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Mozart's Eine Kleine Nachtmusik

1 hour
First broadcast:
Sunday 09 January 2011

As part of the "Genius of Mozart" season, Stephen Johnson visits Clandon Park House in Surrey to study the nuances found in Mozart's most famous serenade - "Eine Kleine Nachtmusik". He's joined by the architect Jonathan Foyle to discuss the links between Mozart's musical structures and the Palladian-style architecture of the period, and by the historian Steven Parissien who'll be giving his insight into the social history of the time and into the European-wide concept of 18th century sensibility. Musical extracts will be played by The Doric Quartet and double-bass player Tim Gibbs.

  • Listening Notes

    Listening Notes

    These notes will not necessarily repeat what the presenter says in the programme. They are designed to enhance the listening experience by focusing in more detail on a particular work or genre that is featured in the programme.

    The Listening Notes are prepared by Keith Hannis. The views expressed are his and unless specifically stated are not those of the BBC.

  • Work in Focus: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik

    Work in Focus: Eine Kleine Nachtmusik


    by Keith Hannis


    Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven are the most important and representative composers of the Classical Period, which is generally taken to be from about 1750 to 1830, i.e. from the deaths of Bach (1750) and Beethoven (1827). When attaching labels to periods of musical history, though, it is important to remember that we are imposing them with the benefit of hindsight: the composers themselves did not think about their works as belonging to this or that period or school, and the ways in which changes and developments came about, and in which composers both exercised and absorbed influences from other people and countries were much less clear-cut than such labels can imply. The main characteristics of music from the Classical Period can be very briefly summarised as clarity in both sound (predominantly homophonic textures rather than the complicated contrapuntal textures of much Baroque music) and form (the ‘mould’ into which the music is poured), and a satisfying balance between contrasting but related elements in the music, e.g. piano and forte, question and answer, light and dark. All of these can be clearly seen at work in Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

    Mozart was a real child prodigy: taught by his father Leopold, he began composing at the age of about five, and during the thirty remaining years of his life wrote some 600 works in all genres, many of which are considered to be masterpieces of the highest order. A good deal of Mozart’s childhood and teens was spent touring as a precocious performer all round Europe with his father and sister, ending with a long stay in Italy. Returning to his native Salzburg, he spent most of the next four years as a court musician in the employ of the Archbishop of Salzburg, but increasing dissatisfaction with his limited salary and the equally limited opportunities there led him to undertake further travels in search of a more attractive post. Nothing came of these efforts, and 1779 saw Mozart in Salzburg again as a court musician. Finally, in 1781, when Joseph II acceded to the Austrian throne, he followed his employer the Archbishop to Vienna. This proved a turning-point: Mozart fell out irrevocably with the Archbishop and took the decision to remain in Vienna to pursue an independent career as a performer and composer. This was a bold and unconventional step at a time when composers depended upon aristocratic patronage for their livelihood.

    Mozart’s last decade in Vienna saw him achieve great success as both performer and composer, and a number of his greatest works, especially some of the operas and the last three of his forty-one symphonies, were composed during these years. Although he was, for a time, financially well off, by the time of his early death his circumstances had become impoverished and it is well known that he was buried in a common grave. His last work was the Requiem Mass, which he left incomplete.

  • Notes on the Music

    The usual translation, ‘A Little Night Music’, is somewhat misleading and sounds more casual than the German in which ‘little’ means ‘small’ rather than ‘a bit of’. This is what Mozart called it in a catalogue of his own works, so it would really be better called ‘A Little Serenade.’ Serenades in the time of Mozart consisted of a sequence of short, tuneful movements designed to provide entertainment at a wedding or some other celebratory occasion, though in the case of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik the occasion, if there was one, is unknown. Written in 1787, the work also differs from Mozart’s other serenades in being scored for strings rather than the usual wind. The scoring is the same as for a string quartet: two violins, viola and ‘cello, but with optional double bass. Usually, though, the work is performed by a small string ensemble.

    There are four movements (the number of movements in a serenade varies widely) and the design of the piece is identical to that of the classical symphony: everything happens in the same way and in the same order that we find in the symphony, but here on a smaller and lighter scale.

    First Movement: Allegro

    This may well be the best-known single movement in all Mozart, but its unfortunate ubiquity as ‘wallpaper’ in restaurants and lifts, and down phone lines when we are put on ‘hold’, should not allow us to take for granted its grace, tunefulness and perfect construction. The two opening phrases, a call to attention that will recur later in the movement, perfectly illustrate the ‘classical’ qualities of contrast and balance: first comes a phrase constructed from a triad or arpeggio in the tonic, G major, which is answered by a second, rhythmically identical phrase built from the dominant seventh chord of G (D – F sharp – A – C). The first phrase rises at the end, the second falls, and expects a return to the tonic, which immediately happens as the first subject sets off in this short sonata-form movement.

