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Never for the Drawer, Ever for the Ear

The MHS Review 389 Vol. 11 No.11 1987

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Frank Cooper


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Most of us imagine that composers write work, a, they receive inspiration. We have similar notion, about poets and painters needing to be seized by their muses and held in thrall throughout the crearive pro­cess. It is a perspective which arose in the 19th century during the heyday of romanticism.

If we think for a moment that such pseudo-mystical ideas apply to the 18th century, we commit an error. The demand, of craftsmanship and society allowed for nothing so "artistic." Handel. Bach, Telemann, Haydn, and Mozart, to name some of the best-documented cases, did not compose "for the drawer" but for a far more demanding client: practicality.

Mozart provides an outstanding example in the four works on the two featured releases in this issue (see pages I and 3). The Wind Serenades, K. 375 and 388 and the Piano C.oncerti, K. 414 and 449 are, we might suppose, the sorts of things which, in a state of divine motivation, a fabulous­ly gifted genius might compose, put away, and hope, eventually, to find performances for. Wrong! Neither Salzburg nor Vienna was a place for such idealized behavior. Composers in both cities were deemed members of the servant class, ever on call to satisfy their employers' musical needs (no matter how important or trivial). Deadlines were to be met on time and with the best of one's abilities on display.

Deadlines or other practical matters fur­nished all the inspiration needed by a ful­ly equipped composer such as Mozart (or any of the others cited above) to write masterpieces. The name-day celebration of the sister-in-law of an Austrian court painter (one Herr von Hickel, whom Mozart wanted to impress) sufficed to call forth the Serenade, K. 375 in October 1781 . Mozart was 25 and new in Vienna. Nine months later, he obligingly added two oboes to the otherwise perfect and diver­ting work to accommodate a wealthy and culturally ambitious Viennese nobleman, Prince Aloys Liechtenstein, who had his own wind band.

At the same time, Mozart wrote K. 388 for the same princely ensemble. It is not a typical bit of entertainment. In the serious key of C minor, the Serenade features extraordinarily contrapuntal dance movement: a Minuet in strick canon with a Trio in double canon by inversion! Its Andante provides a balm for the Allegro's tragic drama, and the fanale is a wonderfully wrought theme-and-variations. Talk about skill on display!

His own need for a scintillating pianistic vehicle in is spring concert series of 1782 prompted Mozart to compose the Concer­to, K. 414. Later, when his, sister Nannerl was to play the bubbling work in Salzburg, Mozart penned sets of florid cadenzas and bridge passages just for her performances.

When he was 28, in 1784, Mozart's musi­cianship surpassed everyone else's in Vien­na. He paraded his talent in six new piano concerti, each as stunningly written as the next. T'he series began with K. 449, an in­tricate work designed to exhibit the splen­did fingers and musical braininess not of himself but of his pupil, Babette Ployer, for whom he also provided glittering cadenzas and flourishes. Who but Mozart could have conceived so much Sturm und Drang excitement for a first movement, such magically ornamented melodies for the second, and the third's panoply of amazitig counterpoint, when all that was called for was an occasional piece for a stu­dent to play on a certain date?

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