Thursday, January 18, 2018


Context is so important. For those of you that know my thoughts on pedagogy, context is very similar to the "Harmonic Underpinning" aspect of my pedagogical model.  When we have context and/or harmonic underpinning, everything makes more sense.  We are not playing in a vacuum.  With context, we play with a sense of greater understanding and investment.  I believe that as educators, most of us really understand this.  But, it is easy to leave it out or move quickly past it.  We can't.  We must continually provide our students with the "why?" of the work we do and the lessons we assign.  Learning without context is pretty hollow.

For those of us that lead orchestras, it is absolutely vital that we provide context music that we play. Lots of pedagogical repertoire even provides explanations of the composition on the inside cover of the score.  This might include the story behind the piece, pedagogical priorities, and other composers notes.  But,  this wasn't the case in the time of Mozart, Haydn, or Beethoven.  My Orchestra is currently working on Mozart's Symphony No. 41, "Jupiter." We had been working on this piece for about four weeks leading up to the holidays. For the last rehearsal before winter break, I decided to take some time and outline the context of the piece.  I wanted the students to understand many of the intricacies of the composition and the wonderful little secrets that within the piece.

My remarks that day included things as basic as the date of composition (1788), other works that were composed the same year (Symphonies 39 and 40, as well as piano trios in E major (K. 542), and C major (K. 548), piano sonata No. 16 in C (K. 545), and violin sonatina K. 547), some of the details of Mozart's life during that time, and basic structure of the work. I also included obligatory explanations of form as it applies to a Viennese Symphony. We talked briefly about Sonata-Allegro form, structure of a Minuet and Trio, and other standard details of form.

We discussed many other interesting details surrounding this work. We discussed the significance of subtitle Jupiter. From Wikipedia: "The celebrated finale of the symphony is a re-working, albeit a majestic one, of the opening movement of Carl Ditters's symphony in D, Der Sturz Phaëtons (The Fall of Phaëton) of 1785. In those days of classical education, members of the Philharmonic Society, of which Salomon was a founding member, will have known that the planet that the ancient Greeks called "Phaët(h)on" is the same planet that the ancient Romans called "Jupiter."  We discussed the significance of this piece historically and we covered the great deal interesting details the composition itself

One of the coolest aspects of this piece is that the first movement includes a reference to an aria entitled "Un Bacio di mano"  (A Kiss on the Hand) to which Mozart composed the music earlier that year. There is a direct quote of the music that accompanies the aria at the end of both the exposition and recapitulation of the first movement.  It is a compositional joke that reminds us of Mozart's true greatness and mastery of the symphony and artistic expression of the time.  Tom Service from The Guardian calls it, "an intertextual gag of the highest musical and dramatic subtlety."  

We discussed the weaving of themes throughout all 4 movements, the direct foreshadowing of the first theme of 4th Movement Fugue found in the 3rd Movement Trio, and the great significance and compositional achievement of the intertwined sonata allegro form and 5 themed fugatta 4th Movement.  We also discussed the historical significance of the 4 note theme which is originally found in Josquin des Prez's Missa Pange Lingua from the 16th century and eventually in the work of Michael Haydn, brother of Joseph.

Honestly, there is so much more.  I was so glad that I took the time to do this right before the holidays.   One student, thanking me on the way out of class, told me that it was really meaningful to her.  And, I think that the information has impacted our performance of the work.  So often, students erroneously look at Mozart's compositions as light and even perhaps insignificant compared to the great Romantic Symphonies.  This simply isn't the case.  It takes so much control to shape every phrase and keep the performance elegant. There is nothing simple about it. Honesty, I learned a great deal by doing a little bit of light research and the kids were certainly the beneficiary as well. 

So this is my reminder for today. Provide context work the works you are preparing.  Whether you are working on  arrangements of great works, new pedagogical compositions, or the masterworks, provide the context.  Encourage your students to act and think like scholars.  (CAST)
Context increases our scholarship, our understanding, and our investment in the work.  It will certainly impact your performance and enhance your students' learning and appreciation of the music you are preparing.


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