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Composer Focus: Richard Tognetti on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Nothing Concrete text
16 Apr 2020
25 min listen

In this episode of Composer Focus, Richard Tognetti – violinist, composer and director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra speaks to Edward Seckerson about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

None of us can imagine the sounds that Mozart put down from out of his head directly onto the score.

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Composer Focus: Richard Tognetti on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

In this episode of Composer Focus, Richard Tognetti – violinist, composer and director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra speaks to Edward Seckerson about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.


Barbican: Welcome to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast. In this episode, we revisit our Composer Focus series of November 2018. We’re joined by Artistic Director of the energising Australian Chamber Orchestra, Richard Tognetti, to explore the comprehensive musical output of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

ES: Hello and welcome to this Barbican podcast with me Edward Seckerson. My guest today is Richard Tognetti – violinist, composer and director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Our subject: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

ES: Richard, this bewildering talent Mozart, I mean flabbergasting canon of works. It kind of compels us to look again at the very nature of genius and what that means because you talk about this quality, but it’s very easy to recognise but it’s very hard to define. And people have tried and tried and tried to put their finger on what it is. And when you look at individual works in Mozart’s output you think, actually you know one note, one placement in the wrong direction and it wouldn’t work: they are precisely the right notes for the job. As a violinist and a composer, how do we attempt to define what it is that makes him so, sets him apart from everybody else.

RT: Well if I could do that I could maybe bottle it and sell it!

ES: I wish you could!

RT: But look, there’s an economy of means. Often in his earlier operatic style, there’s certainly in the violin concertos it’s just so efficient. When you think of the criticisms that he attracted saying ‘too many notes’ (and that has to be contextualised of course) but it’s such an economy of means. I mean often a viola line, say look at the 29th Symphony, the A major Symphony, and often the viola line is just one note. But you know what? Often it’s the best part! And God knows how he does it.

ES: Absolutely, it’s incredible. The other thing is he wrote in every conceivable genre. I mean there are more than 600 works that we know of. And in pretty much all of those genres he advanced not only the technical sophistication of that music but also the emotional reach of it. And here was this small, pale, practical joker with his penchant for toilet humour – hard to reconcile that with the composer of the C minor Mass or Così fan tutte – but the fact that he took every genre and took it to a new place, that’s I suppose what singles him out.

RT: Well it often stumps us trying to reconcile the corporal, the body, to the spiritual, and when you consider the character, especially how can we not but refer to the film – the terrific film [Amadeus] – whether it’s correct or not, it’s a terrific film. What happened to the lead actor, you never hear about him, Tom Hulce?

ES: I think he’s still working.

RT: But it was a good film. Now whether it was correct... But it was based on the spirit of, one could identify with the spirit of it. And it probably, it probably captured something about Mozart’s spirit.

ES: It certainly did. The other thing was the Peter Schaffer play from which it was adapted primarily addressed this mystery of genius, taking one comparatively work-a-day composer recognising something in another. There’s that wonderful passage with the slow movement from the Gran Partita Wind Serenade where Salieri hears it off-stage and he starts describing what happens in the music with complete bewilderment because he could never have imagined that sound.

RT: Exactly. And look, none of us can imagine the sounds that Mozart put down from out of his head directly onto the score. This was first brought to my attention when I was pretty young and working with Frans Brüggen. He was talking about how the score looked and then when he would stop, and then when he would come back as though he hadn’t been distracted by anything. I mean, pen to paper he was copying out what he had in his mind. And I do believe that, that it is quite different to Beethoven who was reworking. But mind you I think Bach had that, didn’t he? Otherwise he couldn’t have got through all of that. I mean talk about prodigious talent. But we’re talking about a prodigious talent that occurred at a very, very young age. But if you do look at those young works on their own, as compositional structures, you know there are other people, they say if Mendelssohn and Mozart had died at, what is it? 17, just after the Octet, that actually Mendelssohn would have been regarded as the greater child prodigy and I kind of understand where that analysis comes from. But yes what you say, as he developed and evolves the style – and there’s this notion of ‘Oh, you know, Haydn was the great inventor and Mozart just evolved the styles’. To an extent. But when you look at what he invents within those styles, yes I think you can say he’s an inventor, especially when you look at the harmonic sophistication that you find in the G minor Symphony – the other one, the big one, the 40th – in the last movement. And you know, the second half, what we have is an almost Schoenbergian tone row, that he develops with that theme. 
*sings*. And every note from the row, the tone row, is there but one, and the only one that is missing is the root, which is a G. I mean that is so beyond anything that was going on at the time. We don’t know why he composed those last symphonies, maybe we’ll get into that later. But yeah, compositionally it’s so advanced but so within the paradigm or the restrictions of the classical language, and therein lies a frustration for me…

