At this time of year in Mozart’s Vienna the theatres were all closed. Between the license and fun of Carnival (or Mardi Gras) and Easter, the season of Lent was one of penance and self-denial, so nothing as trivial as opera was permitted. But people – even musicians – still had to eat, so during Lent players and composers often presented ‘academies’ instead of stage shows.
Royal permission was required, and recipients of such permission tended to be the highly favoured and famous, but unlike the performances in the royal and aristocratic salons of Vienna, these academies were what we would recognise as classical variety concerts, mixing instrumental and vocal music. These were open to the general (paying) public, and the musicians fervently prayed their concerts would turn a profit.
In the Lenten season of 1784 Vienna saw numerous academies including three presented by Mozart and at least one the clarinettist Anton Stadler. Stadler’s, held in late March, included the only documented performance of the ‘Gran Partita’ in Mozart’s lifetime. We don’t know if Mozart wrote it for the occasion – scholars are not entirely sure when it was composed, though agree it was in the early years of Mozart’s decade in Vienna – but there might have been an incentive that accounts for the scoring of the piece.
The ‘Gran Partita’ is a Serenade, which in Mozart’s time meant a multi-movement piece to played as background music at an outdoor event held by some aristocrat or other. For this reason, wind ensembles were favoured, and Serenades almost always began and ended with a march, during which the musicians would enter and exit while playing. The central movements provided alternating song- and dance-like pieces. Mozart hated writing this sort of thing for his erstwhile employer, the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, so it has been suggested there was an element of revenge in composing this sublime and abstract example of the genre for a public concert in Vienna. Far from being a kind of outdoor wallpaper music, the ‘Gran Partita’ is a work of great sophistication and amplitude. Pierre Boulez once likened the austere opening of the Adagio movement to a ritual, while in Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, Mozart’s rival Salieri goes further: he is sure that he is hearing the voice of God. ‘On the page it looked like nothing…Just a pulse – bassoons and basset-horns – like a rusty squeezebox. Then suddenly – high above it – an oboe, a single note, hanging there unwavering, till a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight!’
Mozart almost certainly conceived of the piece for Stadler, who would be the inspiration for the late Clarinet Concerto and Clarinet Quintet, and his brother Johann, also a gifted player. But also resident in Vienna at the time were Anton David and Vincent Springer, celebrated basset-horn players from Bohemia.
The basset-horn is a kind of tenor clarinet whose unusual plumbing gives it a distinctively beautiful sound: the version with which Mozart was familiar has a similar sized bore to the standard clarinet, but its extra length requires the tubing to coil before reaching the saxophone-like flared bell. The rich interiority of the sound makes the basset-horn extremely versatile: it can blend with and enhance the brighter colours of the clarinet while also extending the darker tones of horns and bassoons. Mozart uses it in a number of works, most notable, perhaps in pieces with an explicit ritual function such as the Requiem and the final version of the Masonic Funeral Music. In 1784 he clearly couldn’t believe his luck at having not only two brilliant clarinettists but two brilliant basset-horn players to combine in this piece, and it is this, in part, that gives the piece its extraordinary rich timbres (which conductor Trevor Pinnock describes – approvingly – as ‘pudding’) in the mid-range of the ensemble.
The ‘Gran Partita’ was, of course, a hit, with contemporary sources noting just that unique quality of the score. Just over a week after Stadler’s academy Mozart himself presented one that included his Quintet for Winds and Piano. Mozart was yet to experience his operatic breakthrough with The Marriage of Figaro, and was still at this time focus on instrumental music. In 1784 he composed six of his Piano Concertos, along with a string quartet and one or two other things, and this quintet. The popularity of wind ensembles was beginning to wane in favour of string-based ensembles. Mozart (and not long after, Beethoven) would soon be writing serenade-type works for string trios, or ensembles which blended winds and strings (though Beethoven found great inspiration in this piece.) Nevertheless, Mozart famously wrote to his father that it was the best thing he had written so far, and that the audience loved it. It’s likely that it was an amazing performance – Mozart was on top of his game as a pianist, and the wind group seems likely included Anton Stadler and, on horn, the fine but long-suffering Joseph Leutgeb. Mozart wrote various things for Leutgeb, including his Horn Concerto, K.417, saying in the dedication that he ‘has taken pity on Leutgeb, ox, ass and fool, at Vienna, 27 March l783...’ Leutgeb, tired perhaps of ‘messages’ scrawled on his music by the composer such ‘Go it, Signor Asino’ [little ass] – ‘Take a little breath’ – ‘Wretched pig’ – ‘Thank God, here’s the end’, eventually opened a cheese shop.
Mozart, as friend, colleague or employee, could be hard work, and his relations with the Prince-Archbishop in Salzburg never recovered after his ‘defection’ to Vienna, so when he and his wife visited his family there, the year before his successful Viennese academies, there was little or no official acknowledgment of his presence. Mozart scholars are not entirely sure of what he worked on while visiting Salzburg, but many increasingly believe that his output included three Piano Sonatas, published soon after in Vienna, of which the A major Sonata is so esteemed. It seems likely that he wrote these pieces as teaching material. It is, of course, a work of supremely Mozartean poise, reminding us that this was the instrument at which Mozart excelled as a performer, and its justly popular finale exploits the same love of ‘Turkish’ exotica that made his 1782 opera, The Abduction for the Seraglio, such a success. In his Rondo alla Turca (his name for it) Mozart imitates the music of the mehter, or band of the Janissaries who guarded the Sultan. Such bands were wind and percussion ensembles, so we might imagine how this piano music might sound if coloured with the timbres of the ‘Gran Partita’.
Gordon Kerry © 2019