Late eighteenth century Austria was the hub of a huge empire encompassing Bohemia, Hungary and part of northern Italy. Its capital Vienna was a multi-ethnic metropolis attracting highly talented artists of many nationalities. In the streets many languages could be heard: Italian, German, Hungarian and dialects from throughout the empire. This was where the most exciting new music in Europe was being created.
With Emperor Joseph II the wind of the Age of Enlightenment had swept over the formerly conservative Austrian dominions. The class delineations of the feudal system were showing wear and tear, science had become a serious alternative to faith and superstition, the validity of organised religion was starting to be questioned and rationality became the order of the day.
The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which premiered in 1786, heralds the opera of the future. Mozart makes far more varied use of wind instruments than ever before in Italian opera. He masterfully juggles the parts, lifting musical and dramatic exuberance to a level far above that of his competitors. When you hear the overture, you are left in no doubt!
As was the case with most composers of the era, Mozart was also a virtuoso instrumentalist. He was best known as a performer, first as a child prodigy on a variety of instruments, and later as a pianist and soloist in his own piano concertos. He also played the violin and viola. He particularly loved the deep, rich tones of the latter – so much so that he composed a double concerto for violin and viola in 1779.
Sinfonia Concertante is clearly related to the Figaro overture. Mozart has simply written a mini-opera for two instruments which converse with each other and with the orchestra, sending themes back and forth and in the process expressing both joy and sorrow, just as singers do in an opera.
A fellow composer whom Mozart respected highly and often joined to play chamber music was Joseph Haydn. One such chamber ensemble consisted of Haydn on first violin, Cart Dittersdorf on second violin, Mozart on viola and Johann Vanhal on cello. Mozart never wrote a cello concerto, while Haydn wrote two. The C major Cello Concerto was composed in the late 1760s for his friend Josef Franz Weigl, principal cellist in his orchestra at the court of count Esterházy. After Haydn’s death the score was presumed lost until 1961, when a copy was found at the Prague National Museum. Though some doubts have been expressed, it is generally considered authentic.
The film The Hours (2002) is out of the ordinary, not only because the main characters are three women of different generations (played by Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman), but also because the film music was written by one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, the minimalist Philip Glass. Glass himself never liked the term minimalist, preferring to speak of himself as a composer of ‘music with repetitive structures’. His long list of works includes operas, symphonies, solo concertos, chamber music, piano works and – for him a natural consequence of being a composer in our time – film music.
Text: Henrik Engelbrecht
English version: Roger Martin