Program Notes


September 13 | 4:00 PM—Lensic


Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551 “Jupiter”

Born 1756, Salzburg
Died 1791, Vienna

The summer of 1788 was an exceptionally difficult time for Mozart, and what must have been particularly dismaying for the composer was the suddenness of his fall from grace. Two years earlier, at the premiere of The Marriage of Figaro, he had been at the summit of the musical world. On a visit to Prague, he could exult, “For here they talk about nothing but ‘Figaro.’ Nothing is played, sung, or whistled but ‘Figaro.’” But the indifferent reception of Don Giovanni and evolving musical fashions in Vienna changed this. Within a year Mozart discovered that his audience in Vienna had nearly disappeared, and he was unable to mount new concerts or sell music by subscription. Soon he found his financial condition strained, and he began to borrow heavily. The composer moved his family to a smaller apartment in Vienna suburb, where there was at least the consolation of a garden and lower rent, but he remained despondent about his situation. On June 27 he wrote to his friend Michael Puchberg, asking for a loan and admitting that “black thoughts … often come to me, thoughts I push away with a tremendous effort.”  Two days later, Mozart’s infant daughter Theresia died.


Through that bleak summer, Mozart worked with incredible speed, and after an 18-month hiatus, he was again writing symphonies. He finished Symphony No. 39 on June 26, Symphony No. 40 on July 25, and a mere 16 days after that Symphony No. 41. Mozart usually wrote music only when performances were planned, but there is no record of any subscription concerts during this period. So the question remains: Why did he write these symphonies? Perhaps concerts were planned and then fell through. In any case, they were not performed and went onto the composer’s shelf.  Evidence suggests that he heard Symphony No. 40 at a concert in April 1791, but at the time of his death eight months later he had likely not heard a note of No. 39 or No. 41.

The Symphony in C Major was his last, although there is no reason to believe that he knew when writing it that it would be his final symphony, for a normal lifetime would have allowed the composer several more decades of work. The nickname “Jupiter” was not Mozart’s. It was in use by the early 19th century, but its exact origin is unknown, despite many theories.  This is, however, one of those rare instances when an inauthentic nickname makes sense. If ever there were Olympian music, this is it.

The first movement, Allegro vivace, is music of genuine grandeur, built on a wealth of thematic material, and we feel that breadth from the first instant, where the opening theme divides into two quite distinct phrases. The first phrase is an almost stern motto of repeated triplets, but the second is lyric and graceful, and the fusion of these two elements within the same theme suggests by itself the emotional scope of the opening movement. The array of material in this movement ranges from an almost military power to an elegant lyricism (one of these themes, in fact, is derived from an aria Mozart had written for a friend a few months earlier). The development is brief (and concerned largely with this aria theme), but the recapitulation is quite lengthy, and Mozart surprises us by bringing back some of it in a minor key. The movement drives to a stirring close in which its martial spirit prevails.

The second movement is marked Andante cantabile, and Mozart’s stipulation cantabile (a marking he used infrequently) is important, for this music sounds as if it too might be an aria from an opera. First violins, muted throughout, introduce both themes of this sonata-form movement. The opening seems at first all silky lyricism, but Mozart jolts this peace with unexpected attacks. The second subject is turbulent: Over quiet triplet accompaniment, the violin line rises and falls in a series of intensely chromatic phrases, powered by the syncopated shape of this theme. The third movement is in minuet-and-trio form, though no one has ever danced to this brisk music, whose fluid lines are spiced by attacks from brass and timpani. The trio section is dominated by the sound of the solo oboe, although near its end, strings break into a gentle little waltz that suddenly stops in mid-air.

The Molto allegro finale is not only one of Mozart’s finest movements, it is one of the most astonishing pieces of music ever written. It begins with a four-note phrase heard immediately in the first violins, yet this figure is hardly new: Mozart had used it in Missa Brevis in F Major of 1774,  String Quartet in G Major of 1782, and elsewhere. In fact, he had subtly prepared us for the finale by slipping this opening phrase into the trio section of the third movement. The finale is not a fugue, as many have suggested, but a sonata-form movement that puts that opening four-note phrase (and other material) through extensive fugal treatment. However dazzling Mozart’s treatment of his material is in the development section, nothing can prepare the listener for the coda. Horns sound the four-note opening motto, and in some of the most brilliant polyphonic writing to be found anywhere, Mozart pulls all his themes together in magnificent five-part counterpoint as the symphony hurtles to its close in a blaze of brass and timpani.

Program Note by Eric Bromberger


Piano Concerto in G Major, M. 83

Clayton Stephenson, Piano

Born 1875, Pyrennes, Basses-Cibourre
Died 1937, Paris

Throughout most of his career, Ravel had not written any concertos. At the age of 54, he set to work simultaneously on two piano concertos. One was the Concerto for the Left Hand for the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, and the Concerto in G Major was intended for the composer’s own use. The Concerto for the Left Hand is dark and serious, but the Concerto in G Major is much lighter. Ravel described it as “a concerto in the truest sense of the term, written in the spirit of Mozart and Saint-Saëns. Indeed, I take the view that the music of a concerto can very well be cheerful and brilliant and does not have to lay claim to profundity or aim at dramatic effect … At the beginning I thought of naming the work a divertissement; but I reflected that this was not necessary, the title ‘Concerto’ explaining the character of the music sufficiently.”

