MOZART: Overture to Don Giovanni

THE COMPOSER – WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756-1791) – Mozart met Lorenzo Da Ponte in late 1785. Da Ponte was a Venetian librettist who had already worked twice with Antonio Salieri and would go on to produce two dozen opera texts for various composers after Mozart died in 1791. The Salieri connection made Mozart extra anxious to collaborate with Da Ponte, if only to keep pace with a competitor, but Da Ponte’s legacy depended more on the match than Mozart’s. The librettist was close friends with none other than Giacomo Casanova (yes, that one) and had stood trial in 1779 for his own loose morals. Luckily, Da Ponte’s banishment from Venice led him to Vienna, where he eventually met Mozart and wrote the three libretti that we best remember him for today.      

THE HISTORY – The “Da Ponte” operas of Mozart’s catalogue comprise Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte. One could be forgiven for observing, in the libretto for the trilogy’s centerpiece, an almost autobiographical candor, thanks to Da Ponte’s brotherly bond with Casanova and the inclination they shared for libertine behavior. But it isn’t Da Ponte’s life (or Casanova’s) being told in Don Giovanni, though Mozart had certainly found a literary partner with real-life experience to offer. The composer received the commission for Don Giovanni while he was in Prague conducting Le nozze di Figaro. Together, Mozart and Da Ponte drew upon the work of Spanish dramatist Tirso de Molina to construct their anti-hero. The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest was published around 1630 and it is hard to imagine that Molina did not himself draw upon the work of his countryman Miguel de Cervantes. The first section of Don Quixote, written some 25 years earlier, includes various character studies and, most notable among them, is The Impertinently Curious Man. In this section of Cervantes’ novel, the nobleman Anselmo asks his good friend and known womanizer, Lothario (like Casanova, another name that has become an adjective), to seduce his wife. The story of Don Giovanni, the opera, also blends comedy and tragedy to tell of the amorous pursuits and eventual just desserts of a particularly shameless young nobleman. Unlike Mozart’s earlier curtain-raisers, the Overture was woven into the fabric of the opera proper with its foreshadowing of the Don’s ambivalent character and the eventual retribution wrought by the spectral “speaking statue” of the murdered Commendatore. In the operatic version, the overture’s end blends with the story’s opening scene, allowing for an unbroken transition into the action.

THE WORLD – Elsewhere in 1791, Methodist Church founder John Wesley died, the element Titanium was discovered, the Brandenburg Gate was completed in Berlin and Thomas Paine’s “Rights of Man” was published in London. 

THE CONNECTION – The Utah Symphony has not performed the Don Giovanni Overture since September 2017. Thierry Fischer conducted. Utah Opera last presented the entire work in May 2017.

BEETHOVEN: Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor”

THE COMPOSER – LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) – Vienna was under French bombardment and eventual occupation during the spring and summer of 1809. Beethoven, ironically, had turned down a position with Napoleon’s brother Jérôme a year earlier, but the Austrian royal family convinced him to stay in the capital by offering a generous annual salary. Sadly, the comfort this allowance provided was short-lived. With French boots on the march, the Emperor’s court fled Vienna and took their beneficence with them. It was a decidedly unhappy time for the composer. The city was emptied of friends and opportunities for music-making, and the complete lack of contact he had with the rest of Europe caused his productivity to drop significantly. 