    Such energetically rising gestures using arpeggios are sometimes called, somewhat improbably, ‘Mannheim Rockets’, since they were part of the stock-in-trade of a group of composers working in that city in the second half of the eighteenth century, with some of whom Mozart came into contact and whose influence can be clearly felt in his music. Another Mannheim trick was a sudden crescendo in the whole orchestra, and there are examples of this as well in Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, though mostly, dynamic interest consists in the contrast between piano and forte – so-called ‘terraced’ dynamics.

    Sonata Form, which evolved in the Classical Period, is a design found mainly in the first movements of symphonies, quartets and (unsurprisingly!) sonatas. Like these large-scale forms themselves, Sonata Form proved very durable and capable of endless modification and adaptation in the hands of different composers as the centuries went by. In its ‘textbook’ form, found here, it consists of the following clearly defined sections:

    - Exposition: two ‘subjects’ (themes, or groups of themes), the first in the tonic key, the second, after a ‘bridge passage’, in the dominant, contrasting with the first in character. The exposition is normally repeated.

    - Development: thematic material, sometimes amounting to only a fragment or single element of a theme, is taken from the exposition and explored or transformed, which invariably involves passing through a series of keys more or less remote from the tonic.

    - Recapitulation: both subjects or subject-groups return, but now the second group is also in the tonic.

    In Mozart’s time the development and recapitulation were also repeated, but this was later not usually the case. At all periods a sonata form movement might also have a slow introduction and a coda or ‘tailpiece’ to round the movement off. Mozart’s movement has only the latter.

    Each of the subjects here consists of two themes and you should have no difficulty in identifying the boundaries between them. For the very short development section Mozart takes the fanfare-like opening gesture, now in the dominant, D, then repeats it, modifying it as at the beginning of the movement, into a dominant seventh but of the relative minor, E, by the use of a D sharp. However, the relative minor does not appear as expected: the B of the dominant seventh is instead treated, in an interrupted cadence, as the leading note of C major, the subdominant, and Mozart now uses the second theme of the second subject group for the remainder of the development, passing through D minor as well, and also modifying the shape of the theme in unison phrases, including some chromatic twists. The recapitulation quickly arrives as already mentioned. The overall impression that this movement gives is purposeful, alert, energetic and busy.

    Second Movement: Romanze: Andante

    This corresponds to the slow movement found second in symphonies. It is in rondo form, i.e. there is a main theme, successive recurrences of which are separated by other, contrasting material heard only once. The rondo theme consists of two sections, each repeated on the first and last of its three appearances. The second appearance omits the second half. It is in the subdominant of the whole work, C, with a brief visit to the dominant of this key, G, in the second half. The first contrasting section grazes some minor keys, but the second brings the only section in the whole work that stays for any time in a minor key (the tonic minor of C), with an agitated accompaniment in halved note values, and imitative exchanges of a restless scrap of tune based on the ornament of a turn. This section stands out strongly within the work through these contrasts, but the rondo theme soon comes back for the last time, leading to a coda.

    Third Movement: Menuetto: Allegretto

    Originally, the minuet was an elegant French courtly dance in 3/4 time. It was a standard movement in Baroque suites, such as those of Bach, but whereas the other courtly dances such as allemandes, sarabandes and so on faded more or less completely from the scene as the Baroque Period passed, the minuet survived to become the standard third movement of a symphony in the Classical Period.

    The form is ternary, i.e. A – B – A, each section in two halves, both repeated. Section A is in G, with a brief excursion to the dominant. The end of both halves is enlivened by hemiola, a device in simple triple time that cuts across the prevailing pulse, so that two bars of three feel like three bars of two. You can feel this clearly if you try to count three in a bar throughout the phrase, remembering that the first note of each half is an upbeat. You will find it difficult to keep your three steady. Section B is in the dominant. This is called the trio, which has its origins in the fact that at one time, this contrasting central section was actually played by three instruments, but the term survived long after it had ceased to be played by a trio of instruments. It contrasts here with section A also in its flowing legato quaver movement as opposed to the deliberate, mostly crotchet tread of section A.

    Fourth Movement: Rondo: Allegro

    The last movement is also particularly well known, and has for years been heard as the signature tune of Brain of Britain on Radio Four. It has to be admitted that, like the first movement, it bursts with energy and as such could be thought of as a good metaphor for the workings of a busy, well organised brain. Formally, the movement is a sonata rondo, which, as the term implies, combines elements of both forms. It does not matter whether we prefer to think of it as a sonata movement with a rondo element or vice versa; either way round, it proved a fruitful and satisfying union of forms. When found, it is invariably as the last movement of a symphony, concerto or quartet. The crucial element that distinguishes sonata rondo from merely rondo is development, applied in this movement to two elements from the theme heard at the outset, which itself uses the same notes as the very first ‘rocket’ phrase of the work. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik ends with an energetic coda with a tonic pedal in the final bars.


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