Symphony no.6 in G major op.3
How can one rebel against one’s father when that father happens to be a genius? If, what’s more, he works in the same field, the younger man is trapped. This dilemma cannot have been an easy one for Johann Christian Bach, the eighteenth of twenty children that we know of, who along with many of his brothers was pushed towards a musical career. As if to underline his own self-sufficiency, the younger Bach did not do this by halves: he went to Italy at the age of twenty, a country Bach had never visited at the time, wrote three operas there – a genre Bach never worked in – and, in order to land the position of second organist at the cathedral of Milan (Duomo), renounced the Lutheran tradition, such a fundamental tradition of the family, and converted to Catholicism. The word ‘punk’ had of course not yet been created, but from his father’s point of view, it would have been appropriate. So much so that he cursed ‘My Christian is a very foolish child, which is the reason why he will achieve success in life.’
The phrase was indelicate, but not inaccurate: for two decades, the ‘very foolish child’ was a prominent figure in the London musical and theatrical scene, where he earned the nickname ‘the London Bach’, as well as the protection of the Queen (Charlotte, wife of George III), whose musical master he became. He also conducted many concerts and numerous operas, which were rapturous received from Mannheim to Paris. Johann never sought to deny his thirst for glory, giving himself the name John in London and Giovanni in Milan, and declaring ‘I compose to live’ – as if as a retort to those who criticised his lack of depth. The cherry on the cake, as the musicologist Marc Vignal observes, was that ‘he was the only one of his brothers to assiduously cultivate the galant style, and the only one never to give a performance of one of his father’s works’. Johann Christian’s œuvre, in this context, was heavily influenced by the Italian tradition, which drew little distinction between the symphony and the operatic overture, both of which tended to consist of three movements, in the pattern fast–slow–fast. The same can be said of his Symphony no.6, whose voluptuous rococo style beguiles the listener from the very outset, and whose sparkling finale takes us almost into the sphere of Le nozze di Figaro.
There we have it: if the ways of the Lord remain impenetrable, can we not say that some people are put in earth to act, and others to reveal? For in 1764, ‘John’ met a certain Wolfgang, aged eight, whom he instructed in composition for five months. Vignal remarks, with a delicious sense of inversion, that the adult Bach ‘made a strong and permanent impression on the boy Mozart’. In fact, as we listen to this refined symphony, is it not difficult to resist the impression of those bold, brilliant melodies, whose smile is suddenly clouded by a passing storm, that are so characteristic of some of Mozart’s divertimentos? According to legend, J.C. Bach’s death was mourned only by his creditors. The legend omits to mention his former pupil was moved to say ‘Bach is no more; what a loss to the whole musical world!’ The Salzburg prodigy knew how much he owed to the pre-classical technique – so noble and accomplished – of this younger Bach. Others might have added ‘Alas, a man without true genius…’ But can one hold it against him that he was neither a second Bach, nor another Mozart?
Violin Concerto no.3 in G major K216
Symphony no.20 K133
Even true geniuses have to pit themselves against their fathers – which might lead us to the thought that rebellion and genius are indeed two distinct qualities. This is the crux of the letter Wolfgang wrote to Leopold in 1778: ‘I insist on only one thing in Salzburg: not to be restricted to the violin, as I have been previously. I want to conduct and accompany arias on the piano.’ For in a family, everything is symbolic: in this letter, Mozart isn’t only asserting his preference for the piano; he is rejecting his father’s favourite instrument. But the current concerto, from 1775, dates from before Wolfgang’s declaration of independence: here he constructs the work according to the template of the galant style, which another guiding light in Mozart’s musical development, Johann Christian Bach, would himself not have disavowed. But where we see a kind of late Baroque sensibility seeking carefree harmonies and the predominance of pleasure, we can be astonished at the inexhaustible creativity and the depths of this score of Mozart which, between two flowery curtains, combines all the poles of expression, presenting the audience from the beginning of the violin solo with a rhetoric as expressively intense as it is minimalistic; worthy, indeed, of J.S. Bach’s Chaconne. The cantilena of the Adagio continues this blend of gratefulness and unease, this apparent facility of Mozartian writing that truly teems with magic tricks. Even the Rondo, in the garb or a village dance, gives the violin a series of memorable cavalcades – albeit decidedly wayward ones, as conceived by the pen of Leopold’s precocious son.
Precocious: we should remember that half of Mozart’s symphonies are works of his youth, before adulthood. The one that brings this programme to a close was written by an artist aged sixteen and a half; it exudes the influence of Joseph Haydn, from whom his fellow Austrian borrows a number of themes from his 41st symphony. Rarely performed, this Symphony no.20 abounds in ideas and freshness: let us think, to give one example, of the exquisite song of the flute in the Andante. All the potential of Mozart to come is contained within these staves.
Translation: Saul Lipetz