In November 2014 the Northwest Sinfonietta premiered a piece I wrote for them called “Wolfgang at the Gates.” I knew that the performance would include Mozart’s “Paris” symphony- the one he wrote while shopping for a job in that city in 1778. He was there with his mother, who spoke no French and was desperately lonely and isolated and increasingly infirm. At age 22 Mozart was no longer the child prodigy and was finding it hard to recapture the interest of the Paris audience which had so fawned on him when he was 6! The public was still smitten with the music of Gluck, even thought that master had returned to Vienna to write for the Austrian court. His primary patron in Paris had obtained for him a commission for a symphony to be premiered at a concert series in June and Mozart worked hard to try to meet the exact taste of the audience.
The premiere was a success, with Mozart almost teasing his audience with a particular device which seemed to be in fashion that season- the “three strikes of the bow”- a declarative rhythm that opens a piece decisively. Mozart opens both the first and third (final) movement with this device, though in the third movement he delays its entrance for a few bars and then delivers it, probably with tongue firmly in cheek. His overly anal-retentive patron suggested to Mozart after the premiere that perhaps the audience hadn’t liked the middle movement quite as much as the other two and that perhaps he should write another middle movement for the second scheduled performance. (Imagine telling Mozart to try again!) But ever the entrepreneur, he dutifully did write an alternative middle movement which he claimed in a letter to his father to like even better than the original one.
Alas, in the midst of this writing and re-writing, Mozart’s ailing mother finally succumbed and died in early August, to the absolute despair of her son. Mozart was not only miserable at the death of his beloved mother but terrified of the response from his father. The mother had been sent to watch over the son, but clearly the son was also supposed to take care of his mother! We can see Mozart’s nervousness about telling his father the news in the fact that he sent a letter to his father after the death in which he mentioned nothing about it. Only a few days later did he screw up his courage to share the dreadful news.
My piece “Wolfgang at the Gates” is a tour inside the mind of Mozart as he composes this symphony. All the themes of the resulting symphony are present, but in fragments, as though yet unformed. Also present are fragments of music by Gluck, whose music was ever-present and popular in the Paris salons and concert halls Mozart desired to penetrate. As he works, and his mother declines towards death, Mozart battles in his mind between the cheerful tunes his symphony must present and the thoughts of doom pressing on him both by career failure and his mother’s health. The second act of Gluck’s famous opera “Orfeo ed Euridice” is called “At the Gates of Hell” and depicts Orpheus reaching the underworld seeking to return his beloved Euridice to the land of the living. I imagine Mozart identifying with this scene, and thus his mind keeps returning to Gluck’s “Dance of the Infernal Spirits” and, of course, the famous aria “che faro senza Euridice”- what will I do without my Euridice?
In my piece, we begin with the “three strokes of the bow,” as does Mozart’s symphony, but then hear the timpani thunder out a darkness, as though Mozart is unable to continue in this cheerful vein. A three-note “doom” motif sounds in the strings, and then fragments of Mozart’s musical material try again and again to get the symphony started. Gluck and Mozart swirl and intersperse through two climaxes and intervening slower, softer sections dominated by “che faro…” All the tunes of Mozart’s two outer movements are touched upon before the theme of the slow lyrical second movement is finally discovered and allows Mozart to see his way to a conclusion. We reach the ritual cadential material, as required by the taste of the day, but the timpani has the last word- rolling ominously, or sadly, before concluding with that same “three strokes of the bow” with which this whole process had begun.
In the premiere concert, the Northwest Sinfonietta opened with two sets of dances from Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice”, followed by Samuel Jones’ fabulous and romantic “Cello Concerto” with soloist Julian Schwartz. After intermission “Wolfgang at the Gates” was followed immediately by Mozart’s “Paris Symphony.” The effect was as I had hoped. After hearing my piece, one had the eerie sensation of knowing quite a lot about the symphony as it unfolded- almost as if we had been there looking over Mozart’s shoulder and sharing sad beers with him as he worriedly composed. Of course, “Wolfgang at the Gates” stands on its own as a 13 minute piece for chamber orchestra, but I really hope other conductors will consider pairing it with its famous companion piece for a truly striking concert experience.