Written by Ken Meltzer
Symphony No. 31 in D Major, K.297 (300a), “Paris” (1778)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria, on January 27, 1756 and died in Vienna, Austria, on December 5, 1791. The first performance of the Symphony No. 31 took place in Paris, France, on June 18, 1778, as part of the Concert Spirituel.
Approximate performance time is seventeen minutes.
In September of 1777, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart left his home in Salzburg to begin an 18-month journey throughout Europe. Mozart, who felt his talents were not appreciated in his native city, hoped to find steady employment elsewhere. Mozart’s journey took him to Munich, Augsburg, Mannheim, and finally, to Paris.
Mozart remained in Paris from March 23 to September 26, 1778. While there, Mozart received an invitation from Joseph Legros, Director of the famous Paris Concert Spirituel. Legros commissioned Mozart to compose a new Symphony. That Symphony—No. 31, nicknamed the “Paris”—had its premiere on June 18, 1778.
Despite problematic rehearsals, the performance went well:
Right in the middle of the first Allegro, there was a place I was sure they would like. All the listeners were electrified and there was tremendous applause. And since I knew, when I was writing it, what an effect it would make, I repeated the passage toward the end, and they began applauding all over again.
Note that in Mozart’s time, audiences felt free to applaud not just between movements of a symphony, but while the music was being played! It’s also obvious that Mozart derived great satisfaction from their reaction. And it’s fair to assume that Mozart composed this work (and others, for that matter) with the hope of eliciting such a response.
The premiere of the “Paris” Symphony was a success from beginning to end. As Mozart proudly reported to his father: “They liked the Andante too, and the final Allegro even more…So after the Symphony, out of pure joy, I went right to the Palais Royal, ate a nice ice, said the rosary I had promised, and went home.”
The “Paris” Symphony is in three movements. The first (Allegro assai) is notable for its wealth of thematic material and dramatic contrasts of loud and soft dynamics. The second is an elegant slow movement (Andante). The finale (Allegro) is a whirlwind of activity from start to close, finally capped by a series of emphatic chords.
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 in F minor, Opus 21 (1829-30)
Frédéric Chopin was born in Żelazowa Wola, Poland, on March 1, 1810, and died in Paris, France, on October 17, 1849. The first performance of the F-Minor Piano Concerto took place at the National Theater in Warsaw, Poland, on March 17, 1830, with the composer as soloist.
Approximate performance time is thirty-two minutes.
During the period that Frédéric Chopin composed his F-minor Concerto, he was in the midst of an infatuation. The young pianist and composer had fallen hopelessly in love with a fellow student at the Warsaw Conservatory, a soprano by the name of Constantia Gladkowska. For whatever reason, Chopin chose not to reveal his feelings to the young woman. Instead, Chopin poured his heart out to his dearest friend, Tytus Woyciechowski.
In letter to Woyciechowski, Chopin confessed:
Perhaps to my misfortune, I have met my ideal and have served her faithfully for six months, without speaking to her about my feelings. I dream about it: under her inspiration, the adagio (i.e., the slow movement, actually marked Larghetto) of my Concerto in F Minor and, this morning, the little waltz (Opus 70, No. 3 in D-flat) that I’m sending you, have been born. No one will know about it, except you.
The world premiere of Chopin’s Piano Concerto in F minor took place at the National Theater in Warsaw on March 17, 1830. Chopin, making his Warsaw concert debut, was the soloist. The concert was a critical success. One writer, referring to the great Italian violinist, dubbed Chopin “the (Nicolò) Paganini of the piano.”
The F-minor Concerto is in three movements. The opening movement (Maestoso) is based upon two principal themes, first introduced by the orchestra, and later repeated in far more elaborate fashion by the soloist. The central slow movement (Larghetto) was inspired by Chopin’s youthful infatuation for Gladkowska. The finale (Allegro vivace) evokes the spirit of the Polish mazurka, a lively dance in triple time, serving as the basis for the numerous, engaging flights by the soloist.
