Concerto for Two Pianos in E-flat major, K. 365 (1779)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Salzburg, 1756 – Vienna, 1791)
Mozart had a sister named Maria Anna ("Nannerl") who was five years older than he. Like her brother, Nannerl was a child prodigy on the piano. Their father took them both on extended concert tours to Vienna, Paris, and London, where her success equaled Wolfgang’s. Yet, because of her gender, she was denied the chance of a musical career as an adult. It is unlikely that she ever performed the concerto that her brother wrote with the two of them in mind. Instead, Mozart played the work with his talented student Josepha Auernhammer. (In his letters, he called Josepha "the fat miss," and at one time wrote: "The young lady is a fright! but she plays enchantingly. The only thing she doesn’t know is the real, subtle, singing taste in the cantabile; she tugs at everything.")
This concerto has always remained popular as one of the jewels of the none-too-large body of works for two pianos and orchestra. It bears some resemblance to another work for two solo instruments and orchestra written the same year and in the same key: the Sinfonia concertante K. 364, for violin and viola. In both works, the two solo parts are strictly equal in terms of their treatment. The words of Hermann Abert, from his classic book on Mozart, apply to both concertos: "[The two soloists] share all their melodies, vary each other’s music, interrupt each other, even argue gently on occasion; however, their fraternal agreement is never troubled by any serious differences of opinion."
Although it starts with a motif that is like a military fanfare, the first movement is mostly lyrical, melodic and brilliant. The slow movement is extremely tender and intimate. The first theme of the good-humored Finale reminded Abert of an old Austrian folksong. The movement is full of harmonic surprises, and the tone of the music, despite occasional forays into the darker minor mode, remains happy and carefree to the end.
The Carnival of the Animals: A Grand Zoological Fantasy (1886)
Camille Saint-Saëns (Paris, 1835 – Algiers, 1921)
The catalog of Saint-Saëns’s works contains no fewer than 169 compositions with opus numbers plus numerous works without (13 operas, to say nothing of the rest). Relatively few of these can be heard today with any regularity: some of his concertos, the Third Symphony ("Organ"), and the opera Samson and Delilah—plus, probably more frequently than anything else, The Carnival of the Animals. According to Saint-Saëns’s biographer James Harding, "it would have caused him the bitterest annoyance had he known that this witty extravaganza was to become his most popular work."
Yet, to tell the truth, Saint-Saëns (the "s" is pronounced at the end of the name) is no less himself in The Carnival of the Animals than he is in his more serious efforts. After all, Harding has given this general characterization of the composer: "Behind the ultra-respectable pillar of the musical establishment there lurked a mischievous imp with a truly Parisian sense of humour and ridicule."
The "mischievous imp" had cooked up a delicious bit of musical parody for a soirée given by the cellist Joseph Lebouc. In a series of sketches, purporting to portray various animals, he in fact poked fun at some well-known composers and performers from the Parisian music scene.
The "zoological fantasy" opens with an introduction that one commentator has described as "a sign board: ‛This way to the zoo,’ a medley of roars, brays, clucks and squawks." It is immediately followed by the "Royal March of the Lion," in which part of the fun comes from the use of the Dorian mode (an old church scale, supposed to be solemn and awe-inspiring) in a most irreverent context.
"Hens and Roosters" is a brief fantasy and quasi-fugue on the musical figure of "cock-a-doodle-doo." The title of the next movement, "Hémiones," refers to a species of wild ass from the Central Asian steppes (also known as the onager): represented by the two pianos, these fleet animals gallop at a breathtaking speed. The "Tortoises," by contrast, drag themselves with an almost painful slowness, dancing the fast can-can from Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld at about a quarter of its original tempo.
The melody of the next movement, "Elephants," is played by the double basses (who else?). In another humorous travesty of a colleague’s music, Saint-Saëns quotes, with supreme irony, the "Dance of the Sylphs" from Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust, followed by a passing echo of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The two pianos briefly take turns hopping up and down in "Kangaroos," before we get to the first truly serious movement, "Aquarium." The flute and the celesta, silent until now, play a beautiful lyrical tune in the company of the muted strings and poetic arpeggios in the two pianos.
