Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (A Little Night Music) is by far one of Mozart’s most popular compositions. But our over-familiarity with it still does not detract from its freshness and perfection. It was completed on 10 August 1787, and in an indication of Mozart’s genius and ability to ‘multi-task’, while he was in the midst of writing Act Two his somber opera Don Giovanni. This has led many, notably the musicologist Alfred Einstein, to speculate that Mozart wrote this delightful serenade (originally written for ‘2 violins, viola, cello and double bass’ so with perhaps a string quintet or a string orchestra in mind) to ‘cleanse his musical palate’ from the opera or the Musical Joke (Ein Musikalischer Spass) he had written six weeks before.

Nor is there any record of the specific occasion or patron the work might have been written for. Mozart, ever in need of money, wrote light pieces such as these on commission, to be played at social events where music often served a background to banter, food and drink. The fact that he gave this a German title rather than the customary Italian suggests it was meant for personal use.

We know it today as a four-movement composition, but there was an additional Minuet after the opening Allegro, which was inexplicably excised at some point. Nevertheless, the four movements that remain are a superb showcase for Mozart’s capacity to elevate simple ideas into the realm of the sublime. Where Mozart’s Musical Joke cocks a snook at the composition rule book, in Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, each movement is a virtual textbook example of the various ‘forms’ in music composition: the Allegro is a wonderful demonstration of sonata form. It opens with an idea which is simplicity itself: the basic notes of the tonic G major triad (G-B-D) and its dominant seventh (D- F sharp –A-C) is taken along avenues and bylanes that only Mozart’s genius could conceive. The gentle Romanza ia vintage Mozart, and its central C minor episode offers the only ‘cloud’ in an otherwise entirely ‘sunny’ work. The third and fourth movements are a Menuetto and Trio and an exuberant rondo finale, which begins with a ‘Mannheim rocket’, a rapidly rising theme first brought into vogue by composers of the Mannheim school.

The Death and the Maiden string quartet gets its sobriquet from a song (or lied in German) composed by Schubert “Der Tod und das Mädchen” (“Death and the Maiden”) in 1817, which sets to music the text of a poem of the same name by Matthias Claudius. The piano accompaniment of this song is used in the second movement (a Theme and Variations) of the quartet. The poem is in effect a dialogue between the young woman and Death. The woman is terrified and urges Death (“fierce man of bones”) to pass her by, as she is still young. And Death’s chilling yet placid response is “Give me your hand, you tender and beautiful form! I am a friend, and come not to punish. Be of good cheer! I am not fierce; softly shall you sleep in my arms.”

It is the sort of subject that would have appealed to Schubert, particularly at this point in his life. He was very ill in 1823, possibly due to tertiary syphilis. His finances were at their lowest ebb, after the failure of his opera Fierabras, and a deal with the publisher Diabelli went awry.

In a letter to his friend Leopold Kupelwieser in 1824 he writes: “I feel myself to be the most unfortunate, the most miserable being in the world. Think of a man whose health will never be right again, and who from despair over the fact makes it worse instead of better, think of a man, I say, whose splendid hopes have come to naught, to whom the happiness of love and friendship offers nothing but acutest pain, whose enthusiasm (at least, the inspiring kind) for the Beautiful threatens to disappear, and ask yourself whether he isn’t a miserable, unfortunate fellow…. Each night when I go to sleep I hope never again to wake, and each morning merely reminds me of the misery of yesterday.”

The association with death is perceptible in the whole work. The first movement, which begins with explosive force, a descending figure played in unison by all instruments, seems to depict almost programmatically the struggle with death, according to musicologist Walter Wilson Cobbett, while the second movement dwells on Death’s words (only Death’s section of Schubert’s lied is used in the quartet). The mood of foreboding lifts very briefly in the third movement a Scherzo, but hardly in the light-hearted nature of a scherzo in its usual sense. And the last movement (Presto) is a tarantella, a dance to stave off insanity and death.

Programme Notes © Dr Luis Dias