname comes from interlude D, a rustic dance related to the martial, percussive “Turkish” music in vogue during Mozart’s time. In this case, the percussion is provided by the cellos and basses slapping their strings with the wood of their bows.

Felix Mendelssohn

Born: February 3, 1809, Hamburg, Germany
Died: November 4, 1847, Leipzig, Germany

Felix Mendelssohn was one of the most popular composers of his time. He was also one of the few musical prodigies whose youthful ability could rival Mozart’s. The grandson of philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, young Felix grew up in a home that welcomed as guests many of the most learned people of his day. He took piano, violin, and singing lessons as a youth. By the age of eight he was studying composition, and was producing remarkably assured works by his teens, including the Octet at age 16 and the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream at 17. Mendelssohn was a key figure in resurrecting the reputation of Johann Sebastian Bach, leading the St. Matthew Passion (the first performance the work had enjoyed since Bach’s death in 1750) in a now-famous 1829 concert. He subsequently held conducting posts in Düsseldorf and Berlin. But much of his later life was spent in Leipzig, where he directed the Gewandhaus Orchestra and founded the esteemed Leipzig Conservatory.

Octet in E-flat major, Op. 20 (arranged by Yoon Jae Lee)

Composed: 1825
Duration: 30 minutes
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings

Mendelssohn already had quite a catalog of music behind him when he began work on the Octet. He only started saving his compositions at age eleven, but had already amassed dozens of large-scale works, including symphonies (twelve for strings and one for full orchestra), concertos, chamber music, operas, and more. Most of them were first performed at the Mendelssohn home during their regular musicales.

There is probably general agreement that Mendelssohn’s Octet is the greatest work ever written by a teenager, and that includes the many by the young Mozart. Mendelssohn composed the work during the autumn of 1825, completing it on October 15. Two days later he presented the score as a birthday gift to his violin teacher and friend Eduard Ritz, to whom the work is also dedicated. Ritz showed his appreciation by personally copying out the eight instrumental parts that were used in the work’s first public performance, on January 30, 1836 at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Ritz himself probably played the masterful, virtuoso first violin part.

The string quartet – two violins, viola, and cello – had for years been established as the most popular chamber music instrumentation. But double string quartets were an innovation when Louis Spohr wrote his Double Quartet in D minor, Op. 65 in 1823. Spohr described his work as being for “two choirs,” in which the two quartets played off of one another. By comparison, Spohr saw Mendelssohn’s work as “belong[ing] to quite another kind of art, in which the two quartets do not concert and interchange in double choir with each other, but all eight instruments work together.” It’s not clear whether Mendelssohn was aware of Spohr’s work in composing his Octet.

Mendelssohn indicated his symphonic aims in a note in the score: “This Octet must be played by all the instruments in symphonic orchestral style. Pianos and fortes must be strictly observed and more strongly emphasized than is usual in pieces of this character.” In fact, Mendelssohn later arranged the Octet’s third movement for full orchestra as a possible replacement for the minuet movement of his Symphony No. 1. In 2009, conductor Yoon Jae Lee made his own orchestral arrangement of the first, second, and fourth movements to honor the two hundredth anniversary of Mendelssohn’s birth; add Mendelssohn’s own orchestration of the third movement, and what results is essentially a classical symphony, and a brilliant one at that.

Encompassing nearly half of the work’s total duration, the first movement opens with a soaring theme, moving through nearly three octaves before gently returning to ground. Behind it is what has been described as a “vibrant background,” including tremolos, syncopated chords, and some mild dissonances. The contrasting, flowing second theme barely moves through the range of a fourth. These two themes provide the basis of a complex development, leading to an impressive climax that starts with whole notes, moves through syncopated quarter-notes, and ends in a swirl of sixteenth-notes.

We enter a more tranquil world with the second movement, an Andante in the 6/8 rhythm of a siciliano, with rich harmonies that once again includes some colorful passing dissonances. A more energetic central section leads to a return of the songlike opening music. Sir Donald Francis Tovey described this movement as “rather vague in structure and theme but extraordinarily beautiful in scoring and colour.”

One of Mendelssohn’s fascinations at this time of his life was the enchanted spirit world that is evoked in, for instance, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – think of the remarkable Overture to that work that the seventeen-year-old Mendelssohn composed the year after the Octet. A similar sort of passage from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust, the “Walpurgis Night’s Dream,” may have inspired the Octet’s third movement:

Wisps of cloud and mist
Are lit from above
Breeze in the foliage and wind in the reeds
And all is scattered.

The composer’s sister Fanny once shared her brother’s vision of this movement: “the whole piece is to be played staccato and pianissimo … the trills passing away with the quickness of lightning … one feels so near to the world of spirits, carried away in the air, half inclined to snatch up a broomstick and follow the aerial procession … and at the end, all has vanished.” Transparently scored yet complex, the music is well-described in Mendelssohn’s own tempo designation, Allegro leggierissimo – fast, as light as possible.

In the bravura fourth movement, a combination of fugue, rondo, and moto perpetuo, Mendelssohn’s compositional skills are very much on display. Opening with a fast-paced fugue that betrays his extensive study of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, Mendelssohn halts the forward motion of the music briefly with a broad contrasting theme. He later reintroduces phrases from both the second and third movements, and also seems to quote a part of the famous “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. Andrew Porter has remarked on the “boyish glee” Mendelssohn exhibits in “playing about with themes and combining them in unexpected ways.”

Even in later years, Mendelssohn described the Octet as “my favorite of all my compositions,” adding, “I had a most wonderful time in the writing of it!”