Memories and Reflections: Mazzoli, Mozart, and Brahms program notes

Thursday, August 5, 2021 , 6:30 PM

Mazzoli: These Worlds In Us

Mozart: Concerto in A Major for Clarinet and Orchestra, K. 622

Brahms: Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn, Op. 56a, “St. Antony Variations”

Missy Mazzoli (b. 1980)

These Worlds In Us

Composed: 2006
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, 3 percussion (2 melodicas, bass drum, snare drum, 2 cowbells, hi-hat, vibraphone, suspended cymbal), harp, and strings

American musician Missy Mazzoli is among the most innovative and successful composers of her young generation. Mazzoli represents the cohort fittingly with her openness to finding inspiration in music across the spectrum of genres and without regard to national boundaries. She began her music studies at Boston University, studying with Charles Fussell and John Harbison, among others, and went on to Yale, where she further developed her craft with Aaron Jay Kernis and David Lang. Her works, often integrating acoustic and electronic instruments to create startling soundscapes, have been performed by major artists and organizations around the globe, including the Kronos Quartet, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Sydney Symphony, and the BBC Symphony. Her 2016 opera Breaking the Waves, commissioned by Opera Philadelphia and based on the 1996 film, was widely hailed as among the greatest operas of the 21st century, with the Wall Street Journal calling it “savage, heartbreaking, and thoroughly original.” Mazzoli is recently served as Composer-in-Residence for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Those who watched the Festival’s online concerts last season will certainly remember Polina Sedukh’s stunning performance of Mazzoli’s Grammy-nominated Vespers at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

Mazzoli wrote These Worlds In Us, her first large-scale orchestral piece, for the Yale Philharmonia. It won her the ASCAP Young Composers Award. She takes the title from the poem The Lost Pilot by James Tate, a first-person reflection on the death of his father in World War II. The final phrase of the poem poignantly references both the spiritual connection and the metaphysical divide between father and son. Her link to the poem is her own father, as she explains:

This piece is dedicated to my father, who was a soldier during the Vietnam War. In talking to him it occurred to me that, as we grow older, we accumulate worlds of intense memory within us, and that grief is often not far from joy. I like the idea that music can reflect painful and blissful sentiments in a single note or gesture, and sought to create a sound palette that I hope is at once completely new and strangely familiar to the listener.

There are two main themes of the work, which intertwine not so much in dialogue as in intimate interaction. The first is an expressive string line that is cycled through repetitions, using a pentatonic gapped scale that is reminiscent of East Asian musical traditions. This melody begins to introduce melting glissandi, which Mazzoli describes as “giving the impression that the piece has been submerged underwater or played on a turntable that is grinding to a halt.” The second is a hesitantly climbing scale that often appears simultaneously with both the string lament and in overlapping layers with other climbing scales, creating an intense musical texture. Militaristic figures are interjected at times, along with swells created by two melodicas, adding to an ever-evolving and strikingly colorful timbral landscape.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Concerto in A Major for Clarinet and Orchestra, K. 622

Composed: 1791
Instrumentation: solo clarinet, 2 flutes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings

Mozart’s final year was absurdly productive. He completed two major operas and saw them triumphantly produced. He composed his final piano concerto, which he performed as soloist himself. Numerous smaller-scale works were composed as well. And of course, the bulk of his magnificent Requiem was penned. In the midst of this, just two months before his death, Mozart composed his sunny Clarinet Concerto, written for Viennese clarinetist Anton Stadler (for whom Mozart had previously written his Clarinet Quintet and Kegelstatt Trio). The concerto has become a staple in the repertoire, a work whose lyrical brightness has been likened to a smile in audible form.

If Mazzoli’s piece was built around exploring novel tone colors available to her across the expansive orchestra, Mozart’s concerto is written to exploit the surprisingly diverse timbral zones of a single instrument: the solo clarinet. Basing his composition on an earlier fragment of music for basset horn, Mozart originally wrote the concerto for basset clarinet, a late-18th-century novelty instrument that had an extended range below the standard clarinet. Today (and likely even shortly after its creation), the work is usually played on the standard instrument in A with a few octave adjustments. But even with these changes, Mozart’s use of register in the solo part is remarkable. The clarinet has distinct registral bands, each with its own timbral character. The characteristic middle register, called the clarion register, creates the bright tone that we most often associate with the instrument. The low register, called the chalumeau, is beautifully warm and rich. And the piercing high register, the altissimo, feels more aggressive and dramatic. Mozart’s careful attention to these registers produces an array of shifting timbral shades in the solo part.

When the clarinet enters in the first movement, it reiterates the lyrical main theme that we were introduced to in the orchestral tutti, situated solidly in the clarion register of the instrument. The quickly plunging arpeggios that eventually decorate the melody, though, lead seamlessly into the chalumeau register. Sometimes Mozart will immediately reverse the direction of the arpeggio, bringing us back to the clarion. At other moments, Mozart halts the arpeggio’s progress for a lingering sustain on its lowest note, followed by a sudden leap up to the highest part of the clarion register, an effect that is inexplicably satisfying. The second theme, in E major but with excursions into minor as well, allows for more dialogue between these two registral areas. Mozart reserves the upper altissimo register for brief visits, usually indicating the approach of a strong cadence, an arrival point. After a development section that features a dramatic buildup in the orchestral tutti that is resolved by the soloist reentering with the main theme, the adjustments in the recapitulation allow for greater use of the chalumeau in the clarinet, especially in the second theme.

