Programme notes

 © Thomas Radice

The City of London Choir’s new series of concerts with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra couples the three major choral works by Mozart (the Requiem, the ‘Great C Minor’ Mass and the Coronation Mass) with the three mature concertos by Mendelssohn (Piano Concertos No 1 in G minor and No 2 in D minor, and the Violin Concerto).

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) and Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847) can be seen as milestones in European music’s transition from eighteenth-century classicism to nineteenth-century romanticism, with Haydn (1732–1809) and Beethoven (1770–1827) bridging the two. If Mozart had, like Haydn, lived into his seventies, he would have overlapped with Mendelssohn’s exceptionally creative early years and (who knows) might have exercised some influence on the young composer’s emerging style. As it is, it is hard to discern any direct Mozartian influences on Mendelssohn; but they have one thing in common (which they share with Beethoven and some later nineteenth-century Germano-Austrian composers) – a deep admiration for JS Bach, particularly for his choral music and other music associated with the church.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg to a musical family. His father Leopold was a minor composer and well-known violin teacher. From an early age the young Mozart showed signs of a prodigious musical talent. By the age of five he could read and write music, and he would entertain people on the keyboard. At six he was writing his first compositions. By general consent Mozart was considered to be an exceptionally rare musical genius.

From the age of seven Mozart spent much of his childhood on tour, often with his elder sister Nannerl, paraded by their father before potential patrons and academic and professional musicians. Between June 1763, five months after his seventh birthday, and November 1766, the Mozart family visited no fewer than ten German cities, as well as Brussels, Paris (where they dined with Louis XV at Versailles) and London. After a year in England, they returned to Salzburg via Holland, Paris and Switzerland. But they were not to stop for long. After barely a year at home, they were on tour again, this time journeying to Vienna (where both children caught smallpox) and Moravia, returning home in January 1769. Mozart was just 13 years old.

It was an extremely abnormal childhood: no real home life; constantly on the move, composing or performing in different places; much affected by illness; constantly on display; and always in the company of adults. Inevitably it had an impact on the young Mozart and his subsequent development as composer and musician – and on his physical and mental health in the latter stages of his short life.

Before being taken on his first tour, Mozart had already laid the firm foundations of his technique, learning from the collections of more than 100 keyboard works, mostly by North German composers such as Telemann and CPE Bach, that his father had assembled for him and Nannerl to study. Not surprisingly their influence is to be found in Mozart’s earliest works, and North German seriousness (including traces of the great JS Bach) would become an important feature of his mature style. But it was during his visit to London that the eight-year-old Mozart met Johann Sebastian’s youngest son Johann Christian (1735–1782), with whom he would form a life-long friendship. JC Bach had spent much of his earlier life in Italy, mastering the Italian style, and had since established himself in London with a successful series of concerts at the fashionable Vauxhall Gardens. His Italianate style had a profound and lasting impact on Mozart.

From the many encounters on his travels Mozart became a great mimic of men and music. By the age of 13, he had already composed a little one-act opera, Bastien and Bastienne, modelled on the sort of French comic operas he had heard in Paris. It was the seed from which grew Mozart’s ambition to create German opera, later realised with Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782) and Die Zauberflöte (1791). To hone his operatic skills and establish his reputation, Mozart visited Italy three times between 1769 and 1773, performing in most of the major cities, including Milan, Rome, Naples, Bologna and Florence, where he became friendly with just about the only child he ever had dealings with as an equal – the English composer Thomas Linley the younger (1756–1778).

In Rome he famously broke the Vatican’s ban on publishing Allegri’s Miserere by memorising it after twice hearing it sung in the Sistine Chapel and later writing it down. In Bologna he took lessons in counterpoint from the great contrapuntist, Father Martini. The lessons proved beneficial: after passing a gruelling examination, Mozart was elected a member of the distinguished Accademia Filarmonica di Bologna. In his compositions he was now able to combine contrapuntal rigour with Italian gracefulness.

After finally returning with his father from Italy, Mozart was employed as a court musician by the ruler of Salzburg, Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo. Despite some musical success there, Mozart grew increasingly discontented with Salzburg and his overbearing employer, and started looking seriously for a position elsewhere. One reason was his low salary; but he also longed to compose operas, and Salzburg provided only rare occasions for these.

Whilst Mozart’s tours of Italy were outstandingly successful, trips with his father to Vienna and Munich in 1773 and 1774/75 were less so. In 1777 he resigned from his post in Salzburg and travelled with his mother to Paris in September that year. Paris was a disaster: Mozart fell into debt and took to pawning valuables. Then in July 1778 his mother suddenly fell ill and died, leaving him to fend for himself. Mozart was a poor businessman and now that he was no longer a child prodigy, he struggled to survive.

