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The Reformation, 500 Years

Monday, October 16, 2017

Overture to “Don Giovanni,” K.527
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Symphony No. 35, “Haffner,” K.385, D major
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

I. Allegro con spirito
II. Andante
III. Menuetto
IV. Presto

INTERMISSION

 

Symphony No. 5, “Reformation,” op. 107
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

I. Andante-Allegro con fuoco
II. Allegro vivace
III. Andante
IV. Andante con moto-Allegro vivace-Allegro maestoso

Program Notes

Overture to “Don Giovanni,” K.527
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni” was first performed October 29, 1787 in Prague. Famously completed the night before its premiere, the opera begins with a long, slow introduction, foreshadowing the penultimate scene where the statue of the Commandatore returns to drag the unrepentant Don Giovanni down to hell. As the music moves forward, driven by a sinister inner voice in the second violins, there is a distant cry of anguish leading to chilling scales in the winds as the first violins evoke the supernatural.

The slow introduction subsides into darkness and the allegro, in the major mode, shifts the mood completely. Now full of life, drive and energy as it describes the brash self-confidence of Don Giovanni and the many comic interchanges between him and his servant, Leoporello.

The overture ends quietly and moves directly into the first act. Mozart composed a concert ending with a triumphal blaze of color for the entire orchestra.

 

Symphony No. 35, “Haffner,” K.385, D major
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

"Haffner" is the parenthetical name of Mozart’s 35th Symphony. Siegmund Haffner, a magistrate in Salzburg, commissioned Mozart to compose music for two different special family occasions. One, for the wedding of the magistrate’s daughter in 1776, the then 20-year-old Mozart produced a serenade. Then, for a Haffner festivity in 1782, the composer wrote an extended work, part of which became his 35th Symphony. Thus, the “Haffner” Symphony, in honor of the man who paid for it.

The first movement’s opening sets the exhilarating tone: The full orchestra makes a bold bid for attention with a unison, octaves-leaping theme which moves on to pervade the entire movement. The inner movements fully display their entertainment nature, and the finale is alive with the buffa spirit. Of the latter movement, Mozart said it should be played “as fast as possible.”

 

Symphony No. 5, “Reformation,” op. 107
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Between the ages of 12 and 14, Mendelssohn composed 13 symphonies for strings (with occasional surprise entries for percussion), a fluency quite at odds with his mature approach to the symphony. For the five grown-up symphonies were composed at wide intervals and regarded with considerable unease by their composer, yet usually admired for the polish and approachability we find in all his music. They were numbered according to their order of publication, and since he never published the popular “Italian” Symphony or the “Reformation” Symphony, they ended up misleadingly numbered 4 and 5.

The “Reformation” Symphony was conceived as celebrating the triumph of Protestantism, represented in the finale by Luther’s chorale “Ein feste Burg.”

The first movement persuasively carries the notion of conflict, at first in the slow introduction where clarion figures seem to call out for reform over the aspiring counterpoint in the lower strings. Mendelssohn also cites the “Dresden Amen,” a simple rising scale heard twice very softly in widely spaced strings, which he may have regarded as a symbol of the Protestant church even though it was originally intended for the Catholic royal chapel in Dresden and later adopted by both churches. Then the main Allegro, in the minor mode, comes close to Beethovenian anger, dramatically interrupted at the end of the development when the music speeds up almost out of control, only to be stopped in its tracks by the strings quietly singing out the Dresden Amen and bringing order out of chaos.

The Scherzo second movement might well have struck its composer as juvenile since it evokes the world of Haydn, or perhaps early Beethoven, although its Trio is closer to Mendelssohn’s own style in its elegant melodiousness. The slow movement resembles a vocal aria, the voice line entrusted to the first violins, and like an aria it is compact and short.

At this point, Mendelssohn originally composed a short linking movement in which a solo flute evokes Luther the musician (he is known to have played the flute) leading directly into the statement of the chorale “Ein feste Burg.” This plan was later dropped. The first strain of the chorale is heard on the flute alone, and the winds and lower strings gradually join in. What follows is a surprise, for the chorale is treated in jaunty fashion as if it were to be a set of variations. But the tune is never completed, and the full orchestra interrupts it with the start of the finale proper, a vigorously positive statement to support the triumph of the Reformation.

Fragments of the chorale are admitted into the texture and eventually, the chorale appears in a strong statement from the winds. Its final strain provides a close from which all elements of doubt and conflict have been banished.

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