Before his premature death at the age of 35, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed some of the world’s most enduring music. Three of those signature pieces will be performed by the Aiken Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Maestro Donald Portnoy at a special matinee concert on Saturday, Nov. 24.
The program is scheduled to begin with one of the composer’s most popular works of sacred music, the high-spirited “Exultate Jubilate” (“Rejoice, Be Glad”). Set to a Latin text, this short vocal motet (a term derived from the French for “word”) was composed by Mozart in 1773 when he was a very precocious teenager. “Let the heavens sing forth welcome” reads part of the text, which also implores the Virgin Mary to “console our feelings” and bring us peace.
Mozart was in Milan at the time, supervising the debut for one of his operas when he first heard the celebrated Italian castrato Venanzio Ranzzini. Almost immediately Mozart decided to compose a piece for Ranzzini, who was a major star not only for his extraordinary vocal range but also for his imposing stage presence. There has long been some debate about whether Ranzzini had actually been castrated before puberty in order to preserve his unbroken voice or whether he suffered from an endocrinal condition that prevented his vocal cords from thickening with adulthood. The fact that he carried on numerous affairs with his adoring female fans offers evidence of the latter.
Prepubescent castration for musical purposes is now thankfully a practice of the past, so the Nov. 24 performance of “Exultate Jubilate” will feature soprano Diana Amos, who had a distinguished career in the opera houses of Germany before taking up a faculty position at Columbia College.
Two other soloists will share the spotlight during the second piece scheduled for the upcoming concert, flutist Wendy Cohen and harpist Vonda Darr, who both sometimes perform as the Duo Venandi. They will be featured in one of Mozart’s two double concertos: in this case, the “Concerto for Flute and Harp.” Mozart wrote the piece in 1778 while he was in temporary residence in Paris where he had been employed to tutor the daughter of Adrien-Louis de Bonnieres, Duc de Guines.
The duke, an amateur flutist, is perhaps best known for a quote that underscores the centuries’ old antipathy between the English and the French. While ambassador to the Court of St. James, De Bonnieres was asked during a typically foggy day in London about the reason why a cannon was fired at noon. “I think that they have sighted the sun” was his reply.
In addition to his witty repartee, which made him a favorite of Marie-Antoinette, the duke is also remembered for his having failed to honor his financial obligation to Mozart. De Bonnieres never remunerated the composer for his three-movement concerto; in addition, he ended up paying Mozart only half of what he promised him for tutoring his daughter.
Poor Wolfgang Amadeus! Skinflint aristocrats just added to the financial worries that were to plague him during most of his adult life and especially during his final years. Indeed, worry over money is said to be one of the reasons why Mozart’s “Symphony No. 40” was written in a minor key, most consonant with a mood of anxiety and strain.
Written in 1788, the so-called “great G minor symphony” has often been associated with the “sturm and drang” (“storm and stress”) aspect of early Romanticism. It has often been argued that the Germans gave birth to Romanticism, which then migrated west to Great Britain and then to America. Certainly it is true, for example, that the predicament of the title character in Goethe’s 1774 novel “The Sorrows of Werther,” a socially isolated individual whose overwrought emotional state colors his worldview, is echoed in the mental state of so many of Poe’s hyper-sensitive narrators.
However fashionable the artistic stance labeled “sturm and drang” might have been during the late 18th century, there can be no doubt that Mozart wrote his 40th symphony when he was still mourning the death of his daughter, Theresia, and fretting over his mounting debt. This work, which is set to provide a dramatic conclusion to the upcoming concert, resonates with inner struggle.
To purchase tickets for “Amadeus and Friends” at 3 p.m. on Nov. 24 at St. John’s United Methodist Church in downtown Aiken or the highly anticipated performance of Handel’s “Messiah” on Dec. 10 at St. Mary’s Help of Christians Catholic Church, visit the Aiken Symphony Orchestra website or call 803-220-7251.