Pavane pour une infante défunte (1910)
Maurice Ravel was born in Ciboure, Basses-Pyrénées, France, on March 7, 1875, and died in Paris, France, on December 28, 1937. The first performance of the original piano version of Pavane pour une infante défunte was at the Salle Pleyel in Paris on April 5, 1902, by Ricardo Viñes. The premiere of the orchestral version took place on December 25, 1911, at the Concerts Hasselmans, Alfredo Casella conducting.
Approximate performance time is six minutes.
Maurice Ravel originally composed his Pavane pour une infante défunte (Pavane for a dead princess) in 1899 for solo piano. Explaining the work’s enigmatic title, Ravel insisted: “I let myself be led into writing that title because of the pleasure I got from the assonance of the words.” He further commented: “It is not a funeral lament for a dead child, but rather an evocation of the pavane that could have been danced by such a little princess as painted by Valasquez at the Spanish Court.”
Ravel’s delicately scored Pavane is in rondo form. The elegance and leisurely tempo (Lent) recall the original stately court dance of the 16th and 17th centuries. A solo horn offers the haunting principal theme that, in different instrumental settings, twice returns, alternating with graceful interludes. After the final reprise of the central melody, the Pavane reaches its delicate close.
Suite from Pulcinella (1922, rev. 1947)
Igor Stravinsky was born in Lomonosov, Russia, on June 17, 1882, and died in New York on April 6, 1971. The first performance of the ballet, Pulcinella, took place at the Opéra in Paris, France, on May 15, 1920, with Ernst Ansermet conducting.
Approximate performance time is twenty-one minutes.
In the second decade of the 20th century, Igor Stravinsky rose to international prominence with a trilogy of ballets the young Russian composer wrote for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes—The Firebird (1910), Pétrouchka (1911), and The Rite of Spring (1913). Each succeeding ballet was marked by increased rhythmic complexity and dissonance. In fact, the often barbaric music of The Rite of Spring so shocked some of those in attendance at the May 29, 1913 premiere, fistfights broke out in the Paris Champs-Elysées Theater.
Stravinsky’s first collaboration with Diaghilev after World War I created a stir once again, but for a quite different reason. In the spring of 1919, Diaghilev suggested Stravinsky consider writing music for a ballet concerning the amorous escapades of the fictional harlequin, Pulcinella. The music would be based upon works by the 18th-century Italian composer, Giovanni Pergolesi (1710-1736), whose music Stravinsky “liked and admired immensely.”
Diaghilev assembled an extraordinary creative team for Pulcinella. In addition to Stravinsky, Diaghilev employed the great dancer, Leonide Massine, to choreograph the ballet and dance the title role. Pablo Picasso designed the scenery and costumes.
The premiere of Pulcinella took place at the Opéra on May 15, 1920. Ernst Ansermet conducted the performance, which, according to Stravinsky, “ended in a real success.” A few years later, Stravinsky created a Pulcinella concert suite, featuring music from the ballet. The premiere of the Suite from Pulcinella took place on December 22, 1922, with Pierre Monteux (who also led the first performances of Pétrouchka and The Rite of Spring) conducting the Boston Symphony.
Stravinsky’s Pulcinella—both in its complete ballet and concert suite form—continues to engage audiences with its lyric charm, infectious energy, and piquant orchestral sonorities. Subsequent discoveries that much of the music attributed to Pergolesi was actually written by other composers have, of course, done nothing to diminish Stravinsky’s achievement.
Stravinsky’s Pulcinella Suite comprises eight brief movements:
I. Sinfonia (Ouverture). Allegro moderato
II. Serenata. Larghetto
III. (a) Scherzino, (b) Allegro, (c) Andantino
V. Toccata. Allegro
VI. Gavotta; Allegro moderato (Variazione Ia: Allegretto, Variazione IIa: Allegro più tosto moderato)
VIII. (a) Minuetto. Molto moderato, (b) Finale. Allegro assai