The Twelve Variations by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart…Composition #27/50: Keepin’ It Classy

A young Mozart at Versailles.

For a short while during the 1700s, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lived in Paris, France. Like many who had come to live there before him, Mozart was inspired by the culture of the French people. In particular, he was delighted by a simple French folk song entitled “Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman”. The melody of this folk song is universally recognized as the foundation of three classic children’s songs: “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and the “ABC song”. If you sing each song in your head, you will notice that the melody is exactly the same for each song and that, not only that, you can interchange the lyrics from one song to the other without losing any of the melodic flow at all.

What Mozart did with this folk song is something in music known as theme and variation. What that means is that a composer such as Mozart will begin the composition with a standard set piece of music which will be played in its entirety. This is known as the theme. Then, the composer will replay that original set piece but alter it in one specific way each time. This is known as the variation. In the specific case of “Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman”, Mozart played the original “Twinkle, Twinkle” version as the theme and then altered it in twelve ways (such as rhythmically, melodically, harmonically, by changing the timbre, the orchestration and so on). By creating these twelve variations, Mozart was showing other composers, as well as his audience, that it was possible to take a well-known composition and present it in original and imaginative ways that all created something new and fresh while, at the same time, maintaining the integrity of the foundational piece. By doing so, Mozart declared that it was within the realm of possibility to re-imagine the entire scope of all music created by humans up until that time.

Needless to say, Mozart’s ideas were often of a revolutionary nature that didn’t always work in harmony with the existing structured mindset possessed by many composers at the time. Mozart lived during a time period in which classical compositions were supposed to fit a certain mold. He found these expectations too restrictive and, as a result, often took delight in tweaking the noses of the musical establishment, as it were, by creating pieces such as his Twelve Variations. By insisting to the authorities at the various royal courts that he frequented that it was possible to alter existing works in ways that were exciting and new and yet still sounded like the original work, he was forcing them to accept the notion that the rules of musical composition weren’t set in stone. Granting future composers the freedom to experiment with musical form was one of the most important legacies that Mozart left behind after his death. He accomplished this in part because of his Twelve Variations on “Ah! Vous dirai-je, Maman”.

The Twelve Variations scene from the Your Lie In April anime.

One of the things I enjoy about the research I do into the stories of these musical pieces is that sometimes something unexpected pops up which takes me in a whole new direction. One such instance of this occurred during my research into the Twelve Variations. While listening to this work on YouTube, I kept reading listener comments that stated something along the lines, “Who else is here because of Your Lie In April?” I had no idea what Your Lie In April was so I went down the rabbit hole and began researching that topic. Here is what I found. In Japan, there is a very popular art form known as Manga. For lack of a better comparative term, Japanese manga translates roughly the same as North American comic books. We might simply call that form of artistic expression as being “comics”. In Japan, they call it “manga”. So anyway, in Japan there was a manga series that was based upon music. That series was called Your Lie in April. The series was released in serial form, meaning one chapter at a time. The story involved a child prodigy who was an award-winning pianist. This child was driven by his mother to attain a level of perfection that made his stage presence and his playing almost seem robotic. Despite that, he inspires a young girl to take up the violin. She does so with dreams of one day playing on stage with the young man. Eventually the two meet and become friends. Then, a tragedy happens. The mother of the pianist dies from an illness. The boy finds that he can no longer hear the piano when it plays, and he lapses into a form of depression because his gift appears to have been taken from him just as his mother was. The young girl seeks to nurture his soul back so that he will attempt to perform again and that she can do it with him. I won’t spoil the ending by giving it away, but Your Lie In April had a very emotional ending, to say the least.

Because the manga was about music but was in two-dimensional book form, many felt as though something was missing. So, an animé (or, live action animated version) of the manga was created for television. It aired in episodic fashion in Japan a few years ago. Because the story was being told like a movie now, all of the classical music that the pianist and his violinist friend were practicing and performing could be played aloud in the animé. On episode #3 of the series, the pianist’s mother had just died and he was discovering that he couldn’t play the piano anymore. The young girl was trying to cheer him up in a café. Suddenly, two young children begin to play Mozart’s Twelve Variations on a piano located in the café. (Remember, the tune is just “Twinkle, Twinkle”). The violinist asks her friend if he can hear those notes and guides him over to where the little girls are playing. They recognize him as being the famous child prodigy they had seen on TV and ask him to play with them. With encouragement, he begins to play for the first time since his mother had passed away, only to find the notes are elusive and he cannot even play “Twinkle, Twinkle” anymore. This scene can be viewed by clicking here.

