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Richard Wagner, that demigod of opera, had a long stretch of very bad luck. He was exiled from his home country of Germany; his marriage was a mess; he was on the run from creditors everywhere; and an opera project in Paris folded after only three performances. But then, two strokes of good fortune materialized. Germany lifted the ban on him in 1862, so he resettled in a small town on the Rhine. And in 1864, eighteen year old Wagner fanatic Ludwig II succeeded to the Bavarian throne. He immediately reached out to Wagner with an offer of patronage and poof! went Wagner’s financial troubles. Now anything he dreamed of could be achieved. In 1867 he finally completed Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which he had begun more than twenty years prior. It premiered in Munich on June 21, 1868: almost exactly 150 years ago today. The prelude – really, an overture – opens with a procession of the medieval meistersingers or master-musician’s guild, cast as a regal brass march. There is to be a singing contest, and the prize is the hand of the goldsmith’s daughter, Eva, represented in the prelude by an ardent love theme.
Wolfgang Mozart (he almost never used the name Amadeus in real life—his actual middle name was Gottlieb) was living in Vienna in 1786. For Lenten services that year, he composed three piano concertos which he considered special enough to keep for himself to perform only, and only for a small circle of connoisseurs. The middle of these is K. 488 in A Major, a key with which Mozart associated a particular warmth. Two clarinets take the place of the usual pair of oboes here, lending a darker shade to the orchestral color.
Two seasons prior, in 1784, Mozart had a talented nineteen year-old piano and composition student named Babette von Ployer. Her uncle, an agent of the Salzburg court in Vienna, commissioned Mozart to write two piano concertos for her to play, K. 449 and the present work in G Major, K. 453. For his part, Mozart seems to have been very pleased and not a little charmed by Babette; he brought his friend Paisello with him to the premiere of this concerto to show her off. And he even drew a little portrait of her in the margins of one of his other compositions. Babette was clearly a very accomplished pianist, and Mozart was able to write for her something he would have been happy to present himself.
As Piotr-Ilyich Tchaikovsky worked on his fourth symphony, he sent progress reports to his patroness and friend Nadezhda von Meck. Of the tattoo motive which opens the symphony, he says, “This is Fate: this is that fateful force which prevents the impulse to happiness from attaining its goal, which jealously ensures that peace and happiness shall not be complete and unclouded [...] It is an invisible force that can never be overcome—merely endured, hopelessly.” Of the first movement’s gentler second theme, heard first in the clarinet and later embroidered by the strings, he writes, “Oh joy! Out of nowhere a sweet and gentle daydream appears. Some blissful, radiant human image hurries by and beckons us away. [...] Everything gloomy and joyless is forgotten. Here it is—happiness!” But then, “No! These were daydreams, and Fate wakes us from them. [...] No haven exists. Drift upon that sea until it engulfs us and submerges you in its depths.”
Movement two he describes as “that melancholy feeling which comes in the evening when, weary from one’s toil, one sits alone with a book—but it falls from the hand. There come a whole host of memories.” The ensuing scherzo, with pizzicato strings, he describes as “vague images which can sweep past the imagination after drinking a little wine and feeling the first phases of intoxication. The spirit is neither cheerful, nor sad.” As for the finale, Tchaikovsky tells his muse and benefactress, “If within yourself you find no reasons for joy, then look at others. Picture the festive merriment of ordinary people. Hardly have you managed to forget yourself and to be carried away by the spectacle of the joys of others, than irrepressible fate appears again and reminds you of yourself. But others do not care about you, and they have not noticed that you are solitary and sad.” But in the end, he finds a way to hope. “Reproach yourself, and do not say that everything in this world is sad. Rejoice in the rejoicing of others. To live is still possible.”