Inner Visions: Orchestra Wellington Presents ‘Pharaoh’

On Saturday 7 October, Orchestra Wellington presents ‘Pharaoh‘, the penultimate concert of its 2023 Inner Visions season. The programme brings together five works that each realise ‘inner visions’: from Gemma Peacocke’s response to the mysterious world of manta rays in the Hauraki Gulf in her new work Manta; there is a collision of archaism and ultra-modernism in Webern’s Passacaglia (1908). Briar Prastiti’s White, Red, Black envisions a folkloric world, through the symbolic qualities of these three colours in story-telling. John Psathas’s Planet Damnation, a concerto for timpani and orchestradraws us into a different time and landscape, taking its inspiration from the chapter in Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation that gives the author’s eyewitness account of catastrophic events in the Gulf War. To conclude the programme, Mozart’s music for the play Thamos, King of Egypt heightens the themes of treachery and death that pervade the drama by Tobias Philipp, Freiherr von Gebler (1726-1786). Joining Orchestra Wellington, conducted by Music Director Marc Taddei, will be the Arohanui Strings in Manta, percussionist Tomomi Ozaki, and the Orpheus Choir.

Today’s blog explores some of the books in the WCL collection about the two composers central to the First and Second Viennese Schools of composition, providing additional context to the music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), and Anton von Webern (1883-1945).

Webern matriculated as a student at Vienna University in 1902, studying harmony and counterpoint with Hermann Graedener and Karl Navrátil, and musicology with one of the discipline’s founding fathers, Guido Adler. Not until 1904/5 did Webern begin studying composition with Arnold Schoenberg, but from the earliest stages of their work together, they developed a powerful rapport, and Webern remained a passionate acolyte until his death. Although Webern had been composing since he was a teenager, the beginning of his studies with Schoenberg heralded a new epoch in Webern’s development: Webern began producing work of greater structural rigour and cohesion, uniting meticulous craft and profound expression. His devotion to Gustav Mahler also proved formative to Webern’s creativity and philosophy. In his diary, in February 1905, Webern quoted a conversation with Mahler, during which the older composer said:

‘Nature is for us the model in this realm. Just as in nature the entire universe has developed from the primeval cell, from plants, animals, and men beyond to God, the Supreme Being, so also in music should a larger structure develop from a single motive in which is contained the germ of everything that is yet to be.”

These words prefigured the Passacaglia, which was Webern’s principal composition of 1908, the work he would allow to become his Opus. 1. In the Passacaglia, Webern’s vision united the old and new: the archaism of the passacaglia — which had developed in the baroque era as form comprising a series of variations over an ostinato bass and found its eighteenth-century apotheosis in J. S. Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582 — would then begin to fascinate late-nineteenth-century composers who sought to ‘put new wine in old bottles’ by adapting the form to nineteenth-century musical language as Brahms did in the fourth movement of his Symphony No. 4.  In each case, Bach, Brahms, and then Webern would use a short sequence of notes, containing the germ of ‘everything that is yet to be’ and providing the generative force behind the whole piece. In Webern’s Passacaglia, he lays these notes out in the first eight bars, clearly stated by pizzicato strings: D – C# – B♭ – A – F – E – A – D. There follows the organic development of this sequence of notes into more than twenty variations organised into three main sections. The cohesion of Webern’s Passacaglia, in which tight organisation and economy of material are matched with both opulent and distilled means of expression, demonstrates the close integration of Webern’s inner musical vision with exemplary craftsmanship. Two books, by Malcolm Hays, and Hans and Rosaleen Moldenhauer explain more:

Anton von Webern / Hayes, Malcolm
Malcolm Hayes’s biography of Webern is concise and accessible, opening up the life of a composer whose distilled and enigmatic music remains puzzling to this day for what it says and does not say. Through Hayes’s clear narrative, we learn of Webern’s early life and training, and especially the tension between his musical training in an era of late-nineteenth-century ‘hyper-Romanticism’ — and his own natural affinities to the music of the Renaissance. In his own music, both before and after his turn to twelve-note techniques, these tensions are clear and can be heard in the Passacaglia. Hayes traces Webern’s reaction to political and social change, his time in the Austrian army during the First World War (a non-combatant role), and how the collapse of the Habsburg Empire at the end of the War, bringing with it privation and political upheaval, affected Webern, his friends, and his family.  Hayes also examines Webern’s troubling political vacillations in the wake of the Anschluss in 1938, leaving the reader to decide whether the composer’s apparent support for the ambitions of national socialism resulted from naivete, expediency, or true belief.

Anton von Webern / Moldenhauer, Hans
Hans Moldenhauer, a German-born musicologist who emigrated to the USA in 1938, is an example of a biographer whose life was as intriguing as those of his subjects. An expert mountaineer and alpinist, he served the US Mountain Troops during World War II, and would make an invaluable contribution to musicology in the United States through his broadcasts, archival work, and research on the life and music of Anton von Webern. A review of an earlier Moldenhauer work on Webern opened: ‘The creators of this book have provided something for almost everyone, from the morbidly curious to the analytically detached’. The same might be said of this book, in which Hans and his wife, the pianist Rosaleen Moldenhauer collaborated: their intention was to let Webern ‘speak for himself’ through the many archival documents at their disposal, including Webern’s estate, which included extensive documentation of the creation of many of his compositions. While the entire book is fascinating, the early chapters dealing with Webern’s childhood, family, and early musical experiences are especially vivid. Throughout, the Moldenhauers’ selection of material, and construction of narrative (interlaced with musical discussion), render Webern a compelling and very human subject and leave the reader wanting to know more. 

