Lawrence Toppman

Why Mozart wasn’t hard to Handel

By Lawrence Toppman

This week brings the 302nd anniversary of my favorite Baroque orchestral hit, the set of three suites known as “Water Music.” It’s a good time to discuss the composer Mozart apparently admired above all others: George Frideric Handel.

Mozart adapted music by Johann Sebastian Bach, his son Johann Christian, and many lesser composers. He deeply respected Franz Josef Haydn. But he spent months laboring over four of Handel’s oratorios, re-orchestrating “Messiah,” “Acis and Galatea,” “Alexander’s Feast” and “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day.” And he did that at the height of his creative powers, in his last three years of life.

Today we revere Bach as the pinnacle of Baroque composition. Composers and audiences in the late 18th and early 19th centuries didn’t think so, especially before Felix Mendelssohn revived Bach’s masterworks in 1829 and beyond. They adored Handel.

Haydn called him “the master of us all.” Beethoven reportedly said “Handel is the greatest composer that ever lived … I would uncover my head and kneel down on his tomb.” Mozart allegedly said that, if he’d had to be born any other composer, he’d choose Handel.

Handel died in London in 1759, a few years before young pianist Mozart went there on his amaze-the-royals tour of European cultural centers. Though we often think of music history as neatly defined periods, the Baroque had only just begun to evolve into what we call the Classical era, and Mozart heard music by J.S. Bach and Handel.

His love for it and for reinventing it never died. Though connoisseurs of his day still studied and played the original scores, the general public had mostly forgotten them. Mozart wanted to bring Handel into the 1780s in a way every Viennese could appreciate.

He added viola, clarinet and horn parts to make the sound richer, shortened sections he thought ran on too long for Classical-era listeners and added drama in places: Handel gave unison string backing to the bass aria “The people that walked in darkness,” but Mozart made this somber “Messiah” moment even more ominous with contrapuntal accompaniment.

The results honor the originals while setting them off in fresh ways, as a great film adaptation might do for a great novel. They don’t improve on Handel – Mozart never claimed they did – but they inspire us to listen to his oratorios with reawakened ears.

Composer prodigies: Baby geniuses? Maybe….

By Lawrence Toppman

A New York Times article last month acquainted me with Alma Deutscher, who at 14 has been writing and playing her own work for a decade.

Writer Melissa Eddy tells us, “In December, she will make her debut at Carnegie Hall, where she will play the solo violin and piano in her two concertos, while the orchestra will play selections from her opera (“Cinderella”) and her most recent work, a Viennese waltz. Next month, she will record a retrospective album with Sony of piano melodies she composed, going back to when she was just 4 years old.”

You can learn more at her YouTube channel, where you’ll get complete performances of her violin concerto – it reminded me of Bruch’s first, which also starts with a slow section — and Mendelssohnian piano concerto. She’s an accomplished soloist and polished composer who grounds her music in 19th-century structures, melodies and harmonic patterns.

The headline reads “A Musical Prodigy? Sure, but Don’t Call Her a ‘New Mozart’.“ Yet it’s hard not to.

Like him, she’s Austrian, a native of Vienna. She plays multiple instruments with unusual proficiency. She writes quickly in various genres. And like him, she has public eccentricities: She goes everywhere with a pink jump rope and skips to provoke inspiration. (Sviatoslav Richter, one of the 20th century’s great pianists, could not play near the end of his life unless his red plastic lobster sat atop the piano.)

Would we be so receptive to her story if she were less pleasantly modest, less photogenic, less young? Would these pieces excite the same interest if she were a 28-year-old New Yorker with purple hair and rings through her nose and lips? Never. This old-fashioned music, coming from such a person, would excite mostly scornful comment or be ignored altogether.

We’re taken with Alma Deutscher mostly because she fuels the myth of genius: God’s finger (or Fate, if you prefer) touched this baby and set creativity aflame. She fascinates us like a lottery winner who never had to buy a ticket: Why should she be so lucky?

Mozart the Patriot: Missing In Action

By Lawrence Toppman

Because America celebrates its 243rd birthday this week, I looked through the list of Mozart’s compositions for works celebrating Germany or Austria. I found exactly none.

Many major composers from the Renaissance through the late 20th century wrote music to commemorate a great public figure, an important event, the anniversary of a political or military action, the noble or sacrificial behavior of citizens, etc.

The most famous early example must be Handel’s “Water Music,” played for King George I on trips up and down the Thames in 1717. Shostakovich wrote pieces to celebrate the 1917 Russian Revolution more than 200 years later, though some of his public conformity to Soviet policy was lip service. Along the way came Beethoven’s “Wellington’s Victory,” Brahms’ “Triumphlied” and many more.

