Program Notes: Mozart & Beethoven

Conductor Xian Zhang leads the Seattle Symphony in music by William Grant Still, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven on Thursday, September 24, 2020 at 7:30pm on Seattle Symphony Live.


BORN: May 11, 1895 in Woodinville, Mississippi
DIED: December 3, 1978 in Los Angeles, California
WORK COMPOSED: 1943 (as part of Suite for Violin and Piano)
WORK PREMIERED: 1944 by Louis and Annette Kaufman (the full Suite; string orchestra version composed soon after, premiere unknown)

William Grant Still, the “Dean of African-American Composers,” produced almost two hundred works including five symphonies, eight operas, a ballet, numerous choral works and more. It’s surprising, then, that the composer’s daughter, Judith Anne Still, relates that the brief Mother and Child, originally just the second movement of his Suite for Violin and Piano, was not only one of her father’s favorite compositions, but is even today “surely most people's favorite—people call regularly to say how beautiful it is.” 

Still achieved numerous firsts for Black American composers, along with multiple honorary doctorates and abundant commissions. These accomplishments were all hard-won, however, as his life and career were enmeshed in the complex racial and cultural politics of his time. 

Still’s work straddled the two worlds of popular and ‘art’ music. While playing and arranging for bandleaders W.C. Handy and Paul Whiteman, he was also learning classical composition from professors at Oberlin and Eastman, studying modernism with Edgard Varèse and seeing his First Symphony be the first by a Black composer performed by a major orchestra.

Thanks to the first of two Guggenheim fellowships, Still moved to Los Angeles in 1934; in the ‘30s and ‘40s, he was at the height of his standing in the ‘art’ music world. He appeared in 1936 at the Hollywood Bowl as the first Black conductor to lead a major symphony orchestra, playing his own compositions; one review noted perceptively, “Dignity, sincerity, and a certain pride characterize Still’s writing.” 

In order to feed his family, Still also kept one foot in the popular music world, writing and arranging dozens of film scores. In 1943, however, he walked away from what would have been his biggest paycheck ever. He quit the landmark musical “Stormy Weather,” declaring that the studio “degraded colored people,” and that the film’s “crude,” “sexy” musical stereotypes “are the sort of misconceptions that…indirectly influence the lives of our thirteen million people.” This episode exemplifies how Still’s lifelong dedication to his principles sometimes cost him dearly.

That same year, Still wrote the three-movement Suite for Violin and Piano. He described his inspiration:

“… when I was asked to compose a suite for violin and piano, I thought of three contemporary Negro artists whom I admire and resolve to try [sic] to catch in music my feeling for an outstanding work by each of them.”

Nothing is “crude,” “sexy” or “degrading’” about any of the Suite’s three musical portraits. Rather, it is quite possible the “Stormy Weather” episode motivated  Still’s choice to counter the film’s “misconceived” images with musical illustrations of three images created by acclaimed Black artists, thus asserting the “dignity, sincerity and pride” of Black life and art.

A deceptively simple lithograph entitled “Mother and Child” by Sargent Johnson provided the specific impetus for the movement, yet the powerful universality of the feelings Still caught in music made it immediately popular upon its premiere as part of the Suite. Still quickly arranged it in several different standalone versions, including for string orchestra.

Still also favored this movement partly because, according to Judith Anne, “it reminded him of his beloved madre.” He often spoke of his mother in interviews, frankly describing her love as equal parts encouragement and vigilant discipline: “I rarely missed passing through a day without a licking. But I needed them.”

In Mother and Child Still aptly employed a favorite binary compositional form: “a loose ABA, not too strict.” More than just a lullaby, as some call it, the piece offers many other binaries that can evoke the two contrasting aspects of Still’s memories, or more generally, an acknowledgement of the complexity of maternal love. Still’s deceptively simple music alternates between major and minor, gentle syncopation and straightforward rhythms, comfort and escalating tension.

At the end, though, after the drama resolves to a joyful final recapitulation, the music does drift down, like a mother singing more and more softly until her child falls asleep. Mother and Child never ultimately resolves to the tonic, the last chord just a pause in the ongoing journey of the mother-child relationship itself.

Scored for strings.

© 2020 Carolyn Talarr

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K. 467

Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K. 467
Allegro maestoso 
Allegro vivace assai

BORN: January 27, 1756, in Salzburg 
DIED: December 5, 1791, in Vienna 
WORLD PREMIERE: March 10, 1785, in Vienna; Mozart performing the solo and conducting from the keyboard

If G minor was Mozart’s key of pain and stress, C major seems to have been the composer’s tonality for music of martial majesty. The opening theme, replete with trumpets and timpani, conveys that very attribute despite muted tones. The first movement’s spaciousness marks the Piano Concerto No. 21 as a symphonic, rather than a merely showy, orchestral edifice. The writing for winds is especially rich and imaginative, and the entire movement abounds in numerous separate melodies. The delayed entry of the piano, which gives added time for the winds, is another demonstration of the music’s integrated orchestral/solo approach — chamber music writ large. In light of the above reference to G minor it is worth noting that at one point in this Allegro maestoso Mozart retreats into that tonal center that would eventually find full expression in the String Quintet No. 4 and the Symphony No. 40. Mozart left no written cadenzas for this concerto, undoubtedly improvising them as he was wont to do.

