Works of Classical and Romantic music possess a special charm to music lovers. On the one hand, the intellectual, rational, and orderly époque of Classicism, which spanned approximately seven decades from 1750, produced impeccable models of such genres of symphony and concerto. On the other hand, the emotional, intuitive, feeling-driven period of Romanticism, which occupied almost a century from the early 1810s, dramatically enlarged the musical repertoire by introducing unprecedented passion for music. This report represents works by composers of different styles: the first part of the report features the Classical epoch and Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute and Piano Concerto K488; the second part focuses on the late Romantic period and Mussorgsky’s (originally) piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition in a brilliant arrangement for orchestra by Maurice Ravel. The performers are as following: Med Orchestra under conductor James Levine for Overture, Zoltán Kocsis as a soloist, and Virtuosi di Praga orchestra for Piano Concerto, and Philharmonia Orchestra under Esa-Pekka Salonen for Pictures at an Exhibition.
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Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute and Piano Concerto K488
The unique Austrian composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) is one of the brightest representatives of the Classical era in music. His genius allowed him to involve in writing musical pieces of all existing contemporary genres and to excel in each of them. He is known to have been so busy all the time that not infrequently he finished his works just before their first performance. Such was the case with Overture to his last opera, The Magic Flute (1790): Mozart finished it the night before the performance, keeping awake on coffee brought by his wife (Faulkner 529). Since The Magic Flute itself is believed to embody Mozart’s Masonic ideas, the Overture is no exception (Faulkner 529). The three solemn chords that open the piece are played by the whole orchestra and immediately attract the audience’s attention as if saying “Listen!”.
After such an attention-drawing start, the strings group involves a slow fragment of searching around various harmonies. This period of ambiguity is soon over, superseded by an active theme that is developed through fugal techniques in a vivid dialogue of various orchestra groups. At some point, a cadence comes and the listener thinks the piece is over. Against all expectations the three chords from the introduction return, now played by woodwinds only, in a quiet dynamics, which makes them sound irresolute. But the agitated rhythm of the main energetic theme returns and develops into another fugato involving various orchestral groups. In the final coda, Mozart introduces the menacing sound of trombones that with its straightforward resolution destroys the orchestral harmony. However, the latter is quickly restored, symbolizing the overall happy end of the opera.
Since Mozart was a talented pianist, he was often invited to play in concerts. Facing a lack of repertoire, the Viennese genius had to compose the pieces himself — which he did, producing a whole series of outstanding piano concertos. One of the most successful and fruitful periods in concerto writing was in the mid-1780s when he wrote three concertos in a record term of three months (Ferguson 412). Among those pieces, Piano Concerto K488 (1786) attracts the audience by its charming optimism and radiant joy achieved using both the instrumentation and the melodies. The first theme of the opening Allegro is deployed first by the strings, and then by the wind woods, with the whole orchestra breaking afterward in a joyous conclusion. The second theme, gracious and light in its dotted-note repetition, add to the careless atmosphere of the movement.
After a while the piano joins in, repeating the major themes previously voiced by the orchestra and varying them in virtuosic passages. The movement is concluded with a traditionally breathtaking cadence demonstrating all the mastery of the soloist. The second movement, Adagio, strikes with its subtle melancholy of the opening piano theme. The orchestra joins in, first with clarinet (a revolution in orchestral sound), and then with its full sound, supporting the key shifts throughout the whole movement. After a while, the initial melody is repeated by the orchestra; the soloist provides an agitate variant of it and joins in a calmer coda with the orchestra. The last movement, Allegro assai, is again opened by the piano — this time in a lively theme that proceeds in energetic leaps. The orchestra carries on and provokes the soloist for taking over the initiative and demonstrating virtuosity. Such playful dialogue continues throughout the whole movement.
Mussorgsky’s (originally) piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition
The Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky witnessed the times when his land experienced a rise in nationalism. This tendency could not be overlooked by the musicians, and composers strove to reflect the peculiarities of Russian folklore in their works (Bricard 6). Mussorgsky was no exception, with his “bold modulations” and modal melodies that remind of the orthodox religious music (Bricard 8). Inspired by the paintings of his prematurely perished friend, artist Victor Hartman, Mussorgsky decided to create a piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) which would reflect his impressions from Hartman’s pictures. The bright images of the suite attracted the audience so much that the suite was not once arranged for orchestra, also by the French composer Maurice Ravel.
The suite opens with the so-called “Promenade”, literally a walk through the exhibition. The motif is played initially by the trumpets, with strings joining in later. Every time reinstrumented, the melody constantly reappears after each movement as if walking from one picture to another. “Gnome”, the first painting, represents an evil, unfriendly creature that moves irregularly, in jumps that are rendered by syncopated leaps of sound from the highest to the lowest register. The calm “The Old Castle” moves in the atmosphere of medieval Italy, imitating a troubadour song by its flowing modal melody. Next, the listener enters the French gardens of “Tuileries (Dispute of Children after Play)”. Lively passages of the wind woods imitate the ever-active, bustling children who involve in a lively discussion. The travel through Europe continues, bringing the listener to Poland. “Cattle” depicts a scene of bulls pulling a heavy wagon — the massive effort is represented in the ponderous repeating chords played by the whole orchestra.
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Opposed to the clumsy oxen is “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks”: the chicks’ light speedy movements are brilliantly reflected by high woodwinds who spill passages of grace notes and staccatos. The next picture, “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” represents a dialogue of two Jews. The first one, rich and pompous, is depicted in the massive sound of the brass instruments. The second one, poor and miserable, is rendered by annoying repetitions of the saxophone. Another human conflict “Limoges — The Market” is set in France, and deafens the audience with the noisy high-pitch quarreling of market women. After this burst of life, the listener is brought to the terrible silence of “Catacombs”: there is barely a live sound, and slow chords symbolize the inevitability of death. The following “Promenade” performed by oboe is as if discouraged and intimidated by the prospect of eternal repose. After much contemplation on mortality, Mussorgsky returns to folklore images in “The Hut on Hen’s Legs”. The driving repeating rhythm depicts the wild flight of an evil Russian witch in her mortar (Bricard 14). Finally, “The Bogatyr Gates (In the Ancient Capital, Kyiv)” celebrates the return of the “Promenade” melody in a majestic movement, employing elements of choral and the sound of traditional orthodox carillons.
Bricard, Nancy. “About “Pictures at an Exhibition”.” Mussorgsky — Pictures at an Exhibition. Ed. Nancy Bricard. Van Nuys, CA: Alfred Music Publishing, 2002. 6–14. Print.
Faulkner, Anne Shaw. What We Hear in Music: A Course of Study in Music Appreciation and History, 12th ed. Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, 2005. Print.
Ferguson, Donald Nivison. Masterpieces of the Orchestral Repertoire: A Guide for Listeners. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1968. Print.