The Symphony in G minor KV 550 – together with Die Kleine Nachtmusik – is one of Mozart’s most played orchestral compositions. And that although (or precisely because?) this work has provoked the most varied of interpretations. The Mozart biographer Hermann Abert heard in it the “sharpest expression of that deep, fatalistic pessimism” to which the composer fell victim in the last years of his life, while Robert Schumann emphasised the music’s “Greek floating grace”.
We can await with curiosity what interpretation Louis Langrée, Music Director of the Mostly Mozart Festival and principal conductor of the Camerata Salzburg, prefers when he debuts as conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker. Davide penitente, like the overture to the opera La clemenza di Tito, is a rarely heard work by Mozart. The large-scale psalm cantata was composed in 1785, and is based on freely written prayers of penitence and repentance by an unknown poet as commissioned by the Viennese Musicians’ Society; the Society held regular benefit concerts in the Viennese Burgtheater for the care of widows and orphans, and Mozart had endeavoured to become a member of it.
When composing the cantata, the composer made use of material from his unfinished C minor Mass from 1782-83. The premiere, with a chorus of 60 singers and a truly symphonic orchestra, took place under Mozart’s own direction. Since the composer neglected, however, to present his baptismal certificate in due time, he was refused membership – despite the fact that a social insurer probably never again received such a beautiful “membership fee”.
Thunderstorms, Music of the Future and a Penitential Psalm
Mozart at Every Turn
“It was as if the devil had unleashed the overture to ‘Titus’ in my soul”
One day in June 1832, Eduard Mörike marvelled at a dramatic natural spectacle: “All my animal spirits began anticipating it in secret delight,” confessed the poet in a letter. “With incredible swiftness, the storm broke over our heads. Broad and mighty lightning flashes, such as I had never seen before by daylight, dropped one after another into our white room like a shower of roses. Old Mozart must at that moment have been standing invisibly at my back, beating on my shoulders with his Kapellmeister’s stick. It was as if the devil had unleashed the overture to Titus in my soul, so incessant, so glorious and so piercing that with each shriek of the brass, I clenched both ﬁsts in rapture.”
In Mörike’s writings, the poetic as well as the everyday, one can trace the peculiar success story of La clemenza di Tito K. 621, premiered as a coronation opera in 1791 at the National Theatre in Prague but within a few years shedding all courtly trappings to take its place in the realm of bourgeois culture: in the emotional world of a new generation that had genuinely internalized “its Mozart” – even the Mozart of “olden days”, opera seria and Habsburg homage music. Mörike in any event knew Tito inside out. Mozart’s time had come.
“A meteor on the musical horizon”
Of all the symphonies Mozart created in the course of two and a half decades, only two are in a minor key, and both are in the same tonality, Mozart’s distinctive G minor: “anxious and gloomy it rushes in repeatedly, but it is the wind of life coming through the window”, wrote the German writer Albrecht Goes. The wind of life – it blows through the Symphony No. 40 in G minor K. 550 with the elevated pulse of an aria agitata, a type of aria familiar from contemporary opera, as for example the one Cherubino launches out of sheer emotional exuberance: “Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio…” The violas’ nervously pulsating quavers (eighth notes) set the tempo for the violins’ wordless song, which circles round itself, short-breathed and unsettled: “I no longer know who I am or what I’m doing…” When before had a symphony ever begun like the G minor’s Molto allegro, anxiously roving, hushed, almost secretive, and without a hint of festivity or fanfare, of “Curtain up” or “Pay attention!”? Was this music for a future age? Schubert, in his A minor String Quartet D804, and Mendelssohn, in his Violin Concerto, would create very similar openings: with yearning melodies underpinned by agitated figuration. Not infrequently, the critical voices – initially censorious, later contrite – claimed that Mozart’s works were too heavy, too difficult, “too strongly seasoned” – the composer was “a meteor on the musical horizon, for whose appearance we were not yet prepared”, asserted a lexicon of musicians in 1813. How could they have been prepared for Mozart’s G minor Symphony, those contemporaries, for music that brushed up against the tabooed boundaries of harmony, that pressed the familiar character of the “singing Allegro” movement into unheard-of expressive worlds and the courtly minuet into rhythmic tensions?
A “brand new psalm” – for widows and orphans
When it came to recycling his works, Mozart was brilliantly pragmatic. He transformed serenades, for example, into symphonies, concertos or string quintets simply by leaving out surplus movements. Time constraints and chronic overload forced him into adopting a similar procedure in the early months of 1785. The short-lived fame enjoyed by Mozart in his Vienna years was then at its zenith, and as both piano virtuoso and composer he rushed from one deadline to the next, inviting the public to his academies, appearing as a guest artist for other promoters, and writing new piano concertos. It was during these hectic weeks that Mozart was also commissioned to write a large choral work. Vienna’s Tonkünstler-Societät organised annual benefit concerts during Lent, with the proceeds going to a pension fund for musicians’ widows and orphans, and Mozart (then petitioning for membership in the society) stood by his commitment to compose a new “psalm” for this charitable cause, a promise that his overly ambitious concert obligations soon required him to modify.