I have always believed in the power of creativity. The act of creating something out of nothing is absolutely exhilarating! Whether it is me with the blank screen that appears before me as I begin each post or a chef who gathers the ingredients that will combine to make a feast or a composer who takes a blank sheet of paper and fills it with squiggles that play as melodies, being able to create something new and original that may bring pleasure to others is what motivates me and so many others to do what we do each day of our lives. It was what motivated a creative genius like Mozart to explore and surpass the boundaries of what was possible during his lifetime in the world of classical composition. It is, also, the loss of that creative ability that quickly drained the joy away from the young pianist in the animé Your Lie In April. Being a creator is important. So, give your children crayons and blank paper, along with the colouring books with pre-drawn pictures. Let them make their marks and tell their stories accordingly. Our imagination is one of the most precious aspects of ourselves, along with our hearts and needs to be protected and nurtured and unleashed as required. Just as we do by exercising to keep our bodies healthy, take some time today (and every day) for a little play time. It will do wonders for your imagination and it will do wonders for your soul. Now that you have read this post….go and play! Have some fun! I will see you again next time with a whole new story. Until then, take care. Bye for now.

The link to the video for the composition “The Twelve Variations” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart can be found here.

The link to the official website of the Mozart Museum can be found here.

The link to the world’s best classical music radio station…Classical 103.1…which broadcasts from my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2023

The Marriage of Figaro Overture by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart…Composition #25/50: Keepin’ It Classy

Free speech isn’t something that any of us should really take for granted. Our ability to publicly criticize the decisions made by our leaders is one of the foundational pillars of living in a democratic society. In my lifetime, I have written letters to the editor, have taken to social media and have even grabbed a picket sign and marched with others to demonstrate my unhappiness with certain government policies and my determination to affect change through organized resistance. And guess what? Not one time did I ever end up in jail. No one knocked on my door in the middle of the night with billy clubs at the ready. My family was never targeted for retribution by those in positions of power. I am extremely privileged to live at a time and in a place that allows for public dissent. Not everyone is so lucky in our world, and certainly, not everyone has been so lucky throughout the course of history. Today’s post is about a character named Figaro who was the central character in one of the world’s very first entertainment franchises. Figaro was also seen as a threat by the powers that be and, as a result, was banned across many countries in Europe during the late 1700s. So, without further delay, allow me to introduce you to Figaro,,,the man better known as The Barber of Seville.

Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais

In the early 1700s, there lived a man named Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. He was born the son of a watchmaker and ended up becoming an influential figure in the Royal Court of Louis XV. Over the course of his life, Beaumarchais was a music teacher, a horticulturalist, an arms dealer, a spy and a playwright. Beaumarchais was one of the leading figures in France who advocated for France to supply arms to those fighting for independence in the United States. If you are familiar at all with the Broadway musical Hamilton, then you will know that France was a crucial ally of the US and a huge irritant to the British against whom the US were fighting. In the world of politics, Beaumarchais believed in the maxim that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and, therefore, he devoted much time and money toward causes that supported US independence abroad, as well as revolution within his own borders. One of the ways that Beaumarchais sought to accomplish unrest was by rousing the public via the Arts. In the 1700s, many political activists realized that one of the best ways to get messages out to commoners was through operas and plays and traveling minstrel shows. In the case of Pierre Beaumarchais, his gambit was the creation of three plays that have gone on to become known as The Figaro Trilogy. These three plays were The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro and The Guilty Mother. Each play was subsequently adapted into a libretto (the handbook given to audience members attending an opera). Each libretto was paired with a fully-realized opera. The Barber of Seville was the first opera to be professionally produced. The musical score was composed by Gioachino Rossini. The Marriage of Figaro was composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

