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Monday, May 25, 2009

Appeals to Eternity

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No one knows what prompted Mozart to compose his last three symphonies in such rapid succession in the summer of 1788, with neither commission nor prospective performance in hand. Indeed, we don't even know if they were ever performed in his lifetime. The most satisfying explanation is that he wrote them to fulfill an inner artistic drive and, as Mozart scholar Alfred Einstein surmised, as "an appeal to eternity." The music contained in Mozart's "final trilogy" certainly supports this view.

Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551 has come to be called the Jupiter symphony, but again, we don't know why or when (though given its breadth and majesty, it does seem apropos if one were to look for a planetary moniker). The Allegro vivace first movement is both vigorous and gracious, while the Andante con moto that follows was aptly described by Einstein as "a broad and deep outpouring of the soul." After a splendid little Menuetto, Mozart unleashes the Molto allegro finale-a monumental Classical tour de force.

If Mozart's symphonies came rather easily to him, such was certainly not the case with Johannes Brahms as he struggled toward his first symphony. It was Robert Schumann who first recognized that the young Brahms was truly a born symphonist. Though Brahms may have thought orchestrally in his early piano works, he did not find it easy to commit those thoughts to paper in the direction of large-scale orchestra compositions.

With musical "revolutionaries" all about in the mid-to-late 19th century, those who cherished the old ways championed Brahms as the great savior and inheritor of the mantle of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven. With such high expectations, it's small wonder Brahms only came to his first symphony very gradually. Indeed, by the time he completed his Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68, he was 43 years old.

What resulted was a splendidly austere work, at turns densely contrapuntal, severely logical, touchingly beautiful. This tragic yet triumphant work took the musical language of Beethoven and the old masters a step further, a symphony of dark coloring and rich orchestral sound with a new, dense compositional technique no one had ever heard before.

Andreas Delfs conducts the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra's performances of these two hallmark symphonies in Uihlein Hall June 5, 6 and 7.