In the society’s minutes for the meeting on 21 February 1785 we read: “Having been unable to complete the promised psalm, Herr Mozart is offering instead another new psalm for Vienna.” This comment refers to the (unfinished) Mass in C minor K. 427, which Mozart had written for Salzburg and was performed there on 26 October 1783 at St. Peter’s Abbey. In the Vienna of Emperor Joseph II, the performance of elaborate music in churches was rare and exceptional; therefore even if Mozart had completed his C minor Mass, he could hardly have expected the work to be given another hearing. So as not to have to retract his promise to the society entirely, he decided to provide the Kyrie and Gloria with a new, Italian text. Additionally, in March 1785, he created two further arias and a cadenza to be inserted into the final chorus for the three vocal soloists (two sopranos and tenor). This new work was Davide penitente K. 469.
The Italian verses are paraphrases from the Psalms of David, in particular the penitential psalms. That explains the work’s title as it appeared in the earliest musical sources: Il Davide penitente or Davide penitente. Mozart himself referred to the newly composed arias in his catalogue of works as simply “for the Society’s musique”. And the advertisement of the benefit concerts announced “a brand new cantata, suitable for this period” without any indication of title. The figure of the penitent, atoning King David was a favourite subject of librettists: among the operas, oratorios and cantatas from the period before 1800 are several with titles like David poenitens, David pentito, Il Davide pentito and indeed Davide penitente. In Mozart’s cantata, however, the name David is not mentioned at all, and it contains neither plot nor roles nor characters.
Davide penitente was performed in the Tonkünstler-Societät’s benefit concerts of 13 and 15 March 1785 at the old Vienna Burgtheater. As the society’s members were all obliged to participate, the chorus and orchestra were inordinately large. The first and second violin sections alone each numbered some 20 players. The chorus contained at least 30 tenors and basses along with a comparable number of trebles and altos. Altogether there were around 150 singers and instrumentalists assembled in the Burgtheater, but the monumental impression was considerably diminished because the orchestra was positioned behind the chorus. The work may have been performed again during the composer’s lifetime, with smaller forces, at the home of Baron van Swieten, Mozart’s most faithful promoter and patron. Is this example of second exploitation no more than a second-rate work after all? One thing at least is certain: its title Davide penitente notwithstanding, neither the musician nor the listener will regret having experienced a performance of this composition. And they will reap the added benefit of discovering two great new arias by the “old Mozart”, music that would otherwise be consigned to dusty, silent oblivion, literally unheard.
Translation: Richard Evidon
Louis Langrée has been music director of the Mostly Mozart Festival in New York since 2002 and is chief conductor of the Camerata Salzburg. He is also Music Director Designate of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, taking on the full role of Music Director from the 2013/14 season. The French musician is from Mulhouse and studied at the Conservatoire de Strasbourg. After periods as an assistant – including at the Opéra de Lyon and the Orchestre de Paris – he became music director of the Orchestre de Picardie (1993 – 1998). This was followed by positions as music director of the Opéra National de Lyon (1998 – 2000) and Glyndebourne Touring Opera (1998 – 2003) as well as director of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Liège (2001 – 2006). Louis Langrée works with major orchestras, such as the Vienna Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris, Concerto Köln and the Orchestre des Champs-Elysées, and also with baroque ensembles such as the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Le Concert d’Astrée. He has appeared at the Spoleto and Aix-en-Provence Festivals, the Wiener Festwochen and Mozart Week in Salzburg. The conductor regularly works with the Vienna State Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Other operatic engagements have taken him to the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London, La Scala in Milan, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Semperoper in Dresden, the Grand Théâtre in Geneva, the Opéra Bastille and the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, and the Nederlandse Opera in Amsterdam. In 2006, Louis Langrée was appointed “Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres” by the French Minister of Culture. With these concerts, he makes his conducting debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.