F.J. Haydn, Mozart’s greatest contemporary, wrote marches in honor of the Prince of Wales, the Royal Society of Musicians and Hungary itself. The adagio of his “Emperor” string quartet (No. 62) is a set of variations on “God Save Emperor Francis,” an anthem he wrote for Emperor Francis II that became the German national anthem. Carl Maria von Weber, whose cousin Mozart married, sometimes wrote songs to texts provided by a duke or prince.

Often these composers later trashed their occasional pieces. Prokofiev disowned the fervor of the cantata “Seven, They Are Seven,” written right after the Russian Revolution and revised under Stalin. Tchaikovsky had harsh words for his “gun for hire” work, from the Slavonic March (inspired by Russia’s part in the Serbo-Turkish War) to the “1812” overture, written for the 70thanniversary of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.

But nobody asked Mozart for such a thing. Or, if someone did, he said no. Why would that be?

Perhaps, though he repeatedly described himself as a good citizen of his homeland, his constant travels around Europe prevented officials from thinking of him on state occasions. Perhaps other composers, such as Antonio Salieri, sprang to mind when a “Parademarsch” for wind quintet needed to be whipped up for a state function.

Perhaps people in power thought Mozart would be insulted by the idea, too unreliable to deliver on time or likely to grind out hackwork nobody liked, although his pieces commissioned by the Freemasons include minor masterworks. Whatever happened, patriotic music is about the only type he never gave us.

Grieving a mother’s death in music

By Lawrence Toppman

Anna Maria Mozart accompanied her 22-year-old son on a job-hunting trip in 1778, hoping to find commissions their native Salzburg had been slow to supply. She didn’t want to go; unlike her husband, she hadn’t enjoyed the countless tours the Mozarts undertook as a family when their performing children were the toasts of Europe in the 1760s.

But Leopold didn’t trust his son alone and out of sight. The kid had shown interest in women, and marriage might have removed a source of income from the family. So mama accompanied Wolfgang to Augsburg, Mannheim and finally Paris. She died there 241 years ago next week at the age of 57.

Mozart, the last of seven children – five of whom died in infancy — was devastated. He loved her deeply, and she had always treated him with more kindness than his father. Leopold, who’d ignored her requests to come home or improve their living conditions in Paris, quickly berated his son in letters for failing to take care of Anna Maria. He all but blamed Wolfgang for her death, though the young man had been busy composing.

Mozart created beautiful music from his sorrow: His eighth piano sonata, the first (and one of only two) in a minor key. It begins with an allegro maestoso touched by melancholy, goes on to an andante cantabile con expressione (“singing, with expression”) full of troubled reflections, and concludes with a presto that doesn’t let listeners off the hook: It plunges forward anxiously, like a piece of early Beethoven.

Yet while his mother languished, he also put the finishing touches on a buoyant, major-key symphony: The 31st, nicknamed “Paris.” The opening allegro assai surges forward, the final allegro introduces a mini-tempest but quickly blows it away, and even the slow movement in the middle saunters along jauntily. It premiered three weeks to the day before she died, while doctors were trying to figure out what was wrong with her. (They couldn’t.)

Insensitivity? No, pragmatism. It received warm reviews and stayed in the repertoire of the Concert Spirituel, which premiered it publicly, for a decade. Mozart wrote the sonata from his heart and the symphony from his head, satisfying himself in the first case and a mass audience in the second – another reminder that we can’t always know the artist by the art he makes.

Nobody dances to Wolfie

By Lawrence Toppman

I can think of countless composers whose works translate to ballet and modern dance stages, from J.S. Bach – whom Paul Taylor set brilliantly in “Esplanade” and “A Musical Offering” – to Philip Glass, whose “In the Upper Room” inspired Twyla Tharp to make the most ecstatic dance piece I know.

Leo Delibes, Aaron Copland, Peter Tchaikovsky, Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev wrote copiously and beautifully for dancers. Guys we don’t think of as ballet composers often took one or more shots: Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, Dmitri Shostakovich, Leonard Bernstein, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel.

Yet search Wikipedia for “Ballets to the Music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart,” and you get exactly two nonentities: “Tributary” and “Twinkliana.” George Balanchine did set “Mozartiana,” but to Tchaikovsky’s Third Orchestral Suite, which bears that nickname. (Tchaikovsky loved WAM.)

I thought about this when I saw an ad for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s “Breaking Classical” concert Friday, in which The Gentlemen of Hip-Hop could be seen frolicking before portraits of Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart. I got excited for a moment, until I realized I couldn’t think of any WAM pieces they’d use.

Why should this be? Mozart wrote 200 dances over three decades, starting when he was 5 and going up to the next-to-last year of his life. He threw in unusual instruments that caught his ear, from the hurdy-gurdy to tuned sleigh bells.

