Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
In composing this 1787 piece for chamber ensemble, Mozart labelled it as “eine kleine nachtmusik” in his personal catalog. Oft thought to mean “a little night music” in German, “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” really means “a little serenade.” “Note to self,” Mozart perhaps meant to write in full, “you have just composed a nice little serenade that will go on to be one of the most famous pieces in your legacy.” Regardless, it’s doubtful he intended for it to be the title of the piece (which is technically just meant to be Serenade No. 13 for Strings in G minor), but the note somehow stuck.
The first few seconds of the Allegro is unmistakable. This is a piece that has endured, no doubt, because of how memorable its initial melody is. It’s Famous with a capital F. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, it’s impossible not to know this little stretch of melody. It’s a great equalizer, like a bad pop song you can’t get away from on the radio, except, of course, this one is good. Regardless of whether this is a little serenade or a little night music: this is an great opener. This is an exciting piece of music, of art. It bounces with urgency, making itself easily hummable in the aftermath of hearing it. It’s this movement that holds its ground as the most recognizable part, though as the serenade continues, it’s clear there are some equally resonant melodies.
The second movement, the Romanze, is a slow song, no doubt, but it’s a slow dance. This is the kind of music that if played would make everyone on a dance floor take a moment to figure out who it is they really want to be dancing with. It’s undeniably romantic (hence the Romanze title) and hesitant. This, of course, leads right up into the Menuetto: a brief and jaunty little trio in the midst of the composition. Its repetition almost makes the listener sound like they’re spinning. Not, of course, in a bad way, but as if they found themselves at a ball two hundred years ago. It’s party music, but after all, isn’t that what night music is for?
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’s final movement is a Rondo and it’s fairly uptempo. It begins with some delicate melodies on the violins but about halfway through the piece, Mozart is layering on the violas and the cellos. It ends with a long coda: it builds, see-sawing back and forth between highs and lows, questions and answers, among various instruments. Even without timpani or horns, Mozart creates a dramatic finale worthy of this so-called “little” serenade.
Symphony No. 40
Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 seduces you from the very onset. Starting with a persuasive melody from the strings, there’s an eagerness to the Molto Allegro that invites you to listen and engage with the music. Symphony No. 40 was written during Mozart’s very productive summer of 1788—just three years before his death—in which he also composed his Symphony No. 39 and Symphony No. 41. In all three, you can hear melody just absolutely bursting out of Mozart.
Unlike some of Mozart’s earlier works, Mozart’s later works break free of his almost mathematical tendencies when it comes to melody. No longer is he an overachieving young composer but a complex and misunderstood adult composer. In his own way, he’s having a classic early-30s freak-out, which makes him feel both young and old—exciting and wise at the same time. The pulsating horns of the Andante allow a wistful string melody to live on top. It’s both rich in grief––for his youth, perhaps?––and deeply optimistic in looking towards the future.
Is there anything more fun than a Menuetto; Allegretto in a minor key? The third movement is upbeat while kind of sounding like the entrance of a villain in a Disney movie. After a forceful introduction, the flutes chime in almost like a damsel in distress. “Help me,” they beckon, “Mozart finally has a full understanding of his power as a composer!” The middle section of the movement sounds quite a bit more like a dance than the theme at the beginning and the end. It’s almost like a bit of calm amid a storm, or a party in the middle of an argument. Symphony No. 40, as one can hear, is full of contradictions and conflict.
If you thought the Menuetto; Allegretto had a bit of an evil, Disney villain tendency, then the final movement of Symphony No. 40 sounds straight up mischievous. The Allegro assai is the musical embodiment of that purple devil emoji. That’s the one that’s smiling at you—a smiling imp, as it’s called. That’s what a minor key will do to a symphony. It takes an otherwise cheerful and jaunty piece and gives it this dark edge. The Allegro assai really does move too––I mean, it’s in the title of the movement itself––so much so that it gets tough to keep up. For a piece nearly nine full minutes in length, it should feel longer or more laborious, but the result is something quite different. The Allegro assai transforms into something of an urging and desperate piece of music, begging to be listened to, as if Mozart himself knew he’d only have three years left in his life.
Overture to the Marriage of Figaro
There’s little to be certain about in this world we live in, but here’s one: You know Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Overture to The Marriage of Figaro. You do! You definitely do know it. Maybe you can’t hum it, but you do know it, and you know the Overture because, well, it’s everywhere. It’s here, now, in front of you, existing in the context of hundreds of years of classical music. But you’ll also find it in old Pringles commercials. Or even in a pivotal scene in The King’s Speech or The Shawshank Redemption or—seriously—Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Somewhere in the world, the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro is probably playing at this very moment.
The Marriage of Figaro is a comic opera conducted at its 1786 premiere by Mozart himself. Mozart at this time was an almost ancient 30 years old—the composer would only live to be 35!—who was returning to opera after writing a long string of concertos as well as cementing his name as one of the greatest living solo pianists. And what a return to opera The Marriage of Figaro would prove to be.
The Overture has wildly cemented its place in pop culture canon as an overwhelming and joyous anthem. It’s not merely depicting the feeling of happiness; it is happiness. One of the great joys to listening to Mozart is the universality of his music. Regardless of who or where you are, this sounds triumphant. It can be regal or it can be Pringles. The Overture begins with a mere muttering of the strings. It’s almost like a musical version of whispers dying down before the woodwinds enter a few seconds later with a charming, lyrical melody. And then––bam! There it is. There’s the melody you know, from commercials or film or, hey, even your own subconscious when you find $10 on the street!
