top of page
  • Writer's pictureMayda Narvey

A Complete History of Music: Lesson 5

Hello and welcome to Lesson 5 of A Complete - or slightly incomplete! - History of Music.    We were looking last time at the life and work of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a composer of elegance and delicacy who wrote in a style which came to be referred to as Rococo (originally 'rocaille' referring to a special method of decorating fountains and grottos).

Jean-Honoré Fragonard 'The Swing' 1767

Perhaps you noticed that elegance in the Sonata in B flat, K.333 which I left you listening to last week.

Shortly before the publication of the B flat major Sonata in 1784, Mozart, in a fit of rebellion had left his position as court musician in Salzburg. For the rest of his short life, based in Vienna, he was dependent on commissions from wealthy patrons and the keyboard concerts he organised.  But opera was his real passion. Opera, that is to say a staged play delivered entirely through song, came into being in the early 17th c with 'Dafne' by Jacopo Peri written in 1607.  The same year Claudio Monteverdi wrote 'Orfeo' - based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice - a work of great beauty that is still performed today. I can't resist including this video of the overture and first aria as it is one of my favourites:

Why was Mozart so important for the development of opera?

For the next 150 years it was de rigour for German composers to write operas with Italian libretti (text).  But Mozart, the rebel, was determined to write music for text in his own language, German (it is interesting that each language, having its own cadences, accentuations and intonations elicits a different response from the musical mind and necessitates equally different phrasing and accentuation). His two German operas, the early 'The Abduction from the Seraglio' (actually a singspiel, or play with music), and the late and profound 'The Magic Flute' were miles apart in intensity; during the 9 years that separate them, Mozart had developed his extraordinary capacity to understand and illustrate the human spirit.

( Diversion of sorts: This delightful novella, 'Mozart's Journey to Prague', which imagines what happens to Mozart, and his wife Constanze on their way to the premiere of his opera 'Don Giovanni' in Prague, gives a wonderful insight into Mozart's mercurial and very human temperament):

A feature of opera which helps make the exploration of themes and character possible is recitative, a devise preceding the aria or song, which imitates speech. The recitative always has a very spare accompaniment and makes no use of the rhyme and repetition of a song. It relays thoughts and plot directly.  If the recitative tells us what the character is thinking, the aria explores the inner emotions of that character not so much through the lyrics but through the nuance of the music.  Listen to this well-known and much-loved recitative and aria duet from Act 1 of Don Giovanni (the aria begins at 2:50):

To give you some context... the protagonist of the opera, Don Giovanni is a womaniser and seducer like his prototype Don Juan upon whom the librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte based the character. The Don meets his comeuppance when, trying to escape after having attempted to seduce the young Donna Anna, he is met by her father, the Commandatore, in the garden and kills him in a duel.  The opera is a sort of Crime and Punishment gone wrong: when at the end, Don Giovanni is confronted by the statue of the Commandatore, he refuses to repent and is dragged off to Hell. In the aria you just listened to the disingenuous Don is trying to beguile Zerlina, who has just married another, to come away with him. The honeyed words and honeyed music of the first theme of the aria give way to the tension that each character feels.

What is a Symphony and how did Mozart contribute to the development of the form?

In 1788, barely three years before his death, Mozart wrote his last three symphonies.  A symphony is a musical form that emerged in the latter half of the 18th c.  It is an extended piece of music written for an orchestra of strings (violin, viola, cello and double bass), woodwinds (flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon), brass (trumpet, French horn, trombone and tuba) and percussion, in various combinations and numbers.  The symphony is usually in 4 movements or distinct and complete sections with at least one of those movements being in sonata form (see Lesson 4).

It was Mozart's contemporary, Joseph Haydn who is considered the father of the symphony having written 107 of them. Mozart who lived less than half as long, did very well to produce 47 of which 41 are played today.  If you have become beguiled by the idea of Mozart as a rococo composer, (in his lifetime his music was criticised for being too complicated and brash) listen to the first movement of the 40th (which may initially strike you as familiar having been purloined for use as a ringtone on mobile phones :(((

When heard played by an orchestra rather than signalling an incoming call (sorry, couldn't resist), the intensity and even anxiety of the music becomes apparent. Listen to the harried sounding quick accompaniment of the violas as the violins play the theme.  This movement is in sonata form.  Can you hear the sweeter second theme and make out when the development starts to play around with the themes and create a great dramatic mess!? As charmed a life as Mozart lived, he suffered constant financial anxiety and grieved terribly at the death of both his parents.  His father died the year before the composition of the 40th symphony. It is not hard to imagine that the restlessness and sense of portent in the music came from some place deep within.

What did Beethoven contribute to the symphony?

Ludwig van Beethoven, a musical giant of not only the early part of the 19th c but of all time, knew well the 40th Symphony of Mozart and copied 29 bars of it in a sketchbook he used to develop his ideas for his own 5th symphony.  (It's interesting to reflect that composers as well as visual artists learn their art by copying.  The story goes that the 19th c French composer of Symphonie Fantastique, Hector Berlioz, having had virtually no formal music training, escaped the lectures in medicine that his father had forced upon him by spending his time in the library of the Paris Conservatoire copying opera scores to great eventual effect!)

