Among the hundreds of works written in a major key, some of Mozart’s most magical and best-loved compositions are written in a minor key
Juanjo Mena conducts Mozart’s dramatic Symphony No. 40 in G Minor. He also performs the overture to the opera Los Esclavos Felices, composed by “the Spanish Mozart”; the thirteen-year-old child prodigy Juan Arriga in 1820. Grammy winner Augustin Hadelich is the soloist in Tchaikovsky’s velvety, melodiously rich violin concerto, which, after a catastrophic first reception in 1881, has turned out to be one of the most popular concertos in the classical repertoire.
“It conveys to us the hateful idea that there exists music which stinks to the ear. The violin was no longer played, but beaten and bruised …” Thus wrote the influential critic Eduard Hanslick after the world premiere of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s (1840−1893) Violin Concerto in Vienna in 1881. The unmotivated tirade affected the composer deeply, and he memorised the entire review by heart after having read it a number of times. Despite its disastrous reception, the concert would eventually prove to be one of the most popular in the classical repertoire. Leopold Auer was engaged to play the world premiere, but even he was sceptical in the beginning − so sceptical that he refused to play it in 1881, but he later regretted this and wrote in 1912, in response to Hanslick: “The violin concerto has made its mark in the world, and that’s the most important thing. One can not satisfy everyone”.
It is not primarily its bravura qualities which has made Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto famous, but rather its memorable melodies, not only in the lyrical second movement, but also right from the start of the first movement. Tchaikovsky possessed such a rich arsenal of melodic ideas that the seductive opening theme actually never repeats itself. For the rest of the concerto, the orchestra is obliged to accompany the soloist’s stream of dreaming, passionate melodies. Despite great technical challenges, especially in the cadenza, the solo voice seems idiomatic and at ease. In the fiery final movement, Tchaikovsky spreads out some Russian colour, using folkloristic melodies and a rhythm imitating a Russian trepak. Everything happens in the context of the composer’s beautiful and perfectly balanced orchestral writing, which ensures that the spotlight stays on the soloist throughout the work.
There is a mysterious connection between the Spanish composer Juan Arriaga (1806−1826) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756−1791). Had Mozart lived until the age of fifty, Arriaga would have been born on Mozart’s birthday. Both were child prodigies, both started composing exceptionally early, and both died very young. Arriaga hasn’t left behind as much music as Mozart has, but what remains testifies to great talent. The opera Los Esclavos Felices (The Happy Slaves) was composed by the thirteen-year-old Arriaga and performed in Bilbao to great acclaim. Much of the opera has been lost, but the overture remains a popular concert piece. It reflects a youthful joy, a buoyant freshness and a modern elegance which rivals Mozart’s own compositions from his childhood and youth.
The mature Mozart, on the other hand, possessed quite a different depth and subtlety in his works, such as in his Symphony No. 40. This dramatic symphony, written in G Minor was a favourite among 19th century composers, and there is evidence that Beethoven copied twenty-nine bars of the symphony in his own sketchbook, the same in which one can also find material for his own fifth symphony. The Romantics clearly appreciated a more expressive and dramatic expression than that which Mozart was accustomed to using in his symphonies. Mozart composed three symphonies (Nos 39, 40 and 41) in the course of a few short weeks in the summer of 1788. It has been suggested that the three symphonies were composed as a single unit. In any case, all three count among Mozart’s most popular works. Shortly after Symphony No. 40 was composed, Mozart revised the work, adding clarinets to the instrumentation. This version is the most frequently played in our time.
Symphony No. 40 starts with a restless, anxious accompaniment in the strings before a sorrowful melody, filled with little “sigh motives”, conveys the tragic character of the movement. The whole of the first movement is characterised by a rhythmical “chase” and a sense of an unresolved conflict. The second movement, on the other hand, is simple, slow and lyrical, standing in sharp contrast to the first movement in every way. A slightly aggressive menuet functions as a transition to the final movement, where the hectic and dark restlessness returns. The phrasing is more regular in this movement than in the preceding ones, but the musical content is arguably as explosive as Beethoven’s and is some of the most vibrant music Mozart ever wrote.
Both Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto and Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 have been long-standing works in the repertoire of the Oslo Philharmonic though a century, and both were played in the orchestra’s very first season. Johan Halvorsen conducted both concerts which contained the works in 1919−1920, and the soloist in the Tchaikovsky concerto was the Russian-Dutch violinist Alexander Schmuller, who according to the composer and critic Hjalmar Borgstrøm “possessed a soft, warm and ingratiating tone” (reviewed in Aftenposten on 9 March 1920).
(Text: Thomas Erma Møller; Translation from Norwegian: Sarah Osa;In photo: Augustin Hadelich; Photo: Luca Valenta)Read more
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