Mozart, Giver of Pain

There’s an episode of the original “Star Trek” (OK, you’ve outed me as a “Trekkie”–that wasn’t hard, was it?) in which the crew finds itself on a planet populated entirely by primitive, downtrodden men dressed in bearskins and such.  Where are the women?  Turns out they’re around–up in the hills–and running this unfortunate world.  (They’re armed with electronic torture-gizmos that enable them to keep the male populace under their heel.)  They do come down to the male precincts occasionally to reassert their dominance and, when necessary, procreate.  Turns out the men have no word for “woman” in their lexicon; they denominate the female of the species, rather, by a phrase of several words: “Giver of pain and delight.”

What does this have to do with Mozart? I’ll tell you, but it will take a minute. Last week we took a look at his “advanced” side–which often has dissonance at its heart. And it occurred to me that if it’s dissonance you’re after in Mozart, you may as well go to the single most piercing instance of it in his work (and, arguably, in music).  It’s found in the slow movement of his String Quintet, K. 614.  The movement begins with about as innocent a theme as Mozart was capable of cooking up (at 10:38 in this clip).  The two note “pickup” that starts the theme is then used to start a similar (and similarly untroubled) theme that comes in at 13:46.  But at 16:10 Mozart takes this new theme’s pickup and, in an exercise  of something bordering on musical sadism, repeats it three times in settings of increasing (and, in the third instance, almost unendurable) dissonance.  This kind of anguish is the last thing one may think of Mozart as inflicting–though as you get to know his music better, you realize that this is hardly the only case of his having a whip in hand ( just the most extreme one).  Not only could Mozart be a “giver of pain” when he wanted to, but when he really wanted to, he could give it like no other. (Not, of course, that he couldn’t give supreme delight as well when, as was far more frequently the case, he was of a mind to.)

Mozart Pushes the Envelope

There are two common impressions of Mozart’s music.  The principal one is of what could be called “Musicbox Mozart,” the graceful, elegant sort of piece epitomized by “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.”  In recent years a second impression has developed, courtesy of the play (and then movie) Amadeus.  This could be called “Romantic” Mozart, dark-hued, even demonic. (It’s telling that the “Romantic” nineteenth century already recognized, and was drawn to, this side of Mozart, as represented by music like the Overture to Don Giovanni, the outer movements of the D minor Piano Concerto K. 466, or certain sections of the Requiem.)

But there are still other facets to Mozart.  One of them is his “advanced” side, in which he pushes the envelope of convention, especially in the sphere of harmony, where his music could be daringly, even shockingly dissonant. His K. 465 string quartet is in fact nicknamed “The Dissonant,” owing to a wrending moment in the slow introduction to its first movement.  But a spot in a different Mozart quartet is even stranger (and much less well known for its strangeness).  The minuet in his last quartet, K.590 (at 14:56 in this clip) starts sweetly, even innocently, but in its second half (beginning at 15:30, and then repeated) the harmonic stress-level rises to the point of going over the top.

Towards the end of his life, Schubert said that he was imagining harmonies that had never been heard before.  It wouldn’t be surprising if some of them resembled Mozart’s harmonies in this minuet, which reside at an outer limit of the classical musical language.

Mozart Pulls a Switcheroo

When I signed off last week I was wracking my brains trying to think of the name of the jazzy tune prefigured in the finale of Mozart’s K. 590 string quartet.  My thanks to reader Doreen Spungin for passing along her son Andrew Lubman’s guess as to the tune in question, which 1) turned out to be absolutely correct and 2) allowed my life to resume a less troubled course.  It’s “Twelfth Street Rag.”

Mozart quartets being on my mind, I got to thinking of a remarkable spot in the 3rd movement–a minuet-and-trio–of Mozart’s immediately preceding one, K. 589. But in order to realize what’s remarkable about it, you have to know a little about how minuet-and-trio movements are normally put together. In simplest terms, a movement of this kind is in an A-B-A form: a minuet (itself in two sections, each of which is repeated), a “trio” (some completely different music, also in two repeated sections), and a return of the minuet.  One more thing: the trio is usually more modest, in every respect, than the minuet: “lighter,” more naive, easier-going–and often just plain shorter. A good example of the typical trio’s relative lightness is found in the minuet-and-trio of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony.  The trio begins at 2:30 in this clip. Notice how much shorter and less grand and complex it is than the minuet by which it’s sandwiched. (It does have one intense stretch, but things return in short order to sweetness.)