The sublime Adagio, in A-B-A form, luxuriates in the lyrical qualities of the clarinet. The soloist leads the orchestra through the two main phrases of the A section (each in graceful, 8-bar, sentence form), with the orchestra obediently repeating each. The middle section offers a more tousled melody, featuring a number of upward leaps in the clarinet exceeding two and a half octaves, from the very bottom of its range to the altissimo register. If we need any evidence of Mozart’s enchantment with the clarinet sound, we need look no further than the very last note of this movement, where the full orchestral chord cuts out a beat early to allow the clarinet’s D to linger by itself for just a spell.

The piece ends with a lively Rondo that continues to feature the clarinet’s timbral range. Though thoroughly approachable, the movement challenges the Classical notions of structural proportions in a manner that would not be seen again until middle-period Beethoven nearly 10 years later. Although organized sectionally as A-B-A-C-A-B-A—not unusual for the time—Mozart shows no allegiance to standard expectations regarding tonality, length, and thematic relationships. Nearly half of the movement’s duration is encompassed by the opening and closing A sections (together with the coda that follows at the end). The corollary, of course, is that the middle two A sections are shorter: indeed, they are drastically cut, with the latter of these a mere wisp of the Rondo theme. These two mini-A sections bookend an adventurous C section that finds its way to a soulful theme in F# minor.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)

Variations on a Theme of Joseph Haydn, Op. 56a, “St. Anthony Variations”

Composed: 1873
Instrumentation: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, 1 percussion (triangle), and strings

Brahms was a master of the variation form, a technique that he returned to time and time again during the course of his lifetime. In addition to setting individual movements of piano sonatas, chamber music works, and symphonies as variations, he composed solo piano variations on themes of Handel, Paganini, and Schumann, and used another theme of Schumann’s for piano duo variations. Composing the Haydn Variations in 1873 (the piece also exists in a two-piano version, Op. 56b) provided Brahms with a comfortable transition back to writing for a purely instrumental orchestra, a medium for which he had not completed a work in nearly 15 years. The unmitigated success of the premiere by the Vienna Philharmonic with Brahms on the podium provided him with the confidence he needed to tackle the ghost of Beethoven and finally return to his abandoned symphony, which he had begun in the 1850s. In a matter of four years, Brahms had completed his First and Second Symphonies.

In 1870, Brahms had a meeting with Karl Ferdinand Pohl, the Vienna Philharmonic Society’s librarian, who was working on a biography of Haydn. Pohl showed Brahms a number of Haydn’s manuscripts that he had acquired during the course of his research, including a set of six divertimenti for wind instruments. Brahms was particularly taken with the sixth of these; it featured a slow movement with the title “Chorale St. Antoni,” which became the basis for his variations. Modern musicological research has shown that the divertimenti were almost certainly not written by Haydn. The scoring was not typical of Haydn and included instruments not represented in the Esterhazy orchestra at the time that the work was supposedly composed. While the attribution of the divertimenti was officially rejected at a Haydn Society conference in 1951 as being spurious, Brahms’s original title of the work has been retained, although the subtitle “St. Antony Variations” has been added to the work. The true composer of the original theme remains a mystery to this day, as does the identity of the particular St. Antony to whom the work refers.

As with the Mozart and the Mazzoli, tone color is the first thing that jumps out at us in Brahms’s Variations. The theme is orchestrated almost entirely for winds, with emphasis on the oboes and bassoons, in allegiance with the divertimento manuscript source. The form and phrase structure of the theme itself are straightforward but also distinctive, providing Brahms with a perfect opportunity to display his characteristic mastery of expansive and diverse variation technique. Each of the theme’s two sections are repeated, with the first section also being broken up into two phrases in typical antecedent-consequent fashion (akin to a question and an answer). What is not typical is the length of these opening phrases—each is five measures long. (Haydn also became fond of this type of odd metric twist later in his career, which perhaps contributed to the feeling of authenticity of the theme’s original attribution.) The second section begins with two four-measure phrases, a more standard length, before returning to the five-measure phrase of the first half and closing with another unbalanced seven-measure gesture.

Throughout the eight variations, Brahms essentially maintains the phrase rhythm and pattern of the theme while allowing the melody to soar widely beyond the confines of the original. With this structural consistency, the listener easily follows the theme through an ample array of keys, with Variations II, IV, and VIII in minor, rhythmic and metric profiles, including a scurrying scherzo (Variation V), a siciliana (Variation VII, a slow 6/8 pattern resembling the rhythm of “Silent Night”), and a kind of pastoral gallop evoking a hunt (Variation VI). For the Finale, Brahms composes a brilliant passacaglia, creating mini-variations within the overall variation form. The passacaglia is based on the melody of the theme’s opening five-measure phrase: 17 statements of the phrase are heard mostly in the bass as the other parts provide ornament and color. The 18th pattern is cleverly interrupted as the original theme in full orchestration returns to bring the piece to a dramatic close.

Program notes by Jon Kochavi