This weekend, we welcome back Maestro de Waart, as virtuosi of the Milwaukee Symphony take center stage for Haydn’s brilliant Sinfonia Concertante. Following intermission, we’ll hear one of Mozart’s three great final symphonies, No. 39. Charles Ives’s haunting The Unanswered Question opens the concert.
(Born 20 October 1874, Danbury, Connecticut; Died 19 May 1954, New York, New York)
First performance: 11 May 1946; New York, New York
Last MSO performance: May 2001; Andreas Delfs, conductor
Instrumentation: 4 flutes, trumpet, strings
Approximate duration: 6 minutes
Unquestionably one of America’s greatest composers, Charles Ives was a heroic figure in experimental music during the first half of the 20th century. Though as an undergraduate he studied composition at Yale with Horatio Parker (1863-1919), his music was constrained neither by academicism nor adherence to European tradition: He made his fortune in the insurance business, so he was free to write music as he pleased. Musical “success” came only in the last decades of his life.
Ives’s first sketches for The Unanswered Question date from 1906; in the 1930s, he developed these into the piece as we know it. First published in 1941, it had its premiere five years later, performed by a chamber orchestra of graduate students from the Juilliard School.
In a preface to the printed score, Ives provided a clue to his compositional intent, giving the work a programmatic narrative. Throughout the piece, the offstage strings sustain hymn-like, slow-moving diatonic chords. Ives said these depict “The Silence of the Druids—who Know, See, and Hear Nothing.” Against this background, the solo trumpet intones an atonal phrase seven times—“The Perennial Question of Existence.” To this, the woodwinds answer the first six times in a progressively volatile manner. These replies represent, stated the composer, “Fighting Answerers” who, after a time, “realize a futility and begin to mock ‘The Question,’” before finally giving up and leaving “The Question” to be asked a final time before “The Silences” are left to their “Undisturbed Solitude.”
Recommended recording: Leonard Bernstein, New York Philharmonic (Sony Classical)
Franz Joseph Haydn
(Born 31 March 1732, Rohrau, Austria; Died 31 May 1809, Vienna, Austria)
First performance: 9 March 1792; London, England
Last MSO performance: February 1996; Yan Pascal Tortelier, conductor; Stephen Colburn, oboe; Stephen Basson, bassoon; Frank Almond, violin; Scott Tisdel, cello
Instrumentation: flute, 2 oboe, 2 bassoon, 2 horn, 2 trumpet, timpani, strings
Approximate duration: 22 minutes
For nearly 30 years, beginning in 1761, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy was Haydn’s patron and employer. The Esterházy family was among the richest and most influential of the Hungarian nobility, and Nikolaus’s musical tastes and requirements shaped the traditions at the Esterházy court. Across the years, at various times and in various combinations, Haydn’s duties—both as composer and music director—included instrumental music (symphonies, concerti, divertimenti, chamber music, etc.), church music, opera, and cantatas to commemorate special occasions.
Prince Nikolaus died on 28 September 1790. Prince Anton, his son and successor, did not share his father’s love of music. He dismissed the orchestra, retaining only the Feldmusik (wind band for out-of-doors music). Haydn was kept on at full salary, as the titular Kapellmeister. Lacking obligations of any kind, he decided to move from Eszterháza to Vienna, where he intended to live a quiet life.
His plans quickly changed when J.P. Salomon, a German-born violinist turned London impresario, showed up on Haydn’s doorstep unannounced. “I am Salomon from London and have come to fetch you. Tomorrow we shall reach an agreement.” And so it went. By 15 December, Haydn and his new “manager” were on their way to England, where they arrived on New Year’s Day 1791.
The master’s so-called “London” symphonies (No. 93-104) were composed for Salomon’s concert series, as was the Sinfonia Concertante. It’s quite likely that Haydn was encouraged by the impresario to write such a piece, due to the popularity of a similar concerto by Ignance Pleyel. As with these MSO performances, the parts for solo violin (Salomon himself), oboe, cello, and bassoon were played by members of the orchestra, rather than guest artists. The primary idea is one of chamber music, and the spirit is one of sharing.
In the opening Allegro, the four solo instruments take the spotlight almost immediately. The orchestra takes a backseat as the soloists engage in a spirited conversation; the jovial cadenza is democratically distributed among them. The songful Andante, set in the dominant key (F major), affords each of the principals an opportunity to embellish the basic thematic material while their colleagues add filigree around them. Mock-serious, opera-inspired recitativo passages for the solo violin open the finale, then Haydn brings back the mirthful exchange among the solo performers. Another operatic outburst, a surprising harmonic detour, and an equally unexpected pause bring us up short before this delightful work hastens to its sparkling conclusion.
Recommended recording: Christopher Hogwood, Basel Chamber Orchestra (Arte Nova Classics)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
(Born 27 January 1756, Salzburg, Austria; Died 5 December 1791, Vienna, Austria)
Composed: completed 26 June 1788
First performance: Undocumented
Last MSO performance: November 2013; Hans Graf, conductor
Instrumentation: flute, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
Approximate duration: 29 minutes
Mozart’s antepenultimate symphony dates from the summer of 1788, a miraculous time when—despite money woes, health concerns, personal grief (the death of his six-month-old daughter, Theresia, on 29 June), and declining professional status—the 32-year-old master also penned Symphonies 40 and 41. In the earlier part of the year, he had composed various dances, some piano pieces, a few songs, the “Coronation” Piano Concerto (K. 537) and three new items for the Viennese premiere of Don Giovanni.
As is the case with its two great successors, the first performance of Symphony No. 39 is undocumented. It’s unlikely, however, that the master never heard them, as was long believed. In fact, such a notion goes against what we know of Mozart’s working methods—his music was written to be heard, not relegated to the bottom desk drawer. At the time he entered the three symphonies in his catalog, a series of subscription concerts was planned for the summer of 1788. Apparently, these never took place, possibly because of the crash of the Viennese economy that occurred after the outbreak of the Austro-Turkish War in the spring of 1787: In response to Joseph II’s highly unpopular declaration of war, most of the Viennese nobility had sought to avoid conscription by taking trips abroad.
Set in E-flat major, the traditional key of the aria d’affetto in Mozart’s operas (Stanley Sadie), Symphony No. 39 is the master’s only mature symphony that does not employ oboes, Instead, a single flute and two clarinets comprise the soprano voices of the woodwind section. The opening movement is a textbook example of classical sonata form, even to the extent of stating the second theme in the dominant key. Its slow introduction was a standard part of Haydn’s symphonies at the time, but was rarely used by Mozart. This feature has led Nikolaus Harnoncourt, among others, to posit the notion that Mozart conceived his last three symphonies as a unified whole, noting also that Symphony No. 39 lacks a coda.
The relaxed Andante, set in A-flat major, makes ample use of its two opening phrases. Cast in an abridged sonata form (no development section), its recapitulation is essentially an elaboration of the exposition. The playful minuet features, in its trio section, an honest-to-goodness Ländler—an Austrian folk dance—this one possibly derived from a Viennese drinking song. The first clarinet intones the charming melody over the bubbling arpeggios of the second.
Mozart’s finales typically display an abundance of themes (think “Jupiter” Symphony), but here the composer relies on a single melodic idea, explored and developed at length. Its mischievous, Haydnesque humor extends to the symphony’s final bars, where the melody has the last laugh, escaping conventional final chords.
Recommended recording: Sir Charles Mackerras, Prague Chamber Orchestra (Telarc)
Program notes by J. Mark Baker.