Musical Musings


Mozart the Rockstar

Mozart was an international celebrity and spent almost his entire life on tour. He stormed through some 70 cities and royal courts, and his antics make some rock stars look angelic. He invented the "out-of-control-child-superstar-with-controlling-stage-parents" persona centuries before Lindsay Lohan graced tabloids.

He was unique in his era by going solo without a steady church or court gig. He was also somewhat of a social trickster, and did not hold emperors and royals with the reverent respect expected of that period. It's really no surprise that many of his operas deal with silly nobles who get their comeuppance from the brilliant but poor.

He was born on the 27th of January, 1756 in Salzburg, Austria to Anna Maria Pertl and Leopold Mozart. You may be surprised to know that W.A. Mozart's full name is actually Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. Music marketers the world over are relieved that he shortened it to Wolfgang Amadeus.

Mozart began playing the piano at age 4, by age 5 was writing his first compositions, and by age 6 his dad decided to take Mozart and sister Nannerl on tour. Mozart was a youthful prodigy in the truest sense of the words. In just 30 of his 35 years, he wrote more than 630 pieces, including 27 piano concerti, 42 symphonies, and 22 operas.


The Mystery of "Jupiter"

The Jupiter Symphony is Mozart's last, and with its humor, exuberant energy, and unusually grand scale, earned the symphony its nickname—for the chief god of ancient Roman pantheon.

1788 was a time of great financial and physical difficulty for Mozart. Despite all of that, the music of this final period amazes. His last three symphonies (Nos. 39, 40, and 41) were written in quick succession all in one summer in 1788. Mozart would die only three years later.

There's a lot we don't know about Jupiter and the other two accompanying symphonies. Did Mozart actually hear his final symphonies performed? Who was it written for, and why?

It's uncertain whether or not the symphonies were performed in Mozart's lifetime. Also, Mozart rarely composed on a whim. He typically wrote on commission or created new pieces for friends. Such transactions were cataloged in the composer's letters and writings... but the historical record for the summer of 1788 is completely silent.


"Amadeus" the Movie vs. Amadeus the Composer

Many know Mozart through his music: serene, organized, ingenious, beautiful. But did his real life persona personality match the character in Amadeus?

1. Mozart was a prankster. TRUE.

A famous example occurred during a performance of The Magic Flute. A character is required to pretend to play a glockenspiel. At one performance, Mozart sneaked backstage to actually play a glockenspiel, later writing: "As a joke, I played music when he was speaking. … He was forced to hit the glockenspiel, mumbling 'Stop it!' Everybody laughed."

2. Mozart conducted his pieces from the podium. FALSE.

The movie shows Mozart conducting several of his pieces from the podium in front of his orchestra. The concept of a conductor leading an orchestra didn’t really take off until the nineteenth century. In Mozart’s day, tempo and volume decisions were primarily decided by the concertmaster and keyboardist.

3. Salieri killed Mozart. FALSE

Mozart’s death is still mysterious. His death record listed "severe military fever," but dozens of theories have been proposed, including influenza, mercury poisoning, a kidney ailment, and acute rheumatic fever. The movie inferred that another composer, Salieri, did him in. Salieri did “confess” to killing Mozart while out of his mind later in life, but musicologists consider this unlikely.

Meet Margot Zarzycka

Now Is The Time

Winter Dreams

Even though the first Star Wars movie had its premiere nearly 40 years ago, it seems everyone - no matter how young or old - can immediately identify the movie's opening theme. (I bet you just started humming it!)

That's because music and imagery go hand-in-hand - and, the works on this Masterworks' all-Russian program show off the different possibilities inherent in this relationship.

If you saw the movie "Shine," about pianist David Helfgott, you know Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 - or as it's now better known, "Rach 3." In the movie, the work becomes a metaphor for Helfgott's own struggle with mental illness, and as he overcomes his inner demons, he conquers this seemingly impenetrable concerto as well.

Despite the incredibly simple melody with which it opens, Rach 3 quickly reveals itself to be wildly virtuosic - and the movie casts the work as the most difficult concerto in the repertoire.

While Rach 3 became famous because of a movie - Isaak Dunayevsky became famous because of movies. His career was based mostly on compositions for operettas and films - and one of his most popular works today, The Children of Captain Grant, comes from his soundtrack to a 1936 Soviet adventure movie based on a book by Jules Verne.

Tchaikovsky's Winter Dreams symphony is associated with pictures, too, but not quite as literally as the Rachmaninoff and the Dunayevsky. From the opening movement, Tchaikovsky uses associations with extra-musical material - elements outside the score - to make his music incredibly rich. 

From the very beginning, the melancholy melody for flute and bassoon, the stormy central section, a wholly surprising pause for the whole orchestra - Tchaikovsky uses pictures to liberate harmony, instrumental color, and form. 

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky and the Ladies

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was a Russian composer whose music and lifestyle was much gossiped about. For starters, we don't truly know how he died. He either died from drinking un-boiled water tainted with Cholera, his physicians killed him, or he killed himself slowly with arsenic as he was gay in a time and place that didn't accept it.

