ABOUT THE PROGRAM
By Lucy Caplan © 2022 • Program Annotator
Lucy Caplan is a Lecturer on History and Literature at Harvard University and a winner of the Rubin Prize for Music Criticism.
Mythmaking around classical music often celebrates its transporting quality: We imagine that music can usher us into an entirely different time and place, via the stylings of a performer who has the magical ability to know precisely what the composer would have wanted their music to sound like. Víkingur Ólafsson is skeptical of this idea. “I see all music as contemporary music,” he has observed; when we play music of the past today, “we play it inevitably so differently from the way it has sounded before.” He acknowledges—even embraces—an “individual and inescapably contemporary sensibility” as the context in which musical interpretation happens.
transcendent-genius, this evening’s program offers an alternative. Titled “Mozart and Contemporaries,” it situates Mozart’s music alongside that by other composers who were part of his broad cultural milieu: the Italians Baldassare Galuppi and Domenico Cimarosa, as well as C.P.E. Bach and Franz Joseph Haydn. With this mix of what he calls “the celebrated and the obscure,” Ólafsson hopes to “slightly alter our psychological attunement, removing some of the baggage we all bring with us to Mozart’s music. This is in any case what I set out to do for myself: to approach even the best-known works of Mozart with the same freedom and childlike enthusiasm I felt upon discovering the rare and staggeringly lyrical works from the likes of Galuppi and Cimarosa.”
Listening to this coterie of eighteenth-century European composers together, we begin to hear the qualities that unite them: a fondness for the lyricism of Italian opera, a harmonic adventurousness that anticipates Romanticism, a shared yet idiosyncratic embrace of classical forms. Together, these works invite us not so much into the world of eighteenth-century Europe as into the mindset of a contemporary artist thinking about eighteenth-century Europe—a subtle but crucial distinction which is at the core of Ólafsson’s approach.
Baldassare Galuppi (1706–1785)
Andante spiritoso from Keyboard Sonata No. 9 in F Minor
Larghetto from Keyboard Sonata No. 34 in C Minor
Seen in his own time as an heir to Vivaldi, Galuppi became a mainstay of Venetian musical life in the middle of the eighteenth century. Yet even as he fit into a distinctly Italian musical tradition, Galuppi also bore many similarities to Mozart. Both were equally at home approaching the kaleidoscopic complexity of opera or the intimacy of the solo keyboard. Galuppi was also, like Mozart, a celebrated pianist himself; and he was similarly precocious, composing his first opera—a pastoral fable whose title can be translated as Faith in Inconstancy—at age sixteen.
Perhaps the most compelling connection between Galuppi and Mozart has less to do with their biographies and more with their shared excitement about the interpretive space between familiarity and wonder. The Andante spiritoso from Galuppi’s Sonata in F Minor, is dreamlike and mysterious, its swirling undulating rhythms pulled in a surprising direction with an unexpected modulation to D-flat major. In the Larghetto from a Sonata in C Minor, a cascading opening gesture establishes a somber mood, almost as if setting the scene for a tragic aria to unfold. The aria never comes: Instead, the work’s texture remains almost painfully spare to the end.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Rondo in F Major, K. 494 (1786)
Fantasia No. 3 in D Minor, K. 397 (1782)
Rondo in D Major, K. 485 (1786)
Gigue in G Major, K. 574 (1789)
Piano Sonata No. 16 in C Major, K. 545 (1788)
Adagio ma non troppo from String Quintet in G Minor, K. 516 (arr. Víkingur Ólafsson) (1787)
Piano Sonata No. 14 in C Minor, K. 457 (1785)
Adagio in B Minor, K. 540 (1788)
Ave verum corpus, K. 618 (trans. Franz Liszt) (1791)
This collection of works by Mozart, all composed during the final decade of the composer’s life, illuminates myriad formal, stylistic, and national influences: everything from Italian opera to Baroque contrapuntal thorniness to Beethoven-like Romantic angst. Together, they suggest what felt “contemporary” to Mozart: past musical ideas which still held sway, sources of immediate inspiration, sounds he imagined when he looked toward the future. There is something proto-Romantic, for example, about the sudden emotional swerves of the Rondo in F Major. The Fantasia in D Minor is even more improvisatory. An unfinished work, the Fantasia stops mid-thought; the performer must choose whether to play an ending crafted by another composer, create their own conclusion, or simply pause where Mozart did and let the uncertainty linger.
Other works are not quite so capricious. The Rondo in D Major is a rollicking piece whose title is something of a misnomer; it’s actually written in textbook sonata form. The Gigue looks to the past. Mozart wrote it while in Leipzig, appropriately enough, and it evokes Bach’s compositional sensibilities through near-constant cross-rhythms, use of sequences, and jagged melodic angles. The Piano Sonata in C Major, familiar to beginner pianists everywhere, eschews the moodiness of other works from this period in Mozart’s life. Instead, it celebrates simplicity of construction, with straightforward textures and a gentle, sunny affect. The Adagio from the String Quintet in G Minor leaps to the other end of the emotional and textural spectrum: It is a layered, intricate work, a tender outpouring of melancholy whose depths of feeling seem boundless.
The Piano Sonata in C Minor seems to offer a glimpse of the future. The minor-key angst of the first movement anticipates early Beethoven; so does the elaborate ornamentation that characterizes the second movement, and the stormy intensity of the third. In the Adagio in B Minor, Mozart turns to an unusual-for-the-era key to evoke a sense of eerie ambiguity. Like the Fantasia heard earlier, it takes the listener on an evolving emotional journey, stopping along the way at harmonically strange outposts. Resolution—or, at least, relief—appears in the Ave verum corpus. Written during the final year of Mozart’s life, this setting of a fourteenth-century hymn is utterly tranquil, a paragon of calm.
Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714–1788)
Rondo II in D Minor, H. 290 (1785)
Adagios, C.P.E. Bach lamented in a letter to his publisher, were “no longer fashionable” in 1780s Hamburg. Eager to stay relevant, he turned away from composing slow movements and instead turned to more popular forms, like the Rondo. This piece both meets and destabilizes expectations: Its main theme is slightly off-kilter at 11 bars long, and its rhythmic patterns are interrupted by the occasional sudden pause. In the end, though, the theme returns for a neatly stated conclusion.
Domenico Cimarosa (arr. Ólafsson) (1749–1801)
Sonata No. 42 in D Minor
Sonata No. 55 in A Minor
A prolific composer who wrote more than 80 operas, Domenico Cimarosa also wrote a massive array of keyboard sonatas: brief, miniature-like works which delve into the nuances of a single musical idea. Ólafsson’s arrangements adapt Cimarosa’s compositions for the more complex expressive possibilities of the grand piano, augmenting their sonorities for the modern instrument. The Sonata No. 42 is wistful and contemplative, ending on an uncertain note. The Sonata No. 55, by contrast, has an openhearted elegance, propelled by lilting, Siciliana-like dotted rhythms.
Franz Joseph Haydn (1732–1809)
Piano Sonata No. 47 in B Minor, Hob. XVI:32 (1776)
The jokiness typically associated with Haydn is in short supply in this sonata, which maintains a rather somber mood throughout. The first movement opens with a precise, ornamented theme; its energy stays tightly coiled throughout. The composer next opts for an expansive, quick-paced Minuet in lieu of a typical slow movement, followed by a forceful, jumpy finale.