DSO Opening Night 2015: Program Notes

On December 5, 1791, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart died.  He left behind more than 600 completed works and at least one work unfinished—his Requiem.  Earlier in 1791, Count Franz von Walsegg, an unscrupulous and wealthy amateur musician, had anonymously commissioned  Mozart for a work to honor the memory of his departed 20-year old wife, Anna.  Walsegg habitually commissioned works anonymously in order to pass them off as his own. 

But when Mozart died, the Requiem was not nearly finished.  The opening movement was done. Other movements were sketched out in varying degrees of completeness—some with only the vocal parts, some with only a brief phrase written out, and others yet to be started.  

Mozart had received a 50% advance on the work, with the remainder to be delivered upon completion.  Constanze, Wolfgang’s widow, had a plan.  She would employ her late husband’s  student and friend, Joseph von Eybler, to complete the work.  Then, parrying unscrupulousness with unscrupulousness, pass the completed Requiem off as Mozart’s own in exchange for the final payment.  

Eybler, a gifted composer, tried completing the Requiem, but eventually surrendered, passing the manuscript back to Constanze having made only minor progress.  Constanze, eager to see the Requiem completed then turned to Franz Xaver Süssmayr, another of Mozart’s students.  Süssmayr cobbled together Mozart’s own sketches with Eybler’s attempts and his own, and completed the work.  The finished Requiem was delivered to Count Walsegg’s emissary complete with a forged signature. Constanze was paid.

It is this Mozart/Süssmayr hybrid that we perform this evening, and is the de facto version played and accepted around the world in spite of its many stylistic inconsistencies.  Süssmayr’s hand can be seen (and heard) in odd doublings, in peculiarly un-Mozartian voice-leading, in heavy-handed use of trumpets and timpani, and in countless other small and suspicious details of style and instrumentation.  Nevertheless, the Requiem retains the spirit and power of a great musical mind.  It is a powerful testament to both Mozart and Süssmayr that the work, on the whole, continues to feel like Mozart whose attitude about death pervades the Requiem.  With the exception of the Lacrymosa, the work is neither maudlin nor overwrought.  Rather, it is filled with a sense of peace and satisfied resignation.  In eight parts, the Requiem thoughtfully weaves chorus and soloists together unfolding the narrative from piety and wrath to sorrow and redemption.  

Our concert begins with a short work of American composer George Tsontakis.  Laconika, commissioned by, and cleverly named for,  the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO), is a suite of 5 short pieces.  Tsontakis limited each movement’s length to that of a pop song.  This boundary gives permission for the music to be forcefully expressive since there no time for a slow and deliberate unfolding of a musical narrative.  The result is a piece of startling directness freshness, and drama.  Of particular note is the fourth movement which takes its inspiration from the Lacrymosa of the Mozart Requiem. 

Cesar Franck’s 1882 tone poem, Le chasseur maudit, is mysteriously absent from the usual list of suspects for spooky Halloween programs, where it would be a welcome respite from Night on Bald Mountain and Danse macabre.  Based on an 18th Century German ballad by Gottfried August Bürger.  it tells the story of a count who makes a careless choice and pays with eternal damnation: he hunts one Sunday morning instead of going to church.  

In this story of a rich, entitled, arrogant nobleman and his comeuppance, Franck clearly shows his allegiance to, and admiration of, the music of Richard Wagner.  Slippery modulations, excursions into strange and fantastic harmonic realms, and music whose form is dictated by the narrative, make Le chasseur maudit feel like a mini opera without words.  

The opening horn calls (the 19th musical proxy for the Romantic ideal of man’s relationship with nature) announce the hunt and are answered by ignored distant church bells and hymn singing which seem to promise a clearly needed dose of redemption.

The dynamic, energetic hunt music unfolds as if it were part of a familiar Sonata-Allegro structure, only to be cut short by the horn—the hunter’s own instrument.  But this time, the call is not open and outdoorsy, but instead brutally muted—a literal musical depiction of the events at hand.  The count is condemned with some spectacular, evocative curse music at which point the tables turn: The hunter becomes the hunted and the work explodes into a spectacular whirl of fire and brimstone.