What Beaumarchais did that was considered so dangerous to the establishment that his plays (and subsequent operas) were banned was to create a character who thumbed his nose at those in positions of power in a way that made him a champion of the under class and all who felt oppressed. That character was Figaro. The character of Figaro, itself, was based upon an Italian character named Brighella. Brighella was a musketeer-like man who carried with him a stick that he used to spank or poke other characters. This prop was known as a “slap stick” and became an integral tool in the development of a form of comic opera that was to become very popular with ordinary citizens. Slapstick comedy has gone on to become one of the most popular forms of comedy in the world today. In the world of slapstick, there is great emphasis put on physical comedy, sexual innuendo and bawdy humour. Because Pierre Beaumarchais had his finger on the pulse of his nation, he knew that one of the ways to sow the seeds of revolution among the citizens of France was to create a character around whom they could identify and rally. So, Beaumarchais wrote The Barber of Seville and introduced the citizens of France to Figaro. In The Barber of Seville, Figaro plays a servant to a man named Count Almaviva. Without going into the full plots of The Figaro Trilogy plays, the main thing you need to know is that all throughout the three plays, Figaro makes no attempt to hide his disdain for the Count or those who frequent the Royal Court. As a servant, Figaro was supposed to show deference and respect at all times to those who sat above his station in life. That Figaro would engage in debates with the Count, be openly critical of decisions rendered by The Count or say rude things about him behind his back…albeit in a comedic way…was shocking for the times. What Beaumarchais was attempting to do was normalize the act of questioning those in positions of power. That he attempted to disguise his strategy in the form of bawdy humour did not fool those on the thrones of France or many other neighbouring countries. The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro, in particular, were both subject to being banned because the operas were seen as attempts to foment unrest among the lower working-class people in France. I can remember very clearly a scene from the Academy Award-winning movie, Amadeus, in which Mozart has been commissioned to create the opera for The Marriage of Figaro by a social activist who wanted the opera to air in a public theatre (as opposed to one controlled by the King). Mozart agreed and was quite pleased by the opera he eventually created. Then, after it was forced to close after only seven performances, Mozart struggled to comprehend why, when he believed it to be so good. It was behind-the-scenes political maneuvering that did Mozart in at the time. But, as history has shown, the American Revolution succeeded with the important aid it received from France. In France, the French Revolution happened, and many in the ruling class found themselves kneeling beneath the sharp blade of the guillotine. Pierre Beaumarchais had a hand in both events coming to fruition. Even way back in the 1700s, the art of political subterfuge was alive and well.

The Overture to The Marriage of Figaro is a very well known piece of music that you will recognize from the buzzing of the opening notes. As with all overtures, this composition was meant to serve as an introduction to the main portion of the opera. As a consequence, the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro works well as a stand-alone composition. In the vast musical catalogue of Mozart’s work, the Overture to The Marriage of Figaro is one of his most popular and recognizable pieces of music. Over time, with the politics of revolution behind them, both operas were given new life by being performed in public once again. This time, each opera was given an extended theatrical run and was evaluated in glowing terms by critics and audiences alike. While the third opera in the Figaro Trilogy…The Guilty Mother…has never achieved much success, The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro introduced the idea of recurring characters and extended storylines to the world of storytelling in opera. By doing so, Beaumarchais introduced the idea of an entertainment franchise for the first time. In our world, such franchises are quite common. Star Wars, The Godfather, the Marvel Universe are just some of the modern movie franchises that owe a debt of gratitude to Pierre Beaumarchais, who created the original operatic franchise and launched the era of character-driven storytelling.

The link to the video for the composition, “Overture to The Marriage of Figaro” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart can be found here.

The link to the official website for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart can be found here.

The link to the official website for Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais can be found here.

The link to the official website for the world’s greatest classical music station…Classical 103.1…broadcasting from my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario, Canada can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this blog post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

Keepin’ It Classy: The Stories Behind the Most Memorable Classical Compositions of All-time…Composition 9/50: Serenade No. 13 for Strings in G Minor (or, as it is more commonly known), Eine Kleine Nachtmusik by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Serenade for Strings in G Minor.

Serenade for Strings in G Minor is one of Mozart’s most well known and respected compositions. It was written during a time period when he was composing the grand opera Don Giovanni. However, not much else is actually known about this piece. It did come to be known as “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” or “A Little Night Music” because that was a notation Mozart used to record this composition in a log book of his work that he maintained. We only know this because after his death, Mozart’s wife, Constanze, sold many of his manuscripts to a publishing company in order to finance her life as a widow. That so much of Mozart’s great work was unappreciated or even unseen at all by others during his lifetime sheds a lot of light on his life and on how composers, in general, managed to earn a living. So, let’s take a few moments and learn a bit about that, shall we?

There were many tremendously talented composers who produced great music during the height of the Classical Renaissance from between 1750-1850. These composers lived their lives in varying states of recognition, influence and wealth. Often, their status had little to do with the quality of their compositions, which, generally speaking, were all of high quality. Instead, the standard of living enjoyed by a composer seemed to be more political and more dependent upon his ability to connect with powerful people in his immediate social realm. As such, here is a brief list of the main ways that composers such as Mozart were able to generate wealth from their work.

1 – The main way in which composers of the day earned a living was by having wealthy patrons. This means that the composer worked in the employ of a member of the aristocracy and produced work for their pleasure. Consequently, many of the compositions produced via the patronage system tended to be conventional in topic. This means that those composers created works that reflected the glory of God, or else the glory of those already in power. It also meant that composers created music that would be played during funerals or celebrations at balls. Thus, some of the most talented composers of all time created their life’s work at the behest of those who directly paid their bills and who often provided their accommodations and supplied the equipment (musical instruments and orchestra players) that enabled them to create the masterpieces that they did.

Constanze Mozart.