We will never truly know (though, our bet is on Cholera).

As a gay man, his relationships with women were quite complex. In 1877, he began a lengthy correspondence with an older woman who provided for him financially for 13 years and whose only stipulation was that they never meet. (Sounds like a pretty sweet deal, huh?)

Nazedha von MeckIndeed, Tchaikovsky couldn't bring himself to utter one word to his benefactress, Nazedha von Meck, the one time they met in a chance encounter. Nowadays, we would call them online lovers.

Over the year, they exchanged some 1,200 letters. The two were also connected through family: Tchaikovsky's niece Anna married von Meck's son Nikolai. This union was arranged by von Meck and Tchaikovsky themselves, however it was an unhappy arrangement. Interestingly, Tchaikovsky and von Meck died within two months of each other.

Antonina Miliukova1877 was a big year for Tchaikovsky. The same year that he began corresponding with von Meck, he hastily married a highly unstable woman, Antonina Miliukova, who wrote him loads of fan mail. (There's still hope for you Justin Timberlake fans — keep writing!)

There must have been a big misunderstanding: he thought she knew he was gay and that their marriage would be strictly platonic. When he realized this was not the case, his distress caused a near nervous breakdown. Two weeks after the marriage he attempted suicide. She eventually died in an insane asylum 24 years later. But, they never officially divorced.

Too bad Reality Television didn't exist at the turn of the century, or else we would all be watching Keeping Up with Tchaikovsky on E!

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Rachmaninoff's Wild Ride

Fasten your seat belts ladies and gentlemen, you're in for one wild musical adventure! Ironically, the creation of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 in 1909 could owe its birth to an automobile.

Sergei Rachmaninoff was desperate for money in 1909. He wrote to a friend about the possibility of a tour in America to make some extra cash: "I don't want to go. But then perhaps, after America I'll be able to buy myself that automobile... It may not be so bad after all!"

Rachmaninoff did in fact purchase his first car in 1912 and it is purported that he bought himself a new automobile every year after that. He got the car, and audiences got Piano Concerto No. 3. (Not a bad trade!)

Many say that "Rach 3" is one of the most difficult piano concertos of all time. In fact, the pianist it was originally written for (Josef Hoffman) declined to perform it, unwilling to take the risk publicly.

Rachmaninoff had a mostly off-again relationship with critics and audiences for his compositions. Known and beloved for his skills as a pianist, his compositions weren't what turn of the century audiences were looking for. Perhaps his concerto's difficulty is a jab to his critics.

Nevertheless, Rachmaninoff's music persevered. Vladimir Horowitz, a Russian-born American classical pianist and composer, championed the work in the 1920s and it is now beloved by audiences and critics all over the world.

"Rachmaninoff said that he wrote the Third ‘for elephants,' and with its massive chords, cascading and leaping octaves, high-speed runs, dense counterpoint, and wide-spaced, busily embellished textures, it does demand a pianist with strength, dexterity, control, and stamina — and big hands."

Kevin Bazzana, Canadian music historian and biographer
Nikolai Zverev & Students
Zverev (center) and the students he housed, from left to right, Samuelson, Scriabin, Maximov, Rachmaninoff, Chernyaev, Keneman, and Pressman.

Like Mentor, Like Pupil

Sergei Rachmaninoff and his mentor, Pyotr Tchaikovsky, share a penchant for melody. However, the similarities don't stop there.

#1 Not Destined for Composition, Were They

Tchaikovsky's parents intended that Pyotr study law and work in civil service. He shocked them by becoming a composer instead. Granted, Tchaikovsky's ultimate earning potential in civil service vs. music probably wasn't terribly different!

It was always obvious that Rachmaninoff would be a musician. However, nobody thought he would, or even should, be a composer. Such sentiment included his own teacher Nikolai Zverev, who discouraged him from composition and they eventually stopped speaking as a result. Clearly, his teachers and critics grossly underestimated modern audiences' obsession with virtuosity.

#2 Childhood Trauma

Tchaikovsky was sent to a boarding school at the young age of ten. Already troubled by the separation from his parents, his mother died when he was just fourteen.

Rachmaninoff's parents were wealthy but his dad squandered the inheritance through various ill-reputed pursuits, causing his parents to divorce when he was ten.

#3 Depression

Both composers deeply struggled with depression. Tchaikovsky's was due in large part to being gay in a time and place that couldn't deal with it.

Rachmaninoff's came from his desire to be a composer. Even though he was a famous pianist, Rachmaninoff faced considerable criticism for his compositions. The premiere of Rachmaninoff's Symphony No. 1 was terrible with typical criticism such as this from César Cui:

"If there were a conservatory in Hell, if one of its talented students were instructed to write a program symphony on 'The Seven Plagues of Egypt,' and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr. Rachmaninoff's, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and would bring delight to the inhabitants of Hell."

César Cui

Rachmaninoff didn't compose a single note for three years. Following much psychotherapy, Rachmaninoff got over his depression-induced writer's block enough to compose the Second Piano Concerto in 1900.

Meet Lena Cambis

Meet Carlann Evans

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