1756 – 1791
Concerto for Flute, Harp, and Orchestra 1778
Often considered the prince of concerto writers, Wolfgang Mozart understood the true nature of each solo instrument’s harmonic, melodic, and technical demands, and therefore produced stellar results with this form. Only the cello and trombone have been left out of the composer’s concerti repertoire, and he is credited with only one harp work.
At the time of the harp and flute concerto, the composer was living for 6 months in Paris, with the main purpose of locating a secure position somewhere in Europe. His work in Salzburg was a “lost cause,” as he felt his gargantuan talents were being wasted.
Tragedy struck; not only did the 26-year-old Mozart fail to procure any offers for a position, but his accompanying mother died while in Paris. His luck changed and a wealthy, talented flautist and his equally talented harpist daughter provided him a commission that ended up as the 1778 Concerto for Flute, Harp, and Orchestra, one of only two double concertos written by the composer. Most unfortunately, Mozart was never paid for this commission and he returned to Salzburg “empty-handed.”
Especially revered by the French were perennial favorites featuring the flute and/or harp; both were sensual in sound and proved an unusual but pleasing match. The harp was still in its developmental phase, not yet having earned a place in an orchestral setting. It was a single-action instrument with limited ability to modulate, thus regarded more as a “plucked piano.” As a result Mozart could not provide the rolling glissandi or lush chords of later periods of harp repertoire.
An unusual feature of this concerto is the addition of cadenzas in all three movements. If Mozart had written any cadenzas (unaccompanied solos), they have since been replaced by contemporary soloists or other composers. The original manuscript has been housed in the Jagiellonian University Library in Krakow since 1946.
Considered a masterful example of French Salon music, this concerto was designed to please aristocratic Parisian society of the late 18th century. Emotionally, it is of a sunny, tender character, redolent of pleasant days and courtly graciousness.
The First Movement features four independent themes, two of which are played by the orchestra (one introduced by horn), and two by the soloists. Throughout the movement, flute and harp alternate in the roles of soloist and accompanist, and both exhibit virtuoso characteristics inherent in the instruments of the period. Additionally, the flute is often paired in dialogues with the violins.
In the gentle, soul-searching Second Movement, the two soloists continue to trade solo roles, and include a series of shared dialogues featuring variations on the theme. The flute is the dominant partner for most of the movement until the end, where a lovely harp passage introduces a shared cadenza. Rarely heard above a whisper is orchestral support; the two solo instruments do not need auxiliary help as they busily support and embrace each other’s musical moments. If the music of this movement sounds familiar, who can forget the film Amadeus, with Antonio Salieri “swooning” over this concerto’s second movement theme? This theme also resounds in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, in a piano sonata, and in the unfinished opera Zaide.
The Third Movement introduces themes now featured in a 1998 movie titled Modern Vampires. This movement takes off on a gay, spirited romp by the orchestra, before the two soloists resume their meandering back and forth dialogue. As remarked by one contemporary Viennese composer and critic, “Mozart leaves his listener out of breath, with hardly a moment to grasp one beautiful musical idea, when another of greater beauty and fascination takes its place.”
1865 – 1931
Symphony No. 4 Op. 20 (The Inextinguishable) 1916
Born into a large family of meager means, Carl Nielsen rose to become the most honored of Denmark’s composers. His father was a house painter, but had skills as a violinist and cornet player, and had organized a classical music-playing group. From listening to this group of dedicated amateur players, the young boy developed his passion for music.
Nielsen learned violin and cornet as well as piano at his father’s knee, and in 1879 the 14-year-old won a position playing cornet in a local Danish military brass band. Soon after, he visited the Copenhagen Conservatory and joined the student population where he studied violin and music theory. Nielsen refused to partake in the Conservatory’s “oppressive and stifling” composition courses, preferring to work on his own original compositions. In independently studying Renaissance polyphony, the composer was developing a melodic and harmonic structure that evolved into the basis for emotionality in his music.
After finding a music publisher in 1916 for his first noticeable work, Little Suite in A minor for Strings (1888) he became musical director of the Copenhagen Royal Opera and conductor at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen. He was also a conservatory professor and composer until his death in 1931. Nielson was a very prolific composer, and six monumental symphonies, three concertos, and a wind quintet head the top of his works.
It has been suggested that Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 4 should begin any study of the Danish composer’s music. The work is one of such visceral power that it is nearly impossible not to fall under its spell. Written between 1914 and 1916, this symphony was the composer’s response to “The Great War” (World War I). Although Denmark remained neutral, the devastation was just beyond the nation’s borders. Symphony No. 4 depicts violence, chaos, and warring, but the human spirit is triumphant in the end. To quote Nielsen’s program notes at the symphony’s 1916 premiere, “Life is indomitable and inextinguishable: the struggle, the wrestling, the generation and the wasting away go on today as yesterday, tomorrow as today, and everything returns. Once more: music is Life, and, like it, inextinguishable.”
The symphony is built upon two themes depicting Chaos and Life which rage, subside, rise again, and fall throughout its four movements. Nielsen’s sudden, stylistic swings are shown through dynamics, instrumentation, tempo, and tonality. Such abrupt switches can be dizzying, and can pose many challenges of pacing and momentum for the conductor.
The First Movement opens with a brash, full orchestra, with vigorous pounding timpani and punctuated rhythms. This mood dominates to create a first theme which one critic has named Chaos. Within a minute, the composer introduces a second theme by clarinet that is lyrically calm and peaceful and symbolizes Life. With small modifications, the two thematic statements repeat themselves, while traveling from winds to violins, full orchestra to brasses, and a restatement by the full orchestra. Finally, the composer musically integrates Chaos and Life.
The Second Movement focuses on Life when the music unfolds as a woodwind serenade supported lightly by strings. This provides the atmosphere suggested by a drawing room for teas that overlooks small gardens; all opposition has disappeared.
The Third Movement: Violins in lyrical unison interrupt the peace by circling, in Nielsen’s words, like “an eagle riding the wind.” Accompanying timpani beats form an impassioned dialogue that lead to a climax before falling away. An oboe plays over trills in the upper strings.
The Fourth Movement begins after a noticeable pause. The music then explodes into a reprise of the first movement’s theme of Chaos. Two sets of timpani duel from opposite sides of the orchestra in a reminder that the world is at war. The second main theme becomes a hymn of triumph by obliterating stress and anxiety; life’s struggle for survival prevails.
Notes Researched & Written by Joan Olsson