Skip links

x2 Program Notes – Carlos Simon, Wolfgang Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven

Please enjoy the program notes for tonight’s x2 Concert. These program notes were created as part of Project Resonance, the Music Academy’s unique program combining writing training with public engagement. Through this initiative, both Academy fellows and young scholars from UC Santa Barbara are given the opportunity to work on program notes and other written materials for the Summer Festival. *** CARLOS SIMON Warmth from Other Suns
“I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns and, perhaps, to bloom.” Richard Wright, Black Boy (1945) 2021 Sphinx Medal of Excellence recipient, Georgetown University faculty member, and Kennedy Center Composer-in-Residence Carlos Simon is no stranger to the concert stage. With commissions coming from the Philadelphia Orchestra, Washington National Opera, the American Composers Orchestra, and Morehouse College, one would be forgiven for assuming that his music might be somehow elevated from everyday experiences, and that his Atlanta, Georgia roots might be perhaps forsaken entirely in favor of more metropolitan inspirations. But Simon’s works for string quartet, such as his often-played 2015 work Elegy and his three-movement work, Warmth from Other Suns—from which the first movement, Rays of Light, is taken from and played today—reveal a truth: his music is in conversation with a particular Black and Southern experience, and that his oeuvre interfaces with the realities of the current day.
Commissioned originally by the Sphinx Organization, the Red Shoe Company, and the Vermont Symphony as a one-movement work and later expanded into its current form, Warmth from Other Suns draws immediate inspiration from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Howard alumna Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, a historical study of the Great Migration. Written in the form of ethnographies, it details three individuals’ journeys from the South to various cities that would soon become identified with nexuses of Black excellence and culture: Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. Wilkerson drew inspiration from lines in writer Richard Wright’s own memoir about growing up Black in the South—the aptly named Black Boy excerpted at the beginning of this program note—both for a title and in content, but moves beyond the question posed in Wright’s words into a form of answer. In a similar vein, the double ekphrasis that Simon engages in begins to answer the call—what could grow in more fertile soil, many generations removed now from sharecropping and the antebellum South, and in an art form that even now continues to be wrested open by composers and performers of color? Marked “With emotion” and with a seemingly simplistic metronome marking of 60 to the quarter notes, Rays of Light works often with the eponymous palette—flickering and prismatic motions of false harmonics, arpeggios, and loping dotted figures stalk across the landscape. Even without knowing the history, one might easily imagine a physical journey in this work, traveling light through terrain unfamiliar and often precarious. And in the context of the Black diaspora within the United States, a whole narrative is illuminated, one that draws from and responds to the culture it was birthed in. – Jay Julio Academy fellow, viola
WOLFGANG MOZART String Quintet in C Minor It is the origin of Mozart’s String Quintet in C Minor that differentiates it historically from his five other string quintets, specifically that it did not start life as a string quintet, at all, but rather as a wind serenade written for the conventional woodwind ensemble of two oboes, two clarinets, two horns, and two bassoons. Mystery surrounds its genesis and it is unknown why or for whom Mozart wrote this work. This piece is written in the typical four movement fashion and is particularly unusual for the genre of a serenade. Known for being light and festive music, Mozart has seemingly defenestrated the serenade’s usual characteristics in favor of a more dark, serious, complex work.
Titled Serenade No. 12 ‘Nachtmusik’, Mozart originally wrote this piece shortly after arriving in Vienna in 1781. After famously being ‘kicked out on his backside’, Mozart left his job in Salzburg as a court musician and sought to bolster his career by relocating to Vienna, much to his father’s displeasure. It was here in this historic city that Mozart would be introduced to new musical and Enlightenment ideals, collaborating with other famous contemporaries and honing his compositional skills. In this roaring artistic hub of a city, Mozart would write Nachtmusik among many other famous compositions at the beginning of his time in Vienna; however, it would not be until 1787–six years later— that Mozart would arrange it for string quintet. Intriguingly enough, he did not include the new arrangement in his own personal catalogue. This disparity for Mozart was jarring, considering this was a time when he was obsessively cataloguing his works. Scholars speculate that the reason for Mozart’s fixation with record keeping is a result of two confrontations with mortality—the death of his firstborn son Raimund in 1783 and a severe illness characterized by fever, cramps, vomiting, and terrible perspiration that he himself contracted in August of 1784. Furthermore, Mozart’s induction to the Masonic order in early November of the same year as an apprentice was instrumental in helping him acknowledging his own mortality. With the birth of his catalogue and his new Masonic apprenticeship as “manifestations of his concern”, it feels atypical that Mozart would exclude a work-turned-arrangement from his personal catalogue, especially when he wrote the arrangement for string quintet. Hence, the question of genre and instrumentation arises with this particular piece: does Mozart’s