This "lyrical intermezzo" is abruptly followed by "Personages with Long Ears," a rather naughty affair for first and second violinists only. In "The Cuckoo in the Depths of the Forest," mischievous humour is again set aside for a piece of genuine beauty. The short movement is made up of a series of peaceful, soft piano chords, with a solo clarinet (preferably offstage) interjecting the calls of the cuckoo.
"Volière" ("Aviary") is a virtuoso flute solo with a somewhat impressionistic flavour, brilliantly written for the instrument. It is followed by "Pianists," possibly the nastiest joke of all. The score instructs the musicians to imitate the awkwardness of beginning piano players as they stumble their way through the C-major, D-flat major, D major and E-flat major scales (there would probably be even more scales if the strings didn’t put a sudden end to the exercise).
In "The Fossils," Saint-Saëns quotes his own "Danse macabre," in addition to some well-known French folksongs and, rather unexpectedly, Rosina’s cavatina from Rossini’s Barber of Seville. The "Danse macabre" tune, played by the xylophone, begins and ends the movement, and is also heard between episodes: in other words, it acts as a rondo theme.
"The Swan," for solo cello, was the only movement Saint-Saëns allowed to be published during his lifetime. No wonder: this piece, which immediately became a staple of the cello literature, has nothing offensive in it, and its beautiful tune was too good to be wasted. The most serious movement in the set, it was obviously Saint-Saëns’s tribute to the evening’s host, the cellist Lebouc.
After this sentimental episode, there is nothing left but to conclude the piece, and Saint-Saëns does so with a lively finale, in which some of the animals we have met return to take their bows. The respective themes of the wild asses, the hens and roosters and the kangaroos are all joined together by a happy refrain melody.
Requiem, K. 626 (1791)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Salzburg, 1756 – Vienna, 1791)
According to the familiar story, Mozart in the fall of 1791 received a commission from an Austrian aristocrat, who didn’t reveal his identity to him, to write a Requiem in memory of the aristocrat’s wife. Mozart left the work unfinished at the time of his death; the Requiem was subsequently completed by his student Franz Xaver Süssmayr.
How much of the Requiem, as we know it from the Süssmayr version, is actually Mozart’s work? Definitely by him are: the first-movement Introit, the vocal parts and bassline of the Kyrie fugue, the most of the Sequence (Dies irae, Tuba mirum, Rex tremendae,Recordare, Confutatis, and the Lacrimosa which breaks off after the eighth measure), as well as the Offertory (Domine Deus and Hostias). The Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei were scored by Süssmayr, though Mozart may have played or sung some of the music to Süssmayr the way he intended it to go. From the Sanctus on, probably none of the music is by Mozart, except for the last movement. The Communion "Lux aeterna" repeats the music of the opening Introit and Kyrie movements, probably at Mozart’s suggestion.
The most crucial part of the Requiem is the Sequence, which Mozart set as a cantata in six movements, with chorus and solo voices alternating. After the powerful "Dies irae," the wondrous sound of the trumpet on Judgment Day is represented by a solo trombone (one of the earliest great trombone solos in the literature). Each of the four soloists voices different feelings about the Day of Wrath before they join together as a quartet. Throughout the sequence, the monumental aspect of the Judgment is expressed by the chorus while the soloists give voice to the anguish of the individual soul. The Sequence culminates in the Lacrimosa—a gripping lament for humanity at the moment when its fate is about to be decided.
In the Offertory, Mozart paints the horrors of hell and the attainment of eternal light in equally vivid colors; the promise made to Abraham is represented by a magnificent choral fugue.
In the following "apocryphal" movements Süssmayr did his best to prevent the intensity of the music from flagging; he mostly succeeded, aside from just a few awkward moments that, however, have become almost hallowed by more than 200 years of performing history. (In the last decades, several new editions have appeared, offering alternative solutions.)
Mozart, who fell ill during the composition of the Requiem, may have felt he was writing it for his own funeral. Yet at the same time the work was in many ways a new beginning: it contains many stylistic elements that Mozart would no doubt have developed further, had he not died just weeks before his 36th birthday. Baroque counterpoint meets an almost Romantic sensitivity here in a completely novel way, but it was left to others to draw the consequences.