He included dancelike music in quartets and symphonies, wrote ballets hardly anyone recalls (“Les petit riens”) and stuck ballets into some early operas, notably “Idomeneo.” He became a deft ballroom dancer himself, performing and writing minuets, contredanses and German dances with folklike flair. Yet nobody plays these nowadays, and nobody sets Mozart’s greater works in motion.

That can’t be because he’s hard to adapt: His music is rhythmic, precise and provides attractive tunes. It’s in the public domain, so having to pay royalties wouldn’t impede a choreographer.

I’d guess it’s because the music is an entire world in itself, so fully realized that dancemakers have nothing to add. The architecture of Bach suggests patterns for the stage; the dreamy melodies of Chopin make logical underpinnings for emotional ballets; the generic buoyancy of Rossini’s overtures permits an interpreter to go in any direction. But you can’t easily riff off Mozart’s perfection: He doesn’t leave anything to be expressed beyond what he himself has told us.

Making A Masterpiece Out of Mediocrity

By Lawrence Toppman

Joe Ceremsak, my history teacher in my junior year of high school, once defined genius as seeing the potential for success in others’ failures. I was listening to “The Beneficent Dervish” last weekend and realized how true that is. (Another time, he told us to marry people for their brains and personalities, not their looks. Of course, we rolled our eyes: He was old.)

Any composer given a dazzlingly witty or searingly dramatic libretto might turn out an inspired score. But Mozart wrote “The Magic Flute” using the same kind of literary hodgepodge Emanuel Schikaneder had already handed Mozart’s contemporaries over the previous year.

Schikaneder took over the Theater auf der Wieden in a Viennese suburb in May 1789. He not only produced and wrote plays – usually singspiel, a mixture of music and dialogue – but took the baritone leads himself. Paul Wranitzky’s “Oberon” became a hit, so Schikaneder decided to write three more fairy-tale operas over the next 18 months: “The Philosopher’s Stone,” “The Beneficent Dervish” and “The Magic Flute.”

Not to say he followed a formula, but all three heroes are princes accompanied by goofy companions. (Schikaneder took the latter roles.) They go through trials to win the hands of princesses, while their sidekicks end up with earthy partners. A benevolent guardian with mysterious powers guides these princes, warding off evil and handing out protective gifts: a sword and a bird in “Stone,” a pouch, drum and bells in “Dervish,” a flute and bells in “Flute.”

Mozart took a hand in “Stone,” though the bulk of it seems to have come from Johann Baptist Henneberg, Benedikt Schack, Franz Xaver Gerl and Schikaneder himself. I have listened to it and couldn’t find anything identifiably Mozartean, though he’s so versatile it’s hard to pin down a Mozart “style.” After hearing “Dervish,” I see why we’ve never heard any more compositions by the other guys, whose lack of memorable melodies and harmonic invention earned them obscurity.

But look what Mozart did when writing by himself in “Flute!” He terrifies us with the Queen of the Night’s vengeance aria, soothes us with Sarastro’s mellow musings, makes us laugh at Papageno’s antics and endows Tamino and Pamina with nobility and passion. He took the same cornball materials Schikaneder supplied to his contemporaries and elevated them to greatness. That’s a genius at work.

The Mozart of Broadway

By Lawrence Toppman

Born on January 27. Died before his time. Stage career took off when he found an ideal librettist, who helped him transform the way music and drama go together. Yes, we’re talking about…Jerome Kern.

January 27 turns out to be an auspicious birthday for composers. Juan Crisostomo Arriaga, the Spanish Mozart, appeared in 1806, exactly 50 years after Wolfgang. Édouard Lalo, who wrote the beloved Symphonie Espagnole plus fine concertos for piano and cello, came along in 1823. Tigran Mansurian, now 80, remains Armenia’s greatest living composer.

Yet Jerome David Kern, who was born in 1885 and died at 60, changed our world more radically.

Before him, Broadway musicals offered two-dimensional characters, contrived plots, easily resolved dilemmas and songs that didn’t flow out of the action. Shows simply stopped for big numbers, then resumed verbal trivialities until the next musical interlude.

Kern and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II changed that template in 1927 with “Show Boat.” It offered half a dozen tunes that became standards, notably “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine,” but it also dealt with alcoholism, interracial marriage and racism in general, paternal abandonment and other issues. A hard-fought happy ending came to some characters, but not all. (To see it, go to Central Piedmont Community College this month: CPCC Summer Theatre opens its season with “Show Boat.”)

Mozart changed opera by insisting that common people’s troubles mattered as much as those of kings, gods and mythical figures. Kern and Hammerstein had an equal impact on Broadway, showing audiences at the height of the blithe Jazz Age how men’s and women’s lives unravel.