Of the few commissions that came his way in Paris, some were unpaid, others went unperformed. His only public success in Paris was the so-called ‘Paris’ Symphony, No 31 in D, the fruit of a commission. Before its first performance, he wrote to his father: ‘Whether it will please, I do not know, and to tell the truth I care very little. I guarantee that it will please the few intelligent French people present … As for the stupid ones, I see no great misfortune in not pleasing them.’

Not long after his return from Paris, Mozart decided in 1781 to move to Vienna to seek better and more lucrative opportunities for composing and performing. The next year he married Constanze Weber (against the wishes of his family); they had six children but only two survived infancy. From now on he cut down on travelling and focused on a career as a piano soloist and writer of concertos. In the course of 1782 and 1783, Mozart became familiar in depth with the works of JS Bach and Handel, as a result of the influence of Gottfried van Swieten (1733–1803), a Dutch-born Austrian diplomat, who owned many manuscripts of the Baroque masters. Mozart’s study of these scores inspired him to incorporate elements of Baroque style in various compositions and came to influence his personal musical language more extensively, for instance in fugal passages in The Magic Flute and the finale of his last Symphony, the Jupiter (No 41 in C major, 1788).

From 1782 to 1785 Mozart mounted concerts with himself as soloist, presenting three or four new piano concertos in each season. Since space in the theatres was scarce, he booked unconventional venues: a large room in the Trattnerhof (an apartment building), and the ballroom of the Mehlgrube (a restaurant). The concertos were very popular and have enjoyed enduring places in the repertoire ever since.

With substantial returns from his concerts and elsewhere, Mozart and his wife adopted a lavish lifestyle, moving into an expensive apartment. Mozart bought a fine new fortepiano and billiard table, both of them costly items. The Mozarts sent their son Karl Thomas to an expensive boarding school and kept servants. There was little scope for saving and the short period of financial success failed to cushion them against the hardship they were later to suffer.

Despite the great success of Die Entführung aus dem Serail in 1782, Mozart did little operatic writing for the next four years, producing only two unfinished works and the one-act Der Schauspieldirektor. But towards the end of 1785 he moved away from keyboard writing and began his famous operatic collaboration with the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. 1786 saw the successful première of The Marriage of Figaro in Vienna. Its reception in Prague later in the year was even warmer; this led to a second collaboration with Da Ponte in Don Giovanni, which appeared in October 1787, again in Prague to considerable acclaim but with less success in Vienna the next year.

In December 1787 Mozart finally obtained a steady post under royal patronage. Emperor Joseph II appointed him as his ‘chamber composer’, a post that had fallen vacant the previous month on the death of Gluck. It was a part-time appointment, at a modest salary, and required Mozart only to compose dances for the annual balls in the Redoutensaal. The modest income became important to Mozart when hard times arrived. Court records show that Joseph’s aim was to discourage him from leaving Vienna in pursuit of better prospects.

Despite his relative fame, from his marriage up to his death Mozart struggled to manage his finances and moved between periods of poverty and prosperity. By now his circumstances had markedly worsened. After 1786 he had ceased to appear frequently in public concerts and his income shrank. This was a difficult time for musicians in Vienna because of the Austro-Turkish War: both the general level of prosperity and the ability of the aristocracy to support music had declined.

In the last few years of his life Mozart seemed increasingly restless and the family frequently moved from house to house. By mid-1788 they moved from central Vienna to the suburb of Alsergrund. This may have been partly to reduce rent burdens but also to get more space for his growing family. In fact his expenses did not significantly reduce: Mozart began to borrow money, mostly from a friend and fellow freemason Michael Puchberg; a sequence of letters pleading for loans survives.It has been suggested that Mozart was during this time suffering from depression, perhaps reflected by a slowing down in his output of compositions. Nevertheless some outstanding works emerged: the last three symphonies (Nos 39, 40 and 41), all in 1788; and the last of the three Da Ponte operas, Così fan tutte, in 1790.

Around this time, Mozart made some long journeys hoping to improve his fortunes: to Leipzig, Dresden and Berlin in the spring of 1789 and to Frankfurt, Mannheim and other German cities in 1790. The trips produced only sporadic success and did not relieve the family’s financial distress.

In the last year of his life, he composed the opera The Magic Flute, the final piano concerto (No 27 in B flat, K 595), the Clarinet Concerto (K 622), a string quintet (K 614 in E flat), the famous motet Ave verum corpus (K 618) and the unfinished Requiem (K 626).


Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy 1809–1847

Felix Mendelssohn was born into a wealthy family. His father, Abraham, was a banker, and was the son of the Jewish philosopher and leading figure of the Enlightenment, Moses Mendelssohn. Abraham was only ten when Moses died, but grew up in the same tradition of Jewish liberalism, many of whose members were committed to combating narrow religious orthodoxy; some even went so far as to have themselves baptized. When the official emancipation of Jews in Germany in 1812 failed to rid the country of anti-Semitism, Abraham did not see any conflict in protecting his children by having them baptized in 1816 and given a Christian education. Felix Mendelssohn adhered to the Lutheran faith until his death.