The work combines all the best elements of Mozart’s style: a penchant for a catchy and rhythmic melody, an almost anxious tempo, and a wry playfulness between the strings and the horns and woodwinds. The Overture almost doesn’t allow you to catch up with it as it scurries along. It’s hard not to envision a little cartoon character tripping over its own feet as it rushes through the piece, clouds of dust in its midst.
Its final minute is as quick of a slow burn as can be. The strings pile on top of each other, running up and down on the melody, as the horns and timpani punctuate the central beats of the piece. The final fanfare is so exultant––light and airy and all things good––you’ll be tempted to start listening to it all over again.
Flute Concerto No. 1 in G Major K313
Let Mozart’s Flute Concerto No. 1 in G Major serve as an inspiration to anyone who has ever felt forced to do something they don’t like. Here is a beautiful, engaging piece of music, written in early 1778, composed by a man who didn’t even like the instrument it’s written for, as you’ll see below. It’s the homework of music (sorry, nerds). It’s the jogging of music (sorry, joggers). The asparagus of music (sorry, asparagus-lovers). Maybe sometimes, you set out to do something you don’t think you’re going to like, and it winds up being a beautiful flute concerto. Or you’re just breathless and sweaty with a bad case of shin splints.
So what led to this? A dramatic question, maybe, to ask why a composer wrote a concerto specifically for an instrument he didn’t like, but worth asking nonetheless. Mozart’s Flute Concerto No. 1 in G Major was commissioned by a wealthy amateur flautist named Ferdinand De Jean (commissioning a flute concerto is an extremely Ferdinand De Jean-like thing to do, don’t you agree?). At the time, Mozart wrote to his father: “[Y]ou know that I become quite powerless whenever I am obliged to write for an instrument that I cannot bear.” This was said in some amount of jest, no doubt, but still: you do what you do for the money.
The first movement, the Allegro maestoso (meaning both “quickly” and “majestic”), shatters what one might think of a flute concerto. There’s an airiness or delicateness imagined, perhaps because the flute can often sound that way. But here it is both spirited and dense. It doesn’t stand in contrast to the strings, oboes, and horns, but rather sits atop the supporting instruments with a beautiful lyricism.
From there, the Adagio ma non troppo (“not too slowly”) is a bit more melancholic with a distinct richness from the flute. There’s more of a call and response at play here: the flute calls out to the orchestra to the support, and they follow through. Adagios can often pull a listener down into a state of despair or heaviness, but the benefit of the flute solo is that it manages to hover just above wistful in this case. Support from the horns in the latter half of the movement give a nice color to this particular melody, which feels more reminiscent of a nice day rather than doom and gloom.
And last we have a Rondo (Tempo di minuetto) (“a round with the tempo of a minuet”). A rondo is a round, no doubt, but this one is a dance. Imagine, you’re Mozart, you hate the flute, and not only do you have to write a concerto to showcase it, but now you have to write a dance. How annoyed must he have been. But it’s fun, the Rondo, make no mistake. There are some jaunty little flute runs in this that show off both the soloist’s skill as well as bring the audience to a point of high tension before… starting back over again. But hey, that’s a round for you.
Ultimately, the loveliness of this flute concerto speaks for itself. Allow yourself to be entranced by the melodies at hand, and only let yourself stop and thinking about Mozart’s general frustration once or twice (and maybe try asparagus one more time).
About the author: Fran Hoepfner is a graduate of Kalamazoo College in Michigan and currently works as a writer and comedian living in Chicago. She writes a classical music column for The Awl.
What Is Mozart Festival?
A three-week immersive look at the famously light-hearted 18th century composer who challenged the status quo of European music, Mozart Festival will feature the composer’s final six symphonies, all of his works for solo winds and orchestra, his four horn concerti, and many other masterpieces. Anchoring the festival are six Orchestra Hall performances conducted by Leonard Slatkin, with DSO musicians as featured soloists. Outside of the Hall, there will be a marathon of Mozart’s 19 Piano Sonatas, an all-Mozart mass yoga session as part of the Om @ The Max series, a chamber music recital at the Steinway Piano Gallery in Commerce Township, and more.
Join #MozartFest Mascot Wolfie, Leonard Slatkin, and the DSO for a three-week immersion into the music of the famously light-hearted composer who challenged the status quo of European music. Keep an eye out for Wolfie at the festival and around Midtown!
Wolfie shows up three days too early for Mozart Festival and makes the most of his time by shredding the piano in Orchestra Hall and taking requests from some old festival friends.
Wolfie doll created by Kevin Sayers.
Dine at Salzburgers!
For a limited time, the Paradise Lounge will be renamed Salzburgers, serving the best food this side of Mozart’s hometown! A special menu includes Salzburger Sliders, Mozart Lamb Chops, Apfelkuchen (an Austrian take on apple pie), and more. And don’t miss two festive drinks: mulled Glühwein and the Salzburg Martini, available at Salzburgers and at all Atrium bars. Check out the menu!
Mozart Scholar-in-Residence: Kathryn Libin
Kathryn L. Libin, Associate Professor of Music at Vassar College, earned BM and MA degrees in piano performance at the Oberlin Conservatory and New York University and a PhD in musicology at NYU. She has lectured and published on Mozart’s music and manuscripts, on music in Jane Austen’s novels, and on musical sources in the Lobkowicz Library near Prague. Her collection of conference essays, Mozart in Prague, was published last year in Prague by the Mozart Society of America and the Czech Academy of Sciences. She has written several articles on sources in the Lobkowicz music collection, including a catalogue of its Mozart manuscripts. She is currently working on a biography of the music patron Prince Joseph Franz Maximilian Lobkowitz, and directing the cataloguing of the music collection at the Lobkowicz Library. Ms. Libin served as chair of Vassar College’s music department for six years, and has also served as president of the Mozart Society of America and of the American Musical Instrument Society.