ES: …but therein also lies the concept of genius, because it was his instinctive will to do what he did there and to leave out that root note. You singled out the G minor Symphony. I mean the Jupiter in a way takes again the contrapuntal brilliance of the Baroque but it elevates it to great heights. I mean the finale of the Jupiter I think is one of the single…

RT: …greatest symphonic work ever written. And to combine all those different elements, all those different fragments, some of them fully fleshed out melodies, other motifs, of course the main *sings* which was used from ancient music. But to use those notes as building blocks and then to develop it in this way that creates a sense of ecstasy, it’s just simply ecstasy. And it’s also really long, but you know, you could have more of it.

ES: With all the repeats. You do all the repeats?

RT: Well it depends. You know, I’m in two minds about it because, especially if you’re working with… it’s a dreadful term, but period winds or winds that are copies from the time, they do tax the players quite a bit more, so that second repeat, yes it makes it colossal. And he put it in, so why should we not do it? It makes it really… because you go 39, 40 and then 41. I mean it’s more exhausting than you can imagine. But yes I want to do that second repeat. But the thing is after throwing all those things, and all these extraordinary fugal structures, and then the last final fugue starts off in the violas and then he separates out the double basses, which is quite an extraordinary thing to do, and then the coming together at the end. That for me is one of the great bits of… one of the greatest achievements of humankind.

ES: You’ve kind of answered my question as to which works you would single out which best display this out-there genius and you’ve picked upon those two.

RT: But I’ll also, seeing as we’re already – how can we help ourselves here – already in the last three symphonies. If you look at the structure, because you think of classical symmetry – although Hogwood pointed out to me that often with Haydn you find five bar phrases because it is a reflection of architecture, and in architecture you get two windows on either side of one which is five, and it makes a lot of sense. But of course in music five bar phrase and seven bar phrase, it feels lopsided and harder to process. Now, Mozart isn’t creating five bar – you know, the quirky quotient isn’t high like in Haydn or Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach – but what’s bizarre, and I think I have used that word specifically, in the 40th Symphony, is it an eight bar phrase or a nine bar phrase, or is it one bar of *sings* and then you get the eight bar phrase? And the whole thing is playing with metric displacement, the whole movement, yet as a listener you’re not overtly troubled by it…

ES: …but you’re subliminally troubled by it.

RT: Exactly. And I realise that is what creates this extraordinary tension in that 40th Symphony first movement, that it’s an overlapping of bars or if you look at them directly, they’re nine bar phrases that keep on happening. Six bar phrases and five bar phrases. And I realise that that – at least I believe – that that creates this internal [tension]…

ES: Here’s a question for you Richard. He is immensely popular, and joking aside about ringtones and lift music, his music is heard all over the world and it’s relished by people. So what makes it so popular? Is it that there’s a fundamental directness about it?

RT: I think it’s the opera, the operatic language that he brings into so much of his symphonic and certainly concerto writing. I mean, I hold that after the success of Mitridate and other lesser-known early operas, that he’d really sharpened his quill in opera and had enjoyed the socialising so much in Milano, because they presented the same opera maybe twelve times – I’m kind of picking a number out of the air but I vaguely remember that – and somebody had told me who’d researched the context of these operas, because I think they should be researched because the context is extraordinary. So with Venice being that great extraordinary port, lots of things were coming in including, apparently, certain types of drugs. Now apparently the dandies from all over Europe attended these operatic functions. As we know the seats looked into the hall, so they weren’t facing the stage. People talked, as we know. I’ll use the expression again – as we know, Wagner put a stop to all of that and closed the doors. People walked in and out. Once again, latrines out there, the smell would have been crazy. The clothes would have been crazy. They talked all the way through it, one reason why there are so many da capo arias just riddled through Mitridate, because people talked the first time and then ‘Oh actually that wasn’t too bad, let’s have a listen’ – who knows? So he imbibed this spirit, he wondered around in the hall, greeting people and talking during the opera, during his opera. He wasn’t there saying ‘Oh, be quiet!’