The initial run of “Show Boat” ended in May 1929, five months before the stock market crashed. A decade of The Depression would pass before Americans flocked to realistic musicals again. But Kern and Hammerstein opened the door for “Pal Joey,” “Carmen Jones,” “Oklahoma!” and other tuneful shows that took audiences to darker places. I can’t leave without acknowledging another fine composer born on January 27: Elmore James, who died of a heart attack at 45 in 1963. His slide guitar playing influenced everyone from Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Frank Zappa; “Dust My Broom” and “The Sky is Crying” stand at the apex of electric blues music. But that’s a subject for another day.

Pictured (top): Photograph of Jerome Kern/Wikipedia.

Dispatch from Spoleto: Hypnotic Movements

Pictured (above): The St. Lawrence String Quartet plays Haydn’s “Emperor” quartet during the Bank of America Chamber Music series. Photo by William Struhs.

By Lawrence Toppman

Every fine chamber musician plays with precision, intelligence, energy and taste. But the ones at Spoleto Festival USA also play with love, and that makes all the difference.

Violinist Geoff Nuttall, who programs the Bank of America Chamber Music series with wide-ranging inclinations, places no composer above Franz Josef Haydn. When he and the rest of the St. Lawrence String Quartet perform Haydn’s Emperor Quartet – the one with the Viennese national anthem in the slow movement – they tear into it like kids unwrapping presents on Christmas morning.

They may have been especially eager to rock Dock Street Theatre last weekend, because a PBS film crew came to Charleston to shoot footage of an episode of “Now Hear This.” Nuttall informed the audience that PBS would broadcast this series devoted to classical composers – reportedly the first in 50 years on prime-time TV – starting in September.

Yet the players gave the same intensity to “Closed Universe,” a dense and mysterious piece by composer-in-residence Paul Wiancko, or to a virtuosic, throwaway piccolo concerto by Vivaldi. Their joy shoots over the footlights and jolts the audience each time.

More than ever, this series offers three pleasures. The first – a drawback, if you dislike contemporary music – is that you can almost never attend back-to-back concerts now without encountering living composers. I heard four: Philip Glass, Wiancko, Larry Alan Smith (who wrote the solo “Three Angularities” for his oboist son, James Austin Smith) and Doug Balliett. The latter gave the regional premiere of “Echo and Narcissus,” narrating and playing double-bass in this tale from Ovid’s “Metamorphosis.”

Anthony Roth Costanzo (center) sings a three-song suite by Philip Glass and George Frideric Handel during the 2019 Bank of America Chamber Music series.
Anthony Roth Costanzo (center) sings a three-song suite by Philip Glass and George Frideric Handel during the 2019 Bank of America Chamber Music series. Photo by William Struhs.

The second is the willingness of world-class artists to take occasional minor roles out of a sense of comradeship. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo sang vocal interludes in Balliett’s “rap cantata,” none of them more than about 45 seconds. Pianist Inon Barnatan, who’ll open the Charlotte Symphony’s 2019-20 Classical season with Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto, will show up near the end of the festival (June 5-9) to join in a Faure quartet, a Beethoven trio and a 12-person adaptation of the overture to Rossini’s “Barber of Seville.”

The third involves no music at all. Conversations from the stage enlighten and amuse, providing entry points to obscure pieces. The self-taught Wiancko explained that he had written nothing for years, absorbing influences from jazz and blues and punk-rock and “a little bit of Brahms,” and you could hear those as he strummed his cello and tickled a glockenspiel in “Universe.” (Perhaps not the punk-rock.)

These introductions could become a trend. The founder of Compagnie Hervé Koubi told the Gaillard Center crowd about his upbringing in Southern France, his Algerian heritage, his Jewish father and his belief that his street dancers are not employees but his “brothers” from around the Mediterranean and Africa: Burkina Faso, Algeria, Israel, Italy, Spain and other lands.

Compagnie Herve Koubi
Compagnie Herve Koubi performs two nights in the Charleston Gaillard Center, kicking off the 2019 season of Spoleto Festival USA. Photo by Nathalie Sternalski.

What he did not say was how to approach “What the Day Owes to the Night.” Like the music that accompanied it – a mashup of Sufi mysticism, J.S. Bach and the Kronos Quartet with vocalist Hamza El Din – Koubi’s 13 dancers, all of them acrobatically gifted and many of them with strong breakdancing chops, seemed to be moving in a quasi-religious trance and trying to induce one in us.

This company occupied the opening weekend spot often reserved for celebrated ballet or modern troupes, which do long mixed programs. Koubi’s lone piece lasted just over an hour, and he exhausted his movement vocabulary after 15 minutes. The ensemble remained onstage the whole time, with small groups emerging briefly from the mass, and “Day” slowed down for only a few moments near the middle.

Koubi seldom varied the cycles of arms reaching to heaven, bodies spinning upside-down or upright in dervish-like whirls, leaps and rolls and falls interrupted briefly by meditative sections. Time seemed to stop – a satisfying thing if you were in sync with Koubi’s repeating rhythms, a painful one if you weren’t.