Length: c. 5 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 26, 1944, Alfred Wallenstein conducting
Mozart was busy with The Marriage of Figaro in January 1786, when a hard-to-ignore imperial commission arrived. Emperor Joseph II wished to entertain some of his visiting nobility with a lavish festival featuring his Italian and German opera companies in a combined, bilingual work. Antonio Salieri got the Italian portion and the German fell to Mozart. He received his part of the text on January 18 and had an overture, two arias, a trio, and an ensemble finale ready to go on February 3. The joint piece was premiered four days later at the imperial palace in Schönbrunn, with three public performances later that month in Vienna.
The German portion of the work was a topical backstage comedy featuring feuding sopranos. Its dramatic appeal did not survive those first four performances, and writers from Goethe to Peter Ustinov have attempted to rescue the work as a theater piece with new texts. The richly scored music, though, has held its own. The moral of the original story was that artists should set aside personal ambitions in favor of unity, a theme readily amenable to musical allegory in the reconciliