A café I go to plays classical music. I was told that they change the type of music they play according to the time of day, so maybe by the evening they’re playing heavy metal. But they start the day with classical, I’m on the go early and this suits me fine. Especially since the music they play is rarely vocal – except at Christmas time, when they zap the unwary traveler with carols whether the Good News has reached them yet or not.
I find that if music has words it interferes with what passes for my thought process, which also uses words.
On one occasion last week I was innocently sitting in this haven of rest catching up with the news when the background music nipped smartly into the foreground. They were playing the minuet from Mozart’s Symphony No 19 in Eb, K132. I was amazed to hear it because, like other of his early symphonies, it hardly ever appears in concert programmes. It was written in July 1772 when Mozart was 16.
The work is in four movements, though Mozart wrote an alternative slow movement, as he did for the Paris Symphony of 1778. My recording gives both, and both are excellent. The first time I heard this symphony I was stopped in my tracks by the minuet and trio because the trio is modal.
At this point I will insert a brief digression concerning my father, now departed the scene. He was an excellent pianist, very much better than I have ever been. But on a visit to Russia he returned with a number scores where he was clearly biting off more than he could chew. For example, among the pieces he brought back was Prokofiev’s 7th Sonata. As might be expected from this composer, this piece is fiendishly difficult.
During our discussion of the music he had brought back I happened to mention tone and semi-tone intervals – only to be pole-axed by his refusal to admit that such a distinction existed. I played him whole tone intervals (C to D) and semi-tone intervals (E to F) but it did no good. According to him they both sounded the same. So he was better at doing it and I was better at knowing what it was he was doing. Here endeth the digression.
In these happy times of ours there are thought to be two types of scale, major and minor. By convention, minor is deemed to be sad, though there is nothing intrinsically sad about it. And what is the difference between these two types of scale? In both there are two semi-tone intervals, the only difference lying in where these semi-tone intervals occur. That’s it. (Two semitone intervals are visible on a piano or electronic keyboard where two white notes are side by side with no black note between them.)
What does this have to do with Mozart’s Symphony No 19? The trio section of the minuet uses neither major nor minor but a type of scale known as a mode. Mozart uses modes so rarely you don’t heard it coming unless you know the piece, and here he uses one to great effect – increased, I would say, by the fact that the minuet on either side of it is both strong and austere.
Beethoven also used modes on rare occasions, perhaps the best known being in the slow movement of the Quartet Op 132 (the Heiliger Dankgesang).
The modes are referred to by Greek names, Dorian, Lydian, and so on. Again, what defines them is where the semi-tone intervals occur. For anyone wanting more information on this subject, here is a link to the relevant Wikipedia entry.
Another notable feature of this symphony is the use of four horns, as in the Divertimento K131 which I mentioned in a previous post. Here, two of the horns are marked in the score as ‘alto’ and hit quite high notes from time to time.
I can’t find a recording of Symphony No 19 with vision as well as sound, but in this sound-only version the minuet begins at 9.28 into the recording and the modal trio at 11.18.