The Andante second movement is a dreamy reverie that anticipates the nocturnes of Chopin (who favored Mozart among all other composers). Its use in the soundtrack to the 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan introduced Mozart’s music to a generation of viewers who responded with great enthusiasm to the way in which the movement underscored the romance of the movie. Whether it led to a wholesale endorsement of Mozart’s voluminous output is open to conjecture, but K. 467 — or at least that movement — led to a spate of new recordings and concert performances. The music is gently urged on by nearly continuous triplets in the orchestra against which the solo weaves a tender and beguiling melody. The Concerto closes with a vivacious rondo marked Allegro vivace assai. Typical of the Classical period, the first entry of the main theme falls to the orchestra, not to the soloist. With a festive mood, the trumpets and drums — silent during the Andante — lend their vigor to the occasion.

Scored for piano solo; 1 flute; 2 oboes; 2 bassoons; 2 horns; 2 trumpets; timpani; strings

© 2015 Steve Lowe. 

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
Allegro con brio
Andante con moto
Scherzo: Allegro—        

BORN: December 16, 1770, in Bonn
DIED: March 26, 1827, in Vienna
WORLD PREMIERE: December 22, 1808, in Vienna, conducted by the composer.

What to Listen For

Beethoven’s great innovation in this symphony was to use a vivid melodic motif — the famous “da-da-dadaaah” figure heard at the outset — as a dramatic as well as a musical element. It forms the subject for what seems tumultuous struggle throughout most of the first movement, and it returns in the third and fourth movements to cast the work’s triumphant conclusion into sharp relief.

No orchestral composition has gripped the popular imagination quite like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Through countless performances, recordings and even parodies, the famous four-note motif that opens this work has become familiar to millions of people. The piece has acquired a heavy gloss of extra-musical interpretation. It has been proposed as a mirror of one of Beethoven’s romantic relationships, as an allegory of Olympian strife and more.

Such descriptions generally say more about the imaginations of commentators than about the work itself. Still, this symphony demands to be heard as more than “pure music,” and not only because of the composer’s tantalizing description of its initial figure as “Fate knocking at the door.” Beethoven has come to represent to us the Romantic ideal of the artist hero, that solitary and suffering individual who transcends trying circumstances by dint of genius and struggle. And it is the Fifth Symphony, with its strife-torn first movement and triumphant finale, that gives this view its most convincing musical expression. As such, it is important not only as a key to understanding the composer but as an embodiment of one our culture’s enduring concepts of what art can be.

Beethoven began work on the Fifth Symphony in 1802 but did not complete it until 1808. Significantly, the celebrated four-note motif that opens the work was present in the earliest sketches. This motif, the figure Beethoven associated with fate, dominates the first movement, its rhythmic vigor accounting in no small way for the sense of agitation and momentum that prevails here. The pace relaxes only briefly for the lyrical second theme, and for the unusual oboe cadenza that embellishes the recapitulation.

The Andante con moto that follows is constructed as a fluid set of variations on not one but two themes whose alternation lends the music variety and spaciousness. It is a supremely lovely movement which, despite a few strong outbursts, provides a timely contrast to the turbulent spirit of the opening movement.

The Scherzo is another matter. Here, the theme softly stated by the low strings in the opening measures seems ghostly and ominous, and its menacing aspect is confirmed moments later by a disturbing reappearance of the “fate” motif from the first movement. Following a central section, in which the orchestra chases the rumbling basses and cellos in echoic counterpoint, the spectral dance resumes.

And then, Beethoven creates a moment of extraordinary drama. The dancing ghost freezes in mid-step as time and motion are suspended. Slowly, its theme is taken and transformed fragment by fragment until, with a thrilling crescendo, the music bursts into the radiant C-major finale. Trombones, making their first appearance in any familiar symphony, join the orchestra in a blaze of light and victory. The drama is not yet over, however. In the middle of this fourth movement, we suddenly return to the “fate” motif and the ghostly atmosphere of the Scherzo. That stroke, so widely admired and imitated by subsequent generations of composers, prepares a recapitulation not only of the movement’s themes but also of the dramatic passage from darkness to light, from despair to joy, which is the meaning of the finale and the goal of the entire symphony.

Scored for 2 flutes and piccolo; 2 oboes; 2 clarinets; 2 bassoons and contrabassoon; 2 horns; 2 trumpets; 3 trombones; timpani; strings.

© 2018 Paul Schiavo

Posted on September 24, 2020