treatment of his own arrangement merit looser performance practice? Indeed, it seems that many people agree, since the string quintet arrangement is often done with an oboe substitute instead of the first violin. This would normally be highly unusual and against performance practice to substitute any instrument for chamber music of this type. However, the combination of this piece’s origin as a wind serenade and Mozart’s blasé treatment of the quintet seems to allow for an exception to the normal rules. From wind serenade to string quintet, the diminution from eight to five parts does lose some of its “orchestral beauties and timbral contrasts,” but the inclusion of an oboe in the string version contrasts this notion and reintroduces some of the original soundscape into the string arrangement. Regardless of the instrumentation, this piece sounds harmoniously in either form and Mozart’s natural brilliance and charm are showcased in this dark yet charismatic work. – Nina Pitts Academy fellow, cello
LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN Piano Trio in D Major, Op. 70 “Ghost” Energy was always my first impression when I heard or learned Beethoven’s music—it is what makes Beethoven particularly recognizable. Being portraited as a grumpy, bad-tempered man, the energy in his music was often described to me as his endless anger towards his deafness. Yet the “Ghost” trio left me pondering ever since I first learned it many years ago. The trio is so rich in its texture and color, filled with diverse emotions – from exuberant and joyful to gloomy and eerie. Why is the infuriated Beethoven of his Fifth Symphony (which was only written a year earlier than this trio) suddenly nowhere to be found? Perhaps this dramatic stylistic change in Beethoven’s music can be comprehended by looking at his life experiences. Ludwig van Beethoven was given very high expectations from his strict father from a very young age, and by his twenties, he had already become a renowned piano virtuoso and started composing music for publishing. Beethoven adhered to the classical traditions but also sought to develop his own unique character. His music was virtuosic and confident, fully displaying his talent and ambition. He was making a good living by performing and composing, and people were beginning to notice this bright new star. However, his world was torn apart when he began noticing his hearing loss.
Beethoven felt hopeless. His career as a piano virtuoso was shattered into pieces. He had lost the most crucial skill of a musician—how can someone do music without hearing it? In 1802 he had written a letter for his brothers known as the Heiligenstadt Testament. It is evident that Beethoven thought of ending his life as he instructed the letter “to be executed after his death,” but he also added, “It was only my art that held me back. Oh, it seemed impossible for me to leave this world before I had produced all that I felt capable of producing…” He needed a reason to stay alive and endure all the pain in his life. Beethoven started pursuing a heroic style during this time, because he needed to be heroic just to live and work. His music was triumphant and resolute, but also frantic, fierce, and furious. He was struggling to navigate both his life and his music. Beethoven gradually forfeited his career as a performer and transitioned to solely composing. He had been staying with sponsors that provided financial support for his career. Dedicated to the art that he “felt capable of producing,” Beethoven started to embrace the fact that he was deaf. He began exploring a more intimate and delicate style in contrast to the heroic one he was pursuing before. He also began revisiting genres that he had put aside years earlier—he wrote a new cello sonata (opus 69) for the first time in 11 years, as well as two new piano trios (opus 70), the first since opus 1, his very first published works. The first trio’s nickname, “Ghost,” came from a remark by Carl Czerny, one of Beethoven’s most talented pupils. Czerny noted that the eerie second movement of the trio reminded him of the ghost in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Czerny’s idea of a Shakespeare-related reference was perhaps close to what Beethoven might have imagined. Sketches of a chorus of witches from an unfinished opera based on a different Shakespeare play, Macbeth, were found to have shared elements with the slow movement of the trio.
Beethoven’s ingenuity in this piece never fails to amaze me, as he completely redesigned the balance between the three instruments. The cello does not simply double the pianist’s left hand or play an uninteresting bass line. The violin sometimes accompanies other parts while preserving its extraordinarily singing voice. The piano separates both hands to join the string instruments, as if the piano trio has been transformed into a quasi-string quartet with unprecedented diversity and layering. With this work, Beethoven elevated the piano trio from an amateur-oriented genre to something professional and artistic. The “Ghost” trio was a pivotal work for Beethoven. He had ended his pursuit of a heroic figure and started to reconcile with his fate that he once resentfully rejected. Later in his life, Beethoven would compose some of the most intimate, introspective, and philosophical music, known and admired by succeeding generations as his late style, resulting in the blossoming of the wondrous Romantic period of the 19th century Europe. – Hsin-Hao Yang Academy fellow, solo piano

Leave a comment



One of the most valuable benefits of subscribing is early access to our signature special events.
You must be logged into your account to gain early access.

Once logged in, if you have access to book the subscriber early-access event below, you will be prompted to choose your seats. Otherwise, you will be able to book this event on the single ticket on-sale date.