The period spanning one and a half hundred years, from the mid-eighteenth to the late nineteenth century, is known as one of the most fruitful periods in the history of music. The era of Classicism (ca. 1750 – 1820), with its tendency to intellectualism and rationality, witnessed crystallization of such model musical genres as classical sonata, concerto, symphony, and opera.
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The music of Romanticism (ca. 1815 – 1910) was inspired by emotion, feeling, and intuition, and ran a more unrestricted course in terms of genres and forms, expressing impulsive passions.
In the focus of the present report are works by two composers who represent different styles, genres, and national schools: Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute and Piano Concerto K488, and Mussorgsky’s suite Pictures at an Exhibition arranged for orchestra by Maurice Ravel.
The Overture is performed by Med Orchestra (conductor James Levine), the Piano Concerto — by Virtuosi di Praga orchestra with Zoltán Kocsis as soloist, and the Pictures at an Exhibition — by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen at BBC Proms.
Perhaps the most renowned of Classical composers, the Austrian genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart represents a rare example of universal musician. His composer gift embraced all the possible contemporary genres, adding a unique touch to each of them. Thus his last opera, The Magic Flute (1790), features an Overture that despite all the classical canons does not represent any thematic material of the opera and is only linked to it by its key (Frater).
It starts with three majestic chords followed by strings phrases which gradually calm down as if exploring the harmonies. After this prelude, a fragment follows that is built on polyphonic imitations among the strings and their dialogue with the wood winds. The agitated rhythm of the main motif allows Mozart to build a dramatic development which stops all over sudden and again three chords from the beginning appear.
Now they are played not by the whole orchestra but by the wood winds only, after which an intense fugato on the main motif follows featuring dialogues of various orchestral groups. The material of the first part is repeated, and at the end of the Overture the harmonic balance of the orchestra is assaulted by sudden sounds of trombones, as if questioning the achieved harmony. But the affirmative replies from the string group assure of the positive dénouement.
A brilliant performer himself, Mozart excelled in the genre of piano concerto both as a pianist and as a composer. Initially being induced to write and play concertos as a means of survival, Mozart shortly achieved success and popularity among the Viennese connoisseurs of art (New York Philharmonic).
His Piano Concerto K488 (1786) was written at the peak of his popularity and radiates happiness and optimism. The first Allegro features the customary ‘double exposition’ with the main themes played first by the orchestra and then by the soloist with the orchestra.
The piano part is traditionally virtuosic, rich with breathtaking passages and trills. Together with performing solo fragments and supporting the orchestra in the manner of basso continuo, the piano enters dialogues with various instruments of the orchestra throughout the piece. After developing and repeating the initial thematic material, the pianist proceeds to the virtuosic yet profound cadence which — untypically of the contemporary practice — was written by Mozart into the score (New York Philharmonic).
The heartfelt Adagio opens with a piano melody which is breathtaking in its tender sadness. The orchestra provides a harmonic background and additionally tints the shadows or major and minor keys that flicker throughout the whole part. After this lyrical digression, the final Rondo appears the livelier in its sweeping energetic motion. The piano and the orchestra take turns as if playing tag and finally unite in a triumphant rejoicing.
The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed a rise of national composer schools, one of the bright examples of which was Russian “The Mighty Handful”.
Modest Mussorgsky, as its member, drove inspiration for his works from Russian history, literature, and folklore. His famous suite for piano Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) represents an excursion through a gallery of pictures by Mussorgsky’s friend, an artist Victor Hartman (Eagen). The suite turned out to be so popular with the musicians that its multiple interpretations have been conducted, one of the most accepted being an orchestral arrangement by Maurice Ravel.
Illustrating a walk through a picture gallery, Mussorgsky creates a leitmotif, “Promenade”, which designates the process of walking from one picture to another. The theme is voiced at the very beginning by the trumpets and carried on by the soft timbre of the strings.
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Each time delivered by different instruments, it reappears between each part, letting the audience dwell over the previous picture and get ready for the following. The first picture, “The Gnome”, appears all over sudden in irregular grotesque ‘jumps and leaps’ from the lowest to the highest tessitura of the orchestra.
The syncopated chords and swift passages symbolize the Gnome’s peevishness and unfriendliness. Next comes “The Old Castle”, a stylized Italian troubadour song, the medieval spirit of which is emphasized by a sustained bass and a melancholic melody swaying over it in a three-beat meter.
From the dreamy atmosphere of antiquity, the audience is brought to the scene of children play in the Pairisian park “Tuileries”. This vivid scene is illustrated by the lively passages of oboe and clarinet. Contrasting to the light and agile movement of the “Tuileries”, the following part, “Bydlo”, astonishes by its heavy awkwardness.
The joint powerful efforts of the bulls pulling the massive wooden cart are represented in the heavy reiterating chords of the whole orchestra. And yet another contrast comes in “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks”: a speedy and bit clumsy miniature dance of barely feathered birds is rendered by grace notes and staccato of the high wood winds.
From the animal world Mussorgsky brings the audience back to the world of people: in “Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle” the composer depicts two Jews, a rich and a poor one.
The first one is illustrated by massive sounds of the bass instruments, while the second one is represented in the nasal ingratiating timbre of cor anglais. Their dialogue is ended by a resolute phrase articulated by the whole orchestra and obviously designating the refusal voiced by the rich and authoritative Jew. “Limoges — The Market” returns to France: this time to the bustling atmosphere of a busy market with squabbles of tradeswomen embodied in the high-pitch repetitions among the whole orchestra.
The more stunning are the massive solid chords of the brass winds that render a feeling of objective eternity and repose: the audience enters the gloomy “Catacombs”. Even the subsequent “Promenade” played by an oboe sounds lost in the grandeur of the eternal silence.
This sacrament is rudely interrupted by “The Hut on Hen’s Legs” — a picture of a folklore Russian witch flight, with the orchestra ostinato sounding threateningly in its speedy progression. After this illustration of an ugly, evil creature, appears the noble and stately image of “The Great Gate of Kiev”. The majestic theme is repeated in different orchestral arrangements several times, including carillons that are symbolic of Russian Orthodoxy.
The amazing diversity of Classical and Romantic style reveals itself in both the genres and the orchestral devices. While the Classical epoch concentrates on the intellectual genres of sonata and concerto and strives for clarity of orchestration, Romantic music aims at emotionality and employs all the orchestra’s means for a colorful and passionate depiction.
Eagen, Tim. “Images for Pictures at an Exhibition.” stmoroky.com. 2000. Web. <http://www.stmoroky.com/reviews/gallery/pictures/hartmann.htm>.
Frater, S. A. “The Magic Flute.” Lecture on the opera from ServantsOfTheLight.org. Web. <https://www.servantsofthelight.org/knowledge/the-magic-flute/>.
New York Philharmonic. “Piano Concerto in A Major, K.488, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.” Program Notes. Dec. 2009. Web.