Last night Corey Jamason and Elisabeth Reed, co-Directors of the Conservatory Baroque Ensemble at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, arranged a student recital of the vocal works of Haydn and Mozart. (As Jamason pointed out in his introduction, one had to be careful in using the plural. The program consisted of eighteen compositions by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and only one by Joseph Haydn.) The recital was the result of a study of performance practices, a major priority of the Conservatory Baroque Ensemble; so it was somewhat of an exercise in taking scholarly approaches to the Baroque period and moving them up into the Classical period.
The practices receiving the most attention were ornamentation and rhythmic freedom. Considerable attention was given when a score was later amended with written-out embellishments; and, in one particular case (K. 294, “Non, sò d’onde viene”), those embellishments were provided by Mozart himself. However, there were definitely indications of settings in which ornamentation and rhythmic variation were products of improvisation “in the moment” of performance (or, at least, “in the moment” of rehearsal and ultimately refined for performance).
These practices tended to suggest that the Classical period was continuing the Baroque preference for the singer over the song, at least in secular settings in which the top priority of the audience tended to be entertainment. Nevertheless, there was one particular instance on the program in which the song itself deserved primary attention, Mozart’s K. 476, “Das Veilchen.” This was composed in 1785 and can hold its own alongside the operatic efforts of the mature Mozart to use song to penetrate the depths of the human heart. K. 476 is also distinguished as his only setting of a text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, which originated in a libretto Goethe had prepared for the singspiel Erwin und Elmire, with music by Duchess Anna Amalia of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, which was first performed at the Weimar Court Theatre in May of 1776. (As I observed when writing about this song in a post on my Rehearsal Studio blog, the inspiration for this singspiel was a ballad included in Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield. That post also includes the full German text of the song, along with a line-by-line translation.)
What distinguished K. 476 in last night’s program is that the text is fundamentally narrative, rather than providing a reflection on an event or situation. It is also highly metaphorical, since the violet of the title basically assumes the role of a spurned lover, who meets a tragic death (a “floral Werther,” if you wish). Thus, in terms of performance practice, priority must shift to the unfolding of that narrative at the pace set by the poet, rather than exploiting particular phrases for their potential for melodic and rhythmic embellishment.
Goethe structured this narrative formally as three sestets, which would have made for a nice metric ballad in its original staging; but Mozart’s approach was far more discursive, focusing on highlighting the words that endowed greatest significance to the action. Furthermore, Mozart enhanced the ironic conclusion of Goethe’s narrative (the violet happy to be crushed to death by the foot of the lovely maiden, unaware of what she did) with a coda that repeats two critical phrases from the poem, now set in a different context to stress that irony. This song is a double marvel: that Goethe could pack such a powerful narrative into so few lines of text and that Mozart could deliver that narrative so powerfully.