In 1821, when Felix was twelve years old, he was taken by his music teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter, to meet Zelter’s friend Goethe, who in 1763 had heard Mozart play at the age of seven. Zelter asked Goethe’s opinion of the boy’s talents. Goethe replied that ‘what this little man can do in extemporizing and playing at sight borders on the miraculous, and I could not have believed it possible at so early an age. … What your pupil has already accomplished bears the same relation to the Mozart of that time as the cultivated talk of an adult bears to the prattle of a child.’

Felix’s parents fully recognised their son’s exceptional gifts, and spared no expense to have them fully encouraged and developed. As well as ensuring that he was taught by the best teachers, they organised a small orchestra to perform his works for the intellectual élite of Berlin, who frequently met at their house. The boy Mendelssohn composed prolifically: between the ages of twelve and fourteen he wrote twelve string symphonies, and at the age of fifteen he wrote his first symphony for full orchestra (in C minor, Opus 11). Only two years later he wrote the delightful overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

He was also gifted in several other fields. He was a skilled artist in pencil and watercolour, and spoke French, English and Italian fluently. His adult life was happy in many ways: he had a successful marriage and fathered five children, he had close relationships with all his family, his musical career went from strength to strength, and he was liked and admired by all who met him. His early death came after a series of strokes; these ran in the family but in his case may have been brought on by overwork.

Mendelssohn’s musical tastes were conservative. Although by no means immune to contemporary Romantic trends, he remained firmly rooted in the Austro-German tradition represented by Bach, Handel, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert. From his earliest years his music emerged as exquisitely crafted and capable of a wide range of expression and emotion. But it never pushed the boundaries of harmony and form in the way some of his contemporaries did – notably Berlioz (born in 1803), Chopin (1810), Schumann (1810) and Liszt (1811).

A landmark in Mendelssohn’s early career was when, in 1829 as a mere 20-year old, he arranged and conducted the first performance of the St Matthew Passion since Bach’s death in 1750. The success of this played an important part in the revival of Bach’s music, and earned him widespread acclaim. Mendelssohn himself commented that ‘it took … a Jew’s son (Judensohn) to revive the greatest Christian music for the world.’ He also helped to reawaken German interest in Handel’s music when, four years later, he conducted a performance of Israel in Egypt. In 1835 he was appointed musical director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. He also worked with the choir of St Thomas’s Church, Leipzig, of which Bach had been Kapellmeister for nearly thirty years.

Mendelssohn visited Britain ten times. His first visit was in 1829, when a trip to the island of Staffa in the Inner Hebrides inspired him to write his famous overture The Hebrides (commonly known as Fingal’s Cave). On subsequent visits he met and became good friends with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who greatly admired his music and did much to encourage its popularity in Victorian England. In Germany, however, attacks on him began soon after his death. Wagner, in a notorious article of 1850 Das Judenthum in der Musik (‘Jewishness in Music’), attacked Mendelssohn’s music as ‘sweet and tinkling, without depth.’ This marked the beginning of a progressive denigration of Mendelssohn, on racial as well as musical grounds, culminating in the Nazis’ attempts to obliterate his place in German cultural history, along with that of other Jewish writers, artists and musicians.

Even in Britain Mendelssohn – having been considered in the 1860s as worthy of a place on the Albert Memorial among the truly great composers – slowly fell out of fashion, reaching his nadir perhaps by the 1940s and 1950s. In particular his choral music (mainly for the church) suffered a near-total eclipse, the only significant exception being the oratorio Elijah (1846).

It is a tragedy that public perception of Mendelssohn became so warped by extremes of uncritical admiration in his lifetime and of ideologically motivated opprobrium after his death. By the first half of the 20th century, the stereotypical images of Mendelssohn that had emerged during the previous century bore little relation to the intrinsic merits of his music or any objective understanding of his place in the musical life and wider culture of Europe in the 1830s and 1840s. With the perspective of time, he can now be seen as an outstandingly versatile composer and a person of humanity – not for nothing was he the grandson of one of the leading figures of the Enlightenment, growing up in a milieu that stressed the values of tolerance and reason. This set him on a very different path from that followed by Wagner and his devotees.

Of all the romantic-era composers of choral music, Mendelssohn, along with Brahms, Bruckner and even Verdi, had perhaps the deepest understanding of the techniques of the great Renaissance and Baroque church composers like Palestrina and Bach. His settings of religious texts for large and small vocal ensembles have rightly been the subject of reappraisal in our time and now attract a level of esteem comparable to that which works such as the Violin Concerto, the orchestral symphonies and his considerable output of fine chamber music have long enjoyed. The City of London Choir and the RPO contributed to this reappraisal with an all-Mendelssohn concert in the Barbican Hall on 5 April 2011.