Meanwhile, Mozart, one of the most documented and performed composers of the Western Classical Canon, may seem like a figure about whom there’s little more to know. The biographical facts of his life, and the mythologies that built up around him permeate public consciousness. Despite this ubiquity, authors continue to find unique angles from which to study Mozart, his music, his times, and his ongoing influence. The following books — not all of them new — are just a few in the WCL collection that offer contrasting approaches to this composer:

The Mozart essays / Landon, H. C. Robbins
First published in 1995, this collection of learned yet extremely readable essays by a preeminent authority on Mozart, H. C. Robbins Landon (1926-2009) constitutes a compendium of the author’s explorations of Mozart’s music and his role in the musical culture of the late eighteenth century. Landon considers Mozart’s string duos and quintets in relation to Joseph and Michael Haydn, the context and background to some of Mozart’s sacred music, the information revealed by primary sources relating to the composer’s complex finances, and his time in Paris, among other topics. Most relevant for this blog is Landon’s essay concerning Mozart’s music for Thamos, King of Egypt, which illuminates the context in which Mozart composed this music, shedding light also on the role of music in the late eighteenth-century Viennese dramatic theatre.

Mozart, the golden years, 1781-1791 / Landon, H. C. Robbins
1791: Mozart’s Last Year / Landon, H. C. Robbins
Another two books by H. C. Robbins Landon place equal focus on cultural, social, and musical elements of Mozart’s life. Replete with illustrations to enhance the text, both books invite the reader to consider specific times in Mozart’s life: Mozart: the golden years examines his arrival in Vienna in 1781 and the subsequent decade which saw the composition of many major works. Meanwhile, 1791: Mozart’s Last Year has an even more specific focus, the final year of Mozart’s life. Both books received some equivocal reviews when they were published in 1989 and 1988, critics insinuating that the distinguished author’s approach was self-indulgent, concentrating too much on ‘peripheral’ details about the composer’s daily expenses, wardrobe, and friendships at the expense of rigorous musical analysis. However, re-reading Landon, following the emergence of ‘new musicology’ in the 1990s and early 2000s, his approach seems prescient, showing that material culture is crucial to understanding that composer’s work. Landon addresses The golden years to ‘Mozart’s many new friends and admirers’, demonstrating his desire to introduce a new audience to Mozart in a manner combining human interest with scholarly vigour, utilising a breadth of fascinating primary source material to immerse his readers in the world of 1780s Vienna. Landon’s discussion of Mozart’s music is also integral to this many-layered approach and offers insights not just to ‘new friends’ but also to long-time aficionados. 

ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0500281076 ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0500281079

Few moments in music history have been more mythologised than Mozart’s final illness and death. However, the romanticised image of the ailing composer, subsumed by debt, desperation, and domestic disharmony is one that predated Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus by many decades. In contrast, Landon’s 1791 delicately, anatomises, month-by-month, the year that Mozart certainly did not anticipate being his last: the music of 1791, not least La clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte, grew ever more innovative and profound, and he contemplated a number of new projects. Good financial management was, perhaps, never the composer’s strongest suit, but Landon shows that surviving financially as a mainly freelance artist in a city easily distracted by novelty was no easy task. While it pains us now to think of a composer of such inimitable brilliance struggling to make a living, this was the reality for many musicians at the time, especially if they lacked the stability (and concomitant restrictions) of a high-ranking permanent position working for the court or the church. The value of Landon’s book — aside from it being fascinating overall — is that he provides a vivid depiction of 1791 as an eventful and extraordinary year, as well as a year of tragedy.

Mozart at the gateway to his fortune : serving the Emperor, 1788-1791 / Wolff, Christoph
Christoph Wolff also approaches his subject through the prism of specific years, in this case, the last two years of the life of Emperor Joseph II of Austria and the ascension and coronation of his successor, Emperor Leopold. Mozart was appointed the Emperor’s Kammermusicus in December 1787, a job which required the composition of dancers and ceremonial music, for a middling wage. As Wolff points out, although this position has sometimes been understood as an insult to the composer, Mozart largely welcomed the income and the status. As Landon did before him, Wolff is clear that while these years brought the composer difficulties and some discontent, the composer anticipated a bright future, writing in 1790, ‘I now stand at the gateway to my fortune.’ Musically, Wolff considers Mozart’s final three symphonies and two operas, alongside a number of other works, identifying within these pieces elements of what he coins as ‘imperial style,’ hypothesizing that this style was directly related to Mozart’s position at the Emperor’s court.

Mozart and the Nazis : how the Third Reich abused a cultural icon / Levi, Erik
Erik Levi’s 2010 book explicates how Mozart and his music were used to strengthen the malign cultural vision of a fascist regime. Levi draws on a fascinating and disturbing array of primary sources and archival material — including letters and diaries, official documentation, and speeches and broadcasts — to demonstrate how Mozart’s biography and music were used within Nazi ideology during the era of the Third Reich. Mozart’s music proved a powerful propaganda tool, just as extracts from his letters were twisted and distorted to suggest that ‘‘der deutsche Mozart’ was an ardent German nationalist whose sentiments were prescient of, and justified, Nazi cultural policy. Levi provides the reader with case studies examining how specific works by Mozart were used for propaganda and offers a particularly interesting chapter concerning how the regime dealt with Mozart’s Freemasonry. Levi’s book makes an impressive and absorbing contribution to studies of Mozart’s reception that also demonstrates how easily sublime art may be misappropriated for political ends.