ES: But that’s why they have such social realism.

RT: Exactly. And then he goes down and he’s talking probably, I don’t know, in the pit, and then he played one night, didn’t another night, and then once he realised it was a success probably preening around the place because he was very proud and rightly so, of course. So he imbibed all this spirit and then he goes and writes things like the five violin concertos which he wrote in a flash not that long afterwards. And so I’ve got this sensation that he’s brought all this grand socialising to bear and then of course he brings it into the opera and of course, famously he brought in that little wonderful quote *sings* from a little-known opera aria that he brings into his 41st Symphony, which is one of the most extraordinary things, so I reckon it’s because of the operas. My favourite opera, and I rarely attend it because I love it so much because I don’t want this memory to be ruined, and it was a memory of when I was about eleven my father took me to see the Ingmar Bergman film of Magic Flute and for me that set the seal on my love for this work.

ES: That was a musical really, wasn’t it?

RT: It was a musical. And his collaboration with that madman who owned his theatre out there.

ES: Shickaneder.

RT: Shickaneder. I mean madman as in, it was pretty strong stuff wasn’t it, to be an entrepreneur like that, put on that, as you say, musical – and I saw a measurement for the space it was in. Have you ever seen that? It’s not much bigger, now we’re in a room maybe 10 x 15 – it was a tiny little space! Tiny little space, unless someone was playing with me. But the superrealism. And somebody’s made the point that to understand Mozart you’ve got to understand Rembrandt and Bruegel who brought superrealism to bear in art. It wasn’t, they weren’t portraying something over there and you had to go over there, no they were bringing it to you and that’s what Mozart does with his operas, doesn’t he? And to say nothing of the extraordinary roles of females that he brings. So is he bringing it all into his instrumental music? Yes and I think if you were to take the opera out of the empirical evidence that suggests Mozart’s the most popular composer, probably he wouldn’t be. But with the operas that Beethoven didn’t have and of course Bach didn’t have – except mind you there’s a wonderful book An Evening in the Palace of Reason by James Gaines, one of my favourite books, on Bach, or certain things that happened with The Musical Offering – apparently the only audience reaction that we’re left with is an old lady complaining after Matthew Passion saying ‘What is this, a comic opera?’ But yeah it’s the opera I reckon.

ES: But the other thing is of course the classicism versus the romanticism and, you know, Mozart a classical but also a very romantic composer, very dramatic composer…

RT: …and he is bringing the personal. In those last three symphonies, he must be bringing it. It’s not just, it’s not… just for the listener, we don’t know why he wrote those last three symphonies. There are plenty of theories but they should be offered humbly because we simply don’t know. But one clue to suggest that they must have been written for an occasion is… there are two – there’s some kind of a letter talking about a symphony that was performed and written specially around that time, 1788. But one thing, one really strong indication that they were written to be played or were played at the time is why would he rewrite the 40th Symphony to have clarinets? So a lot of people believe that they were written just because he wanted to write them, but he didn’t write anything else like them.

ES: One final thought Richard from a player’s point of view, because anybody you ask about performing Mozart, whether it’s pianist, violinist, conductor, they all say the same thing. They all say how easy it is to violate the perfect equilibrium of this music and how finding that golden mean is the real challenge of performing it. What do you think of that?

RT: Look I do agree. I used to hope that that was a cliché when I was a student, but you can’t argue. Yes I do believe that, it is perfectly structured. But that doesn’t mean that Bach isn’t perfectly structured, but I do believe that Bach wasn’t necessarily thinking in textures in the same way that a symphonist such as Mozart was. Like those clarinets really do mean something.

ES: It’s black magic.

RT: It is black magic, I like that, I don’t mind that at all.

Barbican: Thank you to Richard Tognetti and Edward Seckerson. Next time, Sakari Oramo, Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, joins us to talk about fellow Fin, composer Jean Sibelius. 

Until then, thanks for listening to Nothing Concrete, the Barbican podcast, designed to inspire and help more people discover and love the arts. Subscribe to Nothing Concrete on Spotify, Acast, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if possible, leave us a review, so we can more people can discover and explore the wonder that is the arts.

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