Jane Archibald was born in Canada and studied at the Wilfrid Laurier University, the Orford Arts Centre and the Tanglewood Music Center. She made her United States debut in 2003 as Poppea in Handel’s Agrippina at the Chicago Opera Theater and two years later made her European debut as Konstanze in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail within the framework of the Antibes and Lacoste Summer Festivals. Jane Archibald was a member of the Vienna State Opera ensemble from 2006 until 2009 performing roles such as the Queen of Night in Die Zauberflöte, Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, Olympia in Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Musetta in La Bohème and the Italian Singer in Capriccio. Her repertory also includes the title roles in Alcina, La serva padrona, Lakmé, and Lucia di Lammermoor as well as Cleopatra in Handel’s Giulio Cesare, Susanna in Le nozze di Figaro, Elvira in L’italiana in Algeri, Adele in Die Fledermaus and Zerbinetta in Ariadne auf Naxos. Guest appearances have taken her to the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in London, the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, Milan’s La Scala, the Grand Théâtre de Genève, Deutsche Oper Berlin, Metropolitan Opera in New York and San Francisco Opera. Jane Archibald is equally successful as a concert singer; she made her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker in March 2009 as Angelica in two concertante performances of Haydn’s Orlando Paladino, conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt. Her last appearance here was in March 2012 as soloist in Olivier Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi (conductor: Christian Thielemann).
The German tenor Werner Güra was born in Munich and studied at the Mozarteum in Salzburg and later with Kurt Widmer in Basel and Margreet Honig in Amsterdam. He joined the Dresden State Opera in 1995, enjoying particular success in Mozart’s tenor roles. But his operatic repertory extends from the Baroque to the present day. He has appeared regularly at the Staatsoper Unter den Linden since the 1998/99 season. Among other venues where he has been heard principally in Mozart roles are the Opéra National de Paris, La Monnaie in Brussels, the 2006 Innsbruck Early Music Festival and the Baden-Baden Festival, where he often performed under the direction of René Jacobs. In the concert hall he has worked with orchestras of the eminence of the Dresden Staatskapelle, the London Philharmonic, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Orchestre National de France and many European radio orchestras. Conductors with whom he has sung include Claudio Abbado, Riccardo Chailly, Ton Koopman, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and particularly Nikolaus Harnoncourt. As a lieder recitalist he has appeared in London’s Wigmore Hall, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, New York’s Lincoln Center and the Schubertiade Festival in Schwarzenberg. Werner Güra first appeared with the Berliner Philharmoniker under the direction of Daniel Barenboim in May 1999 singing the tenor part of Mozart’s Coronation Mass KV 317. His most recent appearance was in October 2011 as a soloist in Beethoven’s C major Mass conducted by Nikolaus Harnoncourt.
Ann Hallenberg is from Sweden and studied singing at, among others, the Royal College of Music in Stockholm (KMH). The mezzo-soprano performs at major opera houses all over the world, such as La Scala in Milan, the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, the Teatro Real in Madrid, Zurich Opera, the Opéra National de Paris, Bavarian State Opera in Munich, Dresden’s Semperoper, the Theater an der Wien and at the Royal Opera in Stockholm. She also appears in concerts and at festivals (such as Tanglewood, Boston, Salzburg and Vienna). In 2005 she was to be heard as Isseo in Antonio Salieri’s opera Europa riconosciuta at the opening production of the refurbished La Scala in Milan. Ann Hallenberg works with conductors such as Giovanni Antonini, William Christie, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Emmanuelle Haïm, Daniel Harding, Paavo Järvi, Marc Minkowski, Riccardo Muti, Kent Nagano and Lothar Zagrosek. Her repertoire includes baroque opera such as the title roles in Handel’s Orlando, Ariodante and Tolomeo and Orfeo in Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, but also leading roles in works by Mozart, Rossini, Bizet and Massenet. With these concerts, Ann Hallenberg makes her debut with the Berliner Philharmoniker.
The Rundfunkchor Berlin, founded in 1925, produced great musical moments of the 1920s and 30s under the direction of conductors such as George Szell, Hermann Scherchen, Otto Klemperer and Erich Kleiber. After the Second World War, the choir and its principal conductor Helmut Koch made the oratorios of Handel internationally known in their original versions. Dietrich Knothe (1982 – 1993) formed the choir into a precision instrument for the most difficult of works; Robin Gritton (1994 – 2001) both enriched and refined the ensemble’s palette of colours. Since 2001, the Rundfunkchor Berlin has been led by Simon Halsey, who places particular emphasis on stylistic and linguistic perfection, resulting in lively and exciting performances of works from all periods and in all styles. Their work together is documented by a busy recording schedule; recently their CD of Kaija Saariaho’s opera L’Amour de loin with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester conducted by Kent Nagano won the 2010 Grammy Award for best opera recording. Simon Halsey, who was awarded the “Bundesverdienstkreuz” (Cross of the Order of Merit) in January 2011, has also initiated many of the choir’s education and outreach projects, the interdisciplinary event series Broadening the Scope of Choral Music as well as the annual Sing-along Concert. The choir has been a partner of leading orchestras and conductors all over the world, including long-standing partnerships with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the Berliner Philharmoniker. The Rundfunkchor’s most recent appearance with the Berliner Philharmoniker was last December in performances of Strawinsky’s Psalm Symphony, conducted by Kirill Petrenko.
Highlights from the concert can be seen in our trailer.