Aspects of Style and Mozart’s Symphony, K. 16

In 1764, the eight-year old Mozart would have directed the first performances of K. 16 from the harpsichord.  There would have been no “conductor” in the modern sense, and the foundation for the entire ensemble would have been provided by the composer and harpsichord, doubling and expanding on the written bass line. There was nothing in the composer’s score to indicate this kind of arrangement; it was simply assumed to be a part of performance practice at the time.  Though they are also not indicated in Mozart’s autograph score (which lists the standard orchestration of the time: 2 oboes, 2 horns, violins I and II, violas, and “violoncello e basso”), one or two bassoons and even trumpets and timpani may have been added to the orchestra at the composer’s discretion.  The general assumption was that the score and written out parts provided a basic representation of the piece but that a certain freedom in using them was to be understood.

Chamber Orchestra FIRST EDITIONS is not a “period instrument” or “early music” ensemble. Our oboes and horns are modern instruments, our bows and strings are modern, we do not use a continuo harpsichord, we do use a conductor, and our soloist in K.271 plays a nine-foot Steinway or Bösendorfer grand, not a fortepiano.  We are not attempting to replicate exactly what Mozart’s music sounded like to 18th-century audiences.  That is really not possible. But we are acutely conscious of the fact that this is music from a much different era than our own, and that many aspects of performance practice were vastly different from what might be called 21st-century performance practice.  One example is that “vibrato” for string players was then thought of as a special kind of expressive gesture, to be used where a passage might reflect pathos or intensity, rather than today’s customary use of it as a pervasive feature of normal playing. FIRST EDITIONS performances attempt to take into account such differences while being based on the realization that we are a 21st-century orchestra, playing for 21st-century audiences, in venues and circumstances that bear little resemblance to those of the 18th century.

One of the most striking differences between the two eras is related to the attitude and perspective of the audiences. Throughout the 18th century, people clearly wanted and expected to hear NEW, not OLD, music.  This was the reason that Haydn wrote over 100 symphonies and Mozart over 50.  Why would anyone want to hear what Haydn, Mozart, and scores of other composers wrote last year?  Let’s hear instead their latest compositions, the new music of our time. And composers then obliged their audiences (whether at courts or in cities) with symphonies after symphonies.

The symphony in 1764 was generally considered a work of minor significance, something that might begin a concert like an overture (the genre from which it was derived).  And the “galant style” of the time was characterized by simplicity, elegance, gracefulness, and charm, rather than profundity and deep emotion. When we perform and listen to K. 16, we need to keep in mind that the work is from a musical tradition far different from that of later centuries. It was really not until Beethoven that the symphony would acquire paramount importance as a genre (thus he would write only nine), though the great acclaim that Haydn received in London in the 1790s (and later elsewhere) for the symphonies he wrote for that city was probably the single most important step toward the public’s new appreciation of the symphony as an especially important part of a composer’s oeuvre.

Remarkable changes, however,  were already taking place in European music in the eleven years between K. 16 (1764) and K. 271 (1777).  It was not just that Mozart was eleven years older and more mature that accounts for the great differences between the two pieces. In our discussions during Chamber Orchestra FIRST EDITIONS February concerts, we will talk about some of these differences, as well as the new compositional challenges and stylistic ideas with which young Mozart on his own was beginning to experiment.