Now look at the minuet-and-trio in the K. 589 quartet.  The minuet is a rich, noble, and–in its second part–expansive item. The trio comes at 2:00 in the clip–and with it, what can only be called, to use the technical term, a switcheroo.  Because it’s the trio (which here, unusually, is much longer than the minuet) that’s the really ambitious element in this movement–especially its second half (beginning at 3:07) with, as its capper, a marvelous extension, beginning at 3:51, that features virtuosic cross-bowing in the first violin. Just when we’re expecting the movement to become more relaxed–to take, in its trio, a kind of breather–Mozart launches into one of his most extended, exciting, and inspired flights.  That’ll teach us to think we can ever be sure what genius has up its sleeve.


Impudent Prophetic Plagiarism – 3

Last week we saw Beethoven discovering jazz (and moving on to other things with nary a backward–or should that be forward?–glance).

After writing that post, it occurred to me that Mozart can be caught in the same act, though in Mozart’s case it’s not jazz in general he predicts, but a particular song. And for the life of me, I can’t remember what the song is.  Can you help?

In the finale of his last string quartet, K.590, he plays every which way with a little 3-note scrap of descending scale (it comes in right away at the beginning of the movement, which starts at 19:04 in this clip). The contrapuntal complications he works upon this fragment would take a while to recount (and a lifetime to properly admire) but I’m going to skip over all that and take you right to the little “closing” theme that ends the movement’s first section (it comes in at 20:55 in the clip). If it makes you laugh out loud, you’re forgiven: the syncopated, dizzying repetitions of the three-note figure instantly whisk us ahead a hundred years-plus to an age when ragtime roamed the earth. (The bluesy alternation of major and minor beneath the repeated figure is a demonstration of prescience squared). Mozart himself knew he’d happened on a remarkable, and remarkably winning thing, as shown by the fact that he works the repeated figure non-stop for almost the entire  “development” section–all the way to the movement’s “recapitulation” (which begins at 21:50).

What IS the raggy song Mozart presages here? Until someone is kind enough to tell me via a comment to this post, I won’t be getting nearly as much sleep as I need.


Impudent Prophetic Plagiarism – 2

Last week we caught Mozart peeking at the future in composing a passage that could have been written by Schubert (if on a more inspired day, perhaps, than even the latter ever had). In bringing off this miracle, Mozart’s futurescope was focused about forty years ahead.

When Beethoven pulled off something comparably prophetic, he shot beyond his time by something more like a century. His last piano sonata, the Opus 111 (1821-22), has only two movements rather than the customary three or four, but it’s safe to say that no one has ever felt shortchanged by it.  The second movement, in particular, is, to adopt a phrase sometimes applied to Schubert, of a “heavenly length:” a theme and variations, marked Adagio molto, that lasts at least fifteen minutes (and often a good deal more) in  performance.  (It starts at 9:22 in this clip.) While the movement’s glacial tempo never changes, things seem to speed up from variation to variation in the first few of them, as Beethoven packs the same slow beats with progressively more (hence progressively faster) notes. (Eventually these notes speed up so much that they become a trill, which Beethoven uses, in a bit of paradoxical wizardry, to stop time altogether in the movement’s extended coda.)

It’s the movement’s third variation that gets prophetic.  Of what? You tell me. When I first heard this variation, which begins at 15:56 in the clip, I could hardly believe my ears.  Who knew there were honky-tonks in 1820’s Vienna? Not that Beethoven ever visited them again; it’s as though, having happened on an entirely new world we call jazz, he left the exploration of it to a later age.

Of course the composer himself didn’t hear the writing in this variation as “jazzy”–just powerfully syncopated.  Can we “forget” our experience of jazz, and hear Beethoven’s variation in all 19th-century innocence of the future?  Not easily, but that doesn’t mean that, as a mind-stretching exercise of our historical imagination, it isn’t worth trying to.