Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Mozart & Friends: A Night at the Bowling Alley

This evening, the Harrisburg Symphony presents its annual “Stuart & Friends,” chamber music with conductor Stuart Malina at the piano, with friends and colleagues from the orchestra to play, in this case, three works: Mozart’s Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano (with clarinetist Janine Thomas and violist Julius Wirth); Debussy’s very early Piano Trio (with violinist Nicole Diaz and cellist Daniel Pereira) and then Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet (with Diaz, Wirth, Pereira and bassist Devin Howell).

The performance is at 7:30 at the Rose Lehrman Center of the Harrisburg Area Community College.

(My apologies for not posting them sooner, but my laptop fell victim to a nefarious virus last week and it was only returned to health last night: the back-up PC, meanwhile, was accumulating Frequent Crasher Miles and was, essentially, useless when it came to writing and posting on-line…)

Here is a wonderful performance of the entire Mozart Trio with clarinetist Martin Fröst, violist Maxim Rysanov and pianist Roland Pöntinen. It opens with an expansive andante (unusual in itself) – the Minuet begins at 5:25 and the Rondo at 10:59.

Original Manuscript of the opening of the Trio
Mozart’s “Kegelstatt” Trio, as it’s known, has a rather unusual combination. Traditionally, piano trios are composed for a violin, a cello and a piano which evolved from the Baroque concept of a melody instrument (could be a violin or a flute, maybe an oboe), a bass instrument (usually cello, or possibly a bassoon) and a keyboard instrument (in a secular setting, a harpsichord, most likely; in a church, an organ). And the bass instrument primarily doubled the bass-line of the keyboard part while the keyboard primarily filled in the harmonies in between bass and melody.

But this particular trio doesn’t have a bass instrument and the clarinet, frankly, was not that commonly found in “classical” music situations. Most people regarded the clarinet as a kind of “dance-band” instrument for popular music (think 1780’s version of the 1940’s Big Bands) and it was only just being taken seriously by good performers who could make the case for it to be taken seriously. And generations of viola jokes aside, the viola usually got stuck filling in the harmony (along with the equally ill-suffering 2nd Fiddle) between the melody (1st Violin) and the bass line (‘cello).

One of Mozart’s good friends was Anton Stadler who played in one of the Imperial “wind-bands” (called Harmoniemusik, their primary function was to play during dinners). They probably met in 1781, shortly after Mozart moved to Vienna, and it was obvious Mozart liked his playing: in addition to this particular trio, he wrote prominent wind parts in his piano concertos for Stadler and his friends to play. Eventually, Mozart would compose the Clarinet Quintet and the Clarinet Concerto for Stadler – no small endorsement of his talents!

Mozart had gone to Vienna to make his fortune, so he’d hoped, and while that may not have happened in the ten years he had, there, he did make enough of a living as a piano teacher if not a composer or performer himself. The mainstay of a teacher’s livelihood, then, were the young ladies of aristocratic families who could not go on to become professional musicians as we’d think of it today, but to become more well-rounded wives to their well-to-do husbands: it was not important that she could cook or clean house or even raise the children (there were servants for that) but a pleasant voice and a reasonable ability to play the piano were highly valued not only for the family’s own musical entertainment in the days before radios, televisions and stereophonic sound systems, but also to show off for their friends and dinner guests.

One of these students was Franziska von Jacquin whose father Gottfried was a friend of both Mozart’s and Stadler’s. She was in her mid-teens when Mozart wrote the piano part in this trio for her to play. Judging from that, she must certainly have been a commendable pianist!

We think of composers writing all this music for us to enjoy today when, at the time, there was probably little thought to much of it beyond the initial purpose it was written for. In this case, Mozart in a relaxed mood writing for his friends and playing it for their friends and, more likely, their own amusement. Posterity was not on the radar, here. There was public music – like the symphonies, concertos and operas, and probably many of the quartets and other piano trios he composed – but this was private music or more specifically “occasional music,” written for a specific occasion.

