Pentaprism: Cynthia Folio

Cynthia Folio: Pentaprism is based on a five-note motive. The title is derived from a five-sided prism, found in many cameras, that transforms a beam of light by 90 degrees. Throughout the piece the motive is altered as if heard through a prism. The initial appearance of the motive (G-Ab-G-Eb-C)—a simple major seventh chord—is revealed one note at a time over a span of twelve measures. The piece ends by reversing the process, by “erasing” the motive one note at a time until only the first note remains. The form is a kind of arch with a climax before the coda, where the major seventh chord is expressed in an unabashedly diatonic context.

The principal players in each section are featured as soloists for two reasons: first, this mimics the idea of contrast between solo and ensemble that is embodied in the Mozart concerto; second, the pairing of professional musicians with students allows a degree of virtuosity for the more seasoned performers.

W.A. Mozart, Symphony K. 16

K. 16 in E flat Major is probably Mozart’s very first symphony. The Mozart family’s first grand tour of Europe, begun in June of 1763 (Wolfgang age 6) took them to Munich, Mannheim, Mainz, Koblenz, Brussels, Paris, and eventually London, where they spent some 15 months.  Wolfgang and sister Nannerl were both prodigies, and their father Leopold took every opportunity to have them perform for nobility and royalty.  It was especially the younger Woflgang who amazed all audiences with his ability to improvise.

In London, the family became friends with Johann Christian Bach (1735-82), a son of J.S. Bach and without question one of the finest composers of the day.  Many scholars have found the influence of J.C. Bach (“the London Bach”) in Wolfgang’s earliest works.

Some years after Wolfgang’s death in 1791, his sister Nannerl recalled the following about the origins of what we believe to be his first symphony, K. 16.

“On the fifth of August {we} had to rent a country home in
Chelsea, outside the city of London, so that father could
recover from a dangerous throat ailment, which brought him
almost to death’s door. {…}  Our father lay dangerously ill;
we were forbidden to touch the keyboard.  And so, in order
to occupy himself, Mozart composed his first symphony….”
(Translation from Neal Zaslaw’s exhaustive and marvelous
“Mozart’s Symphonies” of 1989).

Nannerl goes on to say that the work included trumpets and kettledrums, though K. 16, at least in Wolfgang’s surviving manuscript score, does not. It was not unusual, however, for trumpets and timpani to be considered optional, notated separately, and added to the orchestra if one desired.

The inscription on the autograph manuscript score of the complete symphony is as follows: “Sinfonia di Sig: Wolfgang Mozart a London 1764.”  Mozart was 8 years old.  The manuscript is written in his own hand, though it appears that Leopold made a few minor corrections, especially in the first movement. The inscription is probably in Leopold’s hand.

A facsimile of the autograph manuscript is printed in the Neue Mozart Ausgabe’s edition of the work.  Even the manuscript demonstrates the incredibly precocious nature of this child.  I will try to remember to leave that facsimile on my stand at the end of our performance of the piece.

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.

“Mozart’s Eroica,” and a 225-year-old mystery finally solved!

It was Alfred Einstein in his 1944 “Mozart: His Character, His Work” who first described K. 271 as Mozart’s “Eroica.” “This concerto,” said Einstein, “is one of Mozart’s monumental works, those works in which he is entirely himself, seeking not to ingratiate himself with his public but rather to win them through originality and boldness.  He never surpassed it.” Like so many other Mozart biographers, Einstein called the piece “the Jeunehomme Concerto.”

The Mystery Solved!

About K.271 there has long been a mystery.  Who was this Mlle. Jeunehomme for whom Mozart purportedly wrote the work, and who – judging especially from the last movement of K. 271 – must have been a terrific pianist? Despite having no idea of who she was, scholars, biographers, and program note writers have been calling the piece “the Jeunehomme Concerto” for almost a century.

It was actually Mozart’s 1912 French biographers Théodore Wyzewa and Georges de Saint-Foix who decided that “die Jenomy,” (for whom Mozart said in a letter to his father Leopold that he wrote the piece), must have been some unknown woman named “Jeunehomme,” and that Mozart simply had attempted to provide his own idea of a phonetic spelling of a French name.  No one seems ever to have noted that Mozart had spent time in France, knew the language, and that no scholar could ever find any evidence that such a Mlle. Jeunehomme ever existed. Still, it was what we all continued to call the piece.

In 2003 a Viennese musicologist named Michael Lorenz discovered the true identity of “die Jenomy.”  That was in fact her name! She was the daughter of a dancer employed at the court in Vienna and a friend of the Mozart family. Louise Victoire Noverre, born 1749 in Strasbourg, had come to Vienna with her father in 1767.  In 1768 she had married a wealthy merchant named Joseph Jenomy.  During a trip in 1776 or early 1777 from Vienna to Paris, she stopped by Salzburg, and Mozart encountered her there.  In 1778 Mozart again met “die Jenomy” in Paris where her father was now employed.  Michael Lorenz believes the beautiful minuet that suddenly emerges seemingly from nowhere in the middle of the last movement of K. 271, may even be an allusion to her father, the dancer.
As to Jenomy’s pianistic skills, we know that in 1773 she played a benefit concert for her father, as reported in the “Realzeitung,” and was praised for her “artistry and ease.”

The concerto is, as Einstein says, a remarkable “break through” for Mozart as composer. “It is surprising and unique among Mozart’s works.  Nothing in the products of the year 1776 leads us to expect it.”  All three movements contain extraordinary elements, though it is the middle movement that is perhaps most astonishing – an Andantino that seems to evoke operatic tragedy with a depth and maturity that Mozart had never before brought to life.  When he played his own concertos, Mozart usually improvised the cadenzas.  In the case of this concerto, however, he wrote out the improvisatory passages for “die Jenomy,” and they are almost as remarkable – for the time and for this composer – as is the piece as a whole.

Many belated thanks, Frau Jenomy, for this miraculous masterpiece which we now can call with your name: the “Jenomy Concerto.”