Der Schauspieldirektor is a short singspiel (just four numbers!) composed by Mozart following a commission from Emperor Joseph II for “a merry celebration in honour of the Governor General of The Netherlands”. At the same time, Salieri received a commission for a one-act opera, and a competition (won by Salieri) arose between the two composers. Singspiel is a musical-theatre genre with spoken dialogues. In Der Schauspieldirektor the theme of the dialogues is, again, reflected through a competition: the impresario selects the cast, the singers aspire to the lead roles, there is a frenzied and serious “battle” and yet in the finale all are reconciled in the name of a common goal – art itself. Mozart’s singspiel was written, so to speak, “at the height of the times”: then in Vienna there were two competing opera divas – Aloisia Weber and Caterina Cavalieri. They both performed the role of the singer in the singspiel. The premiere of Mozart’s “comedy with music” took place in the Orangery at the Palace of Schönbrunn on 7 February 1786.
Unlike traditional singspiel, which was traditionally aimed at a middling ability of vocal skill and was focussed on folkloric motifs, Der Schauspieldirektor requires virtuoso skill, indicated by the plot itself. The C Major overture in the impetuous presto tempo was composed in classical sonata form. The first theme with its sonorous orchestral fanfare and incessantly pulsating rhythm becomes the predominant theme in the overture. In the development it moves into minor keys and produces a sensation of anxiety and even drama in the generally festive mood. In the coda the main theme is confirmed in the unison of the entire orchestra. In the secondary line there are two grandiose “musical characters” that literally hint at two characters of a singspiel. The two themes are contrasting in terms of timbre. The first appears in the “attire” of the violin while the melody of the second is “dressed” in the warm colours of the woodwinds (oboe and bassoon). Yet despite the whole variety of the two “female portraits” their melodies share a common descending intonation, and this intonation links the themes not just with each other but also with the main theme of the overture and the theme of the refrain in the finale of this whole theatrical miniature. It seems that in so doing Mozart symbolises the basic idea of the singspiel “Einigkeit rühm’ ich vor allen andern Tugenden uns an” (from the finale).
Having settled in Vienna as a “free artist” unconnected to any particular paymaster, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart delightedly wrote to his father “Of course, it is piano country here!” And in truth, at that time, they never played, listened to or printed so much piano music anywhere else. Viennese craftsmen were dedicated body and soul to building and perfecting the instrument. It was with the piano that Mozart’s plans as a performer, composer and teacher were most closely connected. In some four years he had composed fifteen concerti, among them Concerto No 23 in A Major (K. 488).
The concerto was written at the same time as the opera Le nozze di Figaro and it was completed on 2 March 1786. Some words from another of Mozart’s letters are surprisingly appropriate: “It is concerti that are something halfway between too difficult and too easy; they may contain much that dazzles and they may sound extremely pleasant but, of course, they are serious works; there are times when only connoisseurs will receive any pleasure...” It is indeed at one and the same time both a dazzling and a deep work. In the first section there is a virtuoso cadenza written by Mozart himself on the score and absolutely non-virtuoso solos. The final rondo falls into the category of “pleasant to listen to” thanks, first and foremost, to its variety: here there are no less than seven different themes which the soloist exchanges with the orchestra. But the second section is the most famous, an inspired sicilienne, thanks to which for three centuries now this concerto is the most popular of Mozart’s twenty-seven piano concerti.
With regard to major instrumental form, it was Tchaikovsky who was destined to take Russian music into the European arena. Tchaikovsky’s symphonies and concerti came to rank alongside the masterpieces of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn and Schumann... Speaking thus, people generally have Tchaikovsky’s great symphonic triad in mind – the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Symphonies in addition to instrumental concerti – the First Piano Concerto, the Violin Concerto and the Cello Variations on a Rococo Theme. Naturally it should not be forgotten that according to Tchaikovsky “the entire Russian symphonic school, like an oak tree inside an acorn”, is to be found in Glinka’s Kamarinskaya. And we should not forget the invaluable contribution made by Tchaikovsky’s first teacher and the composer of several symphonies and concerti – Anton Grigorievich Rubinstein. Let us remember the triad of first-born Russian symphonies – Rimsky-Korsakov’s First (1865), Borodin’s First (1867) and Tchaikovsky’s First, Winter Dreams (1866), which was the one that flourished most.
The outstanding music critic and the composer’s friend Herman Laroche wrote of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony following the premiere: “It is a work that stands at European heights… For a long time I have not come across a work with such a powerful and thematic development of ideas, with such motivated and artistically considered contrasts.” Tchaikovsky composed much of the symphony in sketch form in Ukraine in the summer of 1872; the stamp of the national Ukrainian colour is so evident in the music of the symphony that contemporaries named it The Little Russian.
The slow introduction to the symphony is based on a Ukrainian version of the famous Russian song Down the Mother Volga River. The sonata allegro, constructed according to classical examples, concludes with a coda in which the theme of the introduction again comes to live in an expressive solo by the French horn. The symphony’s second movement is “instrumental theatre”, something quite common for Tchaikovsky. The outer sections, consistent in march-like movement, were borrowed by the composer from his early opera Ondine (after Zhukovsky) which he destroyed – there it accompanied the wedding procession, while the songful middle section is based on an amended melody from the Russian folk song Keep on Spinning, My Spinner. The impetuously rushing scherzo is yet another theatrical action, this time full of Herculean daring, mighty revelry and merry carnival laughter in the “amusing” scenes. In the finale, composed in sonata form, the dance-like nature of the Ukrainian song The Crane emerges brilliantly – from the short and extremely pompous introduction through a chain of dazzling and diverse variations to the powerful and exultant coda that sounds like a magnificent hymn.
The premiere of the symphony took place to tremendous acclaim in Moscow on 26 January 1873 under the baton of Nikolai Rubinstein.