Be that is at may, Beethoven was a very different kind of composer to Mozart.  The seeming effortlessness with which Mozart wrote, transcribing his musical thoughts quickly and seamlessly to the page, is nowhere evident in the manuscripts his younger colleague left behind.  Born in 1770 in Bonn, only 14 years after Mozart, Beethoven, adulated the older master.  He may possibly have had the chance to meet Mozart on a visit to Vienna in 1787. Unfortunately he only came to permanently settle there the year after Mozart's death.

So what kind of 'very different' composer was Beethoven to Mozart?  It seems that the light-hearted whimsicality of the latter (to read his letters is to be struck over and over by his playful and somehow very modern sense of humour) was never a feature of Beethoven's character.  Or if it was, it was quickly beaten out of him (quite literally) by his drunkard father, a composer manqué. Showing extraordinary talent, but not the baffling virtuosity of Mozart, Beethoven was touted as a child prodigy and was sent at the age of 16, on his first visit to Vienna in order to further his reputation.  When he returned to Vienna in 1792 he took composition lessons from Haydn and began to cultivate a following as a performer on the piano.  But, (da-da-da-dum...opening bars of the 5th Symphony please) Fate had other plans.  The increasing deafness that plagued Beethoven from his late 20's and for the rest of his life, elicited from him a strength and nobility of character that was more evident in his music than in his personal interactions.  (I pause for an anecdote handed to me through a student from the family of the wonderful cellist, Steven Isserlis.  Apparently Grandpa Isserlis, on bringing his family from Odessa to settle in Vienna in the early 1930's found an apartment in the city centre that seemed perfect.  But when he asked the incredibly ancient landlady if it was all right to have a piano in the apartment, she shrieked, 'No!  When I was a child, a man lived in this apartment with a piano, a horrible horrible man.  His name was Beethoven.' !!  It is a tragic fact that the loss of his hearing isolated the composer and played so deeply on his reserves that personal interactions became very difficult.

But that is getting ahead of ourselves.  For the young Ludwig was full of energy, confidence, hope and success.  He became very taken with the news of the French First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte whom he saw as a beacon of courage, wisdom and forward thinking.  In 1802 he put together  ideas for a third symphony with the inscription, 'Symphony Entitled Bonaparte' on the first page.  But shortly after, on hearing that Bonaparte had declared himself Emperor of France, he was heard by his student to shout,  ‘So he is no more than a common mortal! Now he, too, will tread underfoot all the rights of man [and] indulge only his ambition; now he will think himself superior to all men [and] become a tyrant!’

He renamed the symphony the Eroica, or Heroic, which is how we refer to it today. It is interesting to note that music was taking an important turn. Having moved from being solely a vocal phenomenon to a way of producing and organising sound with built devices (!) which initially accompanied the human voice, to using these devices or instruments to create intricate patterns of sound or to illustrate both sacred and secular text, the idea seemed to be emerging of sound patterns that communicated thoughts or moods with no need for text at all. But more of that next lesson.

Before listening to the first movement of the Eroica, it might be interesting to reflect on the notion of hero for Beethoven and his contemporaries.  It seems to me that there are two ways in which Beethoven earns that moniker. Certainly his struggle with the loss of his hearing, the faculty which until then had singled him out and given him his stature, and his fortitude in not just carrying on but rising above his deafness, definitely qualifies him to be regarded as heroic.  But it is also worth thinking about the role of the artist in the early 19th century (Beethoven died in 1827) as opposed to the preceding centuries.  Remember Bach with his service to the ThomasKirche and even Mozart who relied on commissions from patrons? Beethoven's situation was different.  He earned money in the same way that many 21st c musicians do, with a 'portfolio' career.  He taught.  He sold the rights to his works.  He initially performed and would definitely have continued to do so if he could have.  He was independent, self-reliant. The artist as individual had emerged.

You might enjoy watching this film about the first performance of the Eroica which will give you some idea of a contemporaneous performance if the portrayal of Beethoven himself is a bit naff:

Here is the first movement of the Symphony with the legendary Leonard Bernstein conducting:

The symphony was considered long and difficult by its contemporary audience but today we can hear Beethoven's struggle and mastery. It was during the same summer in which he composed the Eroica that Beethoven wrote his Heiligenstadt Testament in which he confronts the awful truth and implications of his encroaching deafness and contemplates ending it all. But, rather than give in to self-pity, he creates heroism in music!

I very much hope you have enjoyed Lesson 5 and look forward to seeing you back here for Lesson 6 next week when we will be looking at the string quartet in the writing of Beethoven and Schubert and the beginnings of Romanticism. It might interest you to know, if you don't already, that BBC Radio 3 is broadcasting a series called Beethoven Unleashed looking at many different aspects of the composer's life and work:

Musical Terms:








Composers mentioned:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - 1756-1791

Joseph Haydn - 1732-1809

Ludwig van Beethoven - 1770-1827

Hector Berlioz - 1803-1869

33 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page