Friday, 27 January 2012

Mozart: Of Funerals and Birthdays

One of my favourites pieces of music by Mozart is the one-off, six-minute orchestral work known as the Masonic Funeral Music, K.477

When I first heard it I was amazed, particularly at how far in advance of his time Mozart appeared to be in his use of harmony; indeed, how far in advance of his usual self he seemed to be. Some of the harmonic progressions are far more suited to the height of the Romantic Era than they are to the Classical Era. The fact that these harmonies are used in a Classical piece (a style we listeners instinctively associate with certain harmonic progressions) makes them sound wondrously strange, and deeply stirring.

The piece opens with a pair of falling notes, keening. These are played in thirds by a couple of oboes. It's an ear-grabbing start, suggesting pain and grief. After a pause, bassoons and horns perform their own versions of the keening figure, deepening the harmony. Then all the winds, including the clarinets, play the figure, enriching the sonority and the harmony yet further. The first violins (accompanied by the other string sections) enter, playing in wandering quavers as though their thoughts are distracted. The winds punctuate this string texture with more versions of the keening figure before the oboes expand it into a plaintive melodic phrase (a falling scale fragment) which is answered by new melody from the violins marked out by three repeated notes - like three short knocks at the door - followed by a very fast scale fragment (in demisemiquavers) with a turn at the end. Together these comprise the main theme, whose parts, whether knocking or flashing by, are the key players in the piece (separately or together) and dominate its stunning central climax. 

We're not at that climax yet though. At exactly 2.00 (in the performance linked to above) the oboes and clarinets begin playing a Gregorian chant associated with the Lamentations of Jeremiah. It sounds not unlike a Bach chorale tune standing out nobly (in long notes) against a contrasting texture - here a beautiful counter-melody from the strings. This great passage is succeeded by an even greater one, beginning at 2.46, where the first violins take the main theme and runs with it very expressively against a gorgeously rich backdrop composed of rich wind chords, syncopated second violin and viola chords, and a cello bass-line marked by a highly mobile dotted figure. With a titanic force, the harmonic shift like great tides. It's majestic and moving - and one of my 'tingle factor' moments. At 3.35, the tides subside but with the re-entry of the horns in heroic glory  at 3.54 we very briefly re-live the thrill of that central climatic passage. The keening wind figures then seem to turn into 'amens' against the chromatic motion of the strings. A varied reprise of the passage that introduced the main theme leads to a final rousing climax before the piece begins its slow, sad, beautiful wind-down towards the final faltering steps and closing major-key chord.

Wolfgang would have been 356 years old today. Happy birthday!

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