1786 was a year Mozart often visited the Jacquin home. Gottfried was an amateur singer and composer and if Mozart didn’t actually give him lessons, he did help him with some of his songs, many of which were performed alongside Mozart’s own at these family musicales. For them, Mozart also composed a series of “part songs” (songs written for two or more voices) with accompaniments by basset horns, a kind of alto clarinet favored by Stadler and which Mozart developed a fondness for.

It was for one such musicale Mozart composed this particular Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano – Stadler played the clarinet, Franziska the piano, and Mozart the viola (which he often preferred doing, rather than violin). Mozart had been a good enough violinist to play the violin concertos he’d written as a teen-ager, but in a string quartet, he found it more enjoyable to be sitting in the middle listening to everything going on around him.

Keep in mind, in those days, if 2nd Violinists weren’t good enough to play 1st Violin parts, those who couldn’t cut 2nd Violin parts were usually handed a viola. So, every time I hear the Divertimento K.563 for string trio written two years later, there’s this wicked passage for the violinist to play which the viola then plays immediately afterwards: you can imagine the violinist sweating this technically challenging passage and then Mozart effortlessly tossing it off with a smile.

Incidentally, the fact Mozart wrote it for clarinet didn’t keep the publishers from issuing it as a trio for violin (or clarinet), viola and piano. They figured there was more money to be made selling it to families with a violinist and, besides, not everybody thought the clarinet belonged in reputable situations.

The other item about this trio is its nickname - Kegelstatt. Like the Haffner Serenade or the “Linz” Symphony, most people would probably assume the work was dedicated to some guy named Kegelstatt or it was written in the Town of Kegelsta[d]t.

Not so.

Kegels was a popular game in Germany and all the rage in Vienna at the time, a form of “lawn bowling” in which players rolled a wooden ball down a path to knock over wooden things we would call bowling pins. It would later become a popular game in Australia – ten-pin bowling – introduced there by Germans in the 19th Century.

(Incidentally, it has nothing to do with certain health exercises unless, as a musician playing this piece, you find yourself having issues with bladder control…)

The English term for this form of bowling is called “Skittles” and the addition of the –statt refers to the place where you’d play such a game. The romance of the music is somewhat destroyed by those who require translating all foreign terms in titles of musical works when you’d refer to this as the “Bowling Alley Trio.”

The name has been applied to it by somebody who thought Mozart had composed this in his head while playing skittles. That’s possible though there’s no proof of it. I could imagine Mozart and his friends playing a round of skittles after dinner and performing some part songs, when Mozart said “I have this wonderful theme for a clarinet – it goes like this.” And then, as they continued to play the game, the work began to take shape in his mind.

It’s not improbable, if you don’t think that, while other friends were bowling, Mozart went off to the side and wrote the piece down on paper. But then, Mozart was not your typical composer…

We know, from his own statements (I believe his father even mentioned it in some letters) that Mozart loved to play billiards (a more intellectually challenging game than what we simply call “pool”) and that, while sharpening his mind during a game, he would be working out certain compositional issues before putting them down on paper.

If you look at many of Mozart’s original manuscripts – not copies to be sent to the printer, but the originals – you don’t see what we’d call sketches where things are crossed out, written over or scribbled into the margins. Many of Mozart’s colleagues remarked how “clean” his manuscripts are, as if they’ve sprung fully formed like Minerva from Zeus’ head (remember that famous scene in “Amadeus” where Salieri makes this discovery). Compare the opening page of the “Kegelstatt” Trio (above), for instance, to a page from Beethoven’s Cello Sonata in A Major (below).

a page from Beethoven's manuscript
That’s not to say Mozart was a better composer than Beethoven (some would agree) – they approached it differently and Beethoven often struggled with finding the right solutions. That doesn’t mean Mozart didn’t – later, especially in the “Prussian” String Quartets, you’ll find considerable editing taking place during the creative process in the manuscripts – but if he did it in his head, who’s not going to think of the expression “divine inspiration”? Brahms had a different take on the process: he’d work things out in sketches, frequently rewrite pieces and destroy those he didn’t find suitable (by his own statements, he clearly destroyed more than he published), taking special pains to destroy all sketches and early manuscripts.

Brahms said the most important possession a composer could own was a wastebasket. Mozart, it seemed, had no need of one.

- Dick Strawser

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