THE HISTORY – It did not drop to nothing though. Once the cannon’s quieted and left his city full of “marching men and misery”, Beethoven somehow managed to compose the last and grandest of his piano concerti. Beethoven never performed the 5th Piano Concerto himself. Given the fact that the first four were essentially written for his own concert use, this seems a clear indication that his deafness had progressed to a point that made public solo appearances impossible. Instead, Friedrich Schneider handled the Leipzig premiere in 1811 while Beethoven’s pupil Carl Czerny played the eventual Vienna performance later in 1812. Like so many of the nicknamed pieces throughout music history, the moniker of “Emperor” was not applied by composer himself but, supposedly (and spuriously) in this case, by a French officer who called it “an emperor among concertos.” True or not, one wonders if Beethoven would have tolerated it given the damage Vienna suffered at the hands of the current self-proclaimed “Emperor” Napoleon (not to mention the abandonment of the city by his own monarch). At any rate, the heroic appellation works when you divorce it from its moment in history. The 5th Concerto is impressively regal in scale and impact. Gone forever is the idea of the concerto as a virtuosic display work, with a pre-ordained formal structure and an orchestra tasked solely with the passive accompaniment of the soloist. Plenty of dazzling virtuosity is on display here but the “Emperor” Concerto, like the 4th Concerto before it, is essentially a three-movement symphony with solo piano. Beethoven flouts many of the accepted conventions in the 5th Concerto (placing cadenzas at the beginning of the first movement rather than the end, for example) and the sum of his innovations kicked down the door of Classical era tradition, clearing a path for the even more grandly proportioned works of Brahms and Rachmaninoff.                                                                                                  

THE WORLD – Elsewhere in 1811, Paraguay and Venezuela declared their independence from Spain, the Battle of Tippecanoe was fought in America, and England’s Mad King George III was deemed too insane to rule and was effectively replaced by the Prince of Wales.

THE CONNECTION – The “Emperor” Concerto was most recently featured on the Utah Symphony Masterworks Series in September 2016. Emanuel Ax appeared as soloist.  

PROKOFIEV: Symphony No. 5

THE COMPOSER – SERGE PROKOFIEV (1891-1953) – Prokofiev spent the war years in various safe havens that allowed him to remain productive as an artist but could not redeem his standing as a husband and father. In fact, when he evacuated from Moscow in 1941 Lina and the children, unwilling to ignore his infidelity with the poet Mira Mendelson, stayed behind. Prokofiev spent the rest of the early 40s completing the first iteration of his magnum opus War and Peace while also attempting to master the delicate dance of Soviet approval. He returned home in 1944 with a full head of patriotic steam but suffered a fainting spell in January of 1945 that resulted in a serious concussion. He continued to work, even when he fell again (figuratively) from Party favor in 1948, but he was never the same. 

THE HISTORY – Just a week prior to the accident that forever changed him, Prokofiev conducted the premiere of his magisterial Symphony No. 5 in Moscow. He wrote the work in a one-month sprint during the summer of 1944 with the war still raging across Europe and his nation throwing countless young bodies against the wall of fascism. The fervor he felt for the Soviet participation in the struggle was apparent (and expected) in the score, but he offered a comment about the intent of his new symphony just in case. It was conceived as a means of “glorifying the grandeur of the human spirit,” he wrote, “praising the free and happy man, his generosity and the purity of his soul.” It is perhaps fitting, in an ironic “cost of victory” sense, that the first performance had to be delayed when celebratory artillery fire erupted outside the concert hall. Pianist Sviatoslav Richter was there and later recalled, “when Prokofiev had taken his place on the podium and silence reigned…salvos suddenly thundered forth…He waited, and began only after the cannons had stopped. There was something significant in this, something symbolic.” Symphony No. 5 was a huge success at home and abroad, a celebratory paeon to victory over evil and obediently loyal tribute to Stalinist ideology. The international reaction to the music was particularly favorable in America. Our Allied bonds to Russia were at an all-time high in that moment, and when Koussevitzky conducted the U.S. premiere in Boston later in 1945, he called it the best symphonic utterance since Brahms and Tchaikovsky. Just as we do with the music of Shostakovich, contemporary ears constantly search this score for coded commentary about Prokofiev’s life under the heel of Soviet supervision. It may well be there, but we must decide this without Prokofiev’s help. Intellectual ambiguity was a common feature of his style, and things didn’t always mean more than they seemed.                                                                                                          

THE WORLD – Elsewhere in 1945, Korea split into two nations, George Orwell published Animal Farm, scientists discovered the chemical element Promethium and penicillin became widely available for the first time.  

THE CONNECTION – Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5 has not been featured on a Utah Symphony program since October 2019. Aziz Shokhakimov conducted. 

by Jeff Counts