The actual composition took longer than Ravel anticipated, and the concerto was not complete until the fall of 1931. By that time, failing health prevented him from performing this music himself. Instead, he conducted the premiere in Paris on January 14, 1932. The pianist was Marguerite Long, to whom Ravel dedicated the concerto (Long had given the first performance of Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin in 1919).

Ravel may have taken Mozart and Saint-Saëns as his models, but no listener would make that association. What strikes audiences first are the concerto’s virtuoso writing for both piano and orchestra, the brilliance and transparency of the music, and the influence of American jazz. It is possible to make too much of the jazz influence, but Ravel had heard jazz during his tour of America in 1928 and found much to admire. When asked about its influence on this concerto, he said: “It includes some elements borrowed from jazz, but only in moderation.” Ravel was quite proud of this music and is reported to have said that in this work “he had expressed himself most completely, and that he had poured his thoughts into the exact mold that he had dreamed.”

The first movement, marked Allegramente (“Brightly”), opens with a whipcrack, and immediately the piccolo plays the jaunty opening tune, picked up in turn by solo trumpet before the piano makes its sultry solo entrance. Some of the concerto’s most brilliant music occurs in this movement, which is possessed of a sort of madcap energy, with great splashes of instrumental color, strident flutter-tonguing by the winds, string glissandos, and a quasi-cadenza for the harp. The Adagio assai, one of Ravel’s most beautiful slow movements, opens with a three-minute solo for the pianist, who lays out the haunting main theme at length. The return of this theme later in the movement in the English horn over delicate piano accompaniment is particularly effective. Despite its seemingly easy flow of melody, this movement gave Ravel a great deal of trouble, and he later said that he wrote it “two bars at a time.” The concluding Presto explodes to life with a five-note riff that recurs throughout, functioning somewhat like the ritornello of the baroque concerto. The jazz influence shows up here in the squealing clarinets, brass smears, and racing piano passages. The movement comes to a sizzling conclusion on the five-note phrase with which it began.

Program Note by Eric Bromberger


An American in Paris

Born 1898, Brooklyn
Died 1937, Beverly Hills

The acclaim that greeted Rhapsody in Blue (1924) and the Concerto in F (1925) made Gershwin more anxious to be taken seriously as the composer of “concert” music, and he resolved to write a work for orchestra alone, without the starring role for piano that had helped make the earlier two works so popular. The composition of this music took place in the spring of 1928, when Gershwin, his sister Frances, his brother Ira, and Ira’s wife Leonore took an extended family vacation to Paris. Happily ensconced in the Hotel Majestic, Gershwin composed what he called a “Tone Poem for Orchestra”, a musical portrait of an American visitor to the City of Light. Written between March and June 1928, it was first performed by Walter Damrosch and the New York Philharmonic on December 13 of that year.

This is fun music, and from the moment of that premiere it has always been one of Gershwin’s most popular scores, winning audiences over with its great tunes, breezy charm, and Gershwin’s obvious affection for Paris. Most notably, the music was used in the eponymous 1951 film with Gene Kelly. Musically, An American in Paris is a series of impressions strung together with great skill. Gershwin–anxious to insist on his abilities as a classical composer–tried to argue that the piece was in sonata-form, and he pointed to such general areas as exposition, development, and recapitulation. But such arguments protest too much.  It is far better to take An American in Paris as a set of polished episodes–a collection of sunny postcards from Paris–than to search too rigorously for resemblances to classical forms.

For the New York premiere, Gershwin and Deems Taylor prepared elaborate program notes, explaining what was “happening” at each moment in the music. These were probably written with tongue slightly in cheek (in fact, Gershwin had made sketches for this piece several years before going to Paris), and they should not be taken too seriously. But it is worth noting that Gershwin structured the music around the idea of an American walking through the streets of Paris, and he included three of what he called “walking themes.” That program note describes the very beginning: “You are to imagine, then, an American visiting Paris, swinging down the Champs-Elysées on a mild, sunny morning in May or June. Being what he is, he starts without preliminaries and is off at full speed at once to the tune of The First Walking Theme, a straightforward diatonic air designed to convey an impression of Gallic freedom and gaiety.”

Along his way come piquant moments: a snatch of a Parisian popular song in the trombones and the strident squawk of Paris taxi horns; Gershwin had four of these imported for the premiere in New York. One moment (Gershwin called it “an unhallowed episode”) is rarely mentioned: The American is approached by a streetwalker, who bats her eyes at him seductively in a violin solo marked espressivo. Our hero wavers briefly, then makes his escape on one of the walking tunes. At about the midpoint comes the famous “blues” section, introduced by solo trumpet: The American is feeling homesick, and his nostalgia takes the form of this distinctively American music. Matters are rescued by the sudden intrusion of a pair of trumpets that come sailing in with a snappy Charleston tune.  The cheerful final section reprises the various “walking” themes, and An American in Paris dances to its close on a great rush of happy energy.

Program Note by Eric Bromberger