2 – In addition to creating compositions for wealthy patrons, many composers were also expected to be teachers as well. In higher society, it was an expectation that the children and wives of wealthy men would become competent in the Arts. For many, that included giving recitals. Thus, the giving of private music lessons was one avenue that allowed composers to supplement their income outside of the composition circuit. Not surprisingly, having access to the children and wives of the wealthy was not something attainable by just anyone. Political connections helped composers gain entry into the world of the upper class and with it, access to the best paying students. In the movie, Amadeus, which is a fictionalized account of Mozart’s life, there are many scenes in which Mozart and, separately, his wife, Constanze, can be seen begging officials of the Royal Austrian Court for access to well-paying students. According to the movie/play, Mozart chafed at being restricted to the conventional musical norms of his time, and he often refused or was unable to “play the political game” that was expected in polite society circles. Consequently, his personality grated upon the nerves of those in positions of authority, and therefore he was purposely steered toward students of lesser means and influence during his lifetime (which ended at age 35).

3 – A third method by which composers could earn a living was by creating symphonies and operas for public viewing in theatres and opera houses. Obviously, not all classical music was created solely for members of the Royal Court. There were many plays and operas that were commissioned by the owners of opera houses and other public venues. In these cases, the opera house owner would either pay a lump sum to a composer for a commissioned work or else, more often than not, would offer a composer a share of the profits that his opera would generate. Again, politics would come into play because a composer whose work was favoured by those in power could count on those connections to bring people to the theatres. If, however, a composer had fallen out of favour or was just starting out, then those elite personalities could simply ignore this composer’s new work and consequently, use their influence to cause common folk to stay away. Again, in Mozart’s case, many of his greatest public works opened and closed in relatively short order due to the lack of political support he had in Vienna at the time. It was only years later, after his death, that the originality and creative genius of his work came to be appreciated by mass audiences and critics.

As you can see from just these three examples, a composer’s ability to earn a living during the years 1750-1850 was highly dependent on the patronage and political connections of others. It wasn’t until the late 1800s/early 1900s that the independence of composers was allowed to flourish. The thing that allowed that to happen was something called copyright law and royalties. Prior to the late 1800s, whenever a composer created a musical composition, it was either given directly to the patron who had commissioned it (at which time the patron assumed ownership), or else it went into the public domain where the work was free to be performed or altered by anyone. As we have seen in previous posts, some composers tried to protect the sanctity of their work by destroying it upon their death so that lesser musicians couldn’t alter it and ruin it in the eyes of the composers. So, the idea of retaining ownership and control of one’s work was something that a lot of composers felt strongly about as the Classical Renaissance rolled along. The first instance where a composer was granted a form of copyright occurred in Paris and concerned a composer who objected to his work being performed for profit by others in cafés throughout the city. A lawsuit was launched to either stop the concerts, or else to pay the composer a fee for each performance (or a royalty, as it has come to be known). The verdict came down on the side of the composer. From that point onward, especially since the invention of the printing press meant that sheet music was now able to be produced cheaply and in greater quantities, composers had a bit more of an ability to control how their creative work was used and were able to profit from their own labour in ways that were determined as much by them as by political connections.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

As we have seen in many music posts about Rock ‘n Roll, it wasn’t really until the 1960s that songwriting copyright really became the tool that it is today in terms of generating income for the composer. This was especially true in the early days of Hip Hop when rappers sampled liberally from the work of others in creating many of their own unique songs. Having legal control of creatively produced work is important in that it helps the composer protect the integrity of their composition, as well as ensuring that they are rightfully compensated for their efforts. Not that I am comparing myself to the likes of Mozart, but you will note that I end all of my posts with a copyright disclaimer. I have no immediate plans to take these posts and reproduce them in book form, but, if I did, claiming copyright privileges as I go gives me some legal protection should anyone decide to copy my work and release my work as theirs. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart did not have the legal ability to stake a claim to his own work. It sounds difficult to believe that this was the case but it was. Because he lived his creative life at odds with the existing musical patronage establishment, Mozart did not often profit from his creative genius during his lifetime. Consequently, brilliant work such as Serenade for Strings in G Minor or Eine Kleine Nachtmusik ended up being sold for pennies after his death. It is quite likely that Mozart never heard this particular composition played publicly in his lifetime. That makes me sad…as songs in G Minor tend to do.

The link to the video for Serenade for Strings in G Minor can be found here.

The link to the official website for a museum dedicated to Mozart’s life can be found here.

The link to the classical radio station in my hometown can be found here.

Academy Award winning movie, Amadeus.

The link to the video from the movie Amadeus which shows Mozart’s wife attempting to sell his original compositions at the Royal Court in order to help him gain access to well-paying music students, can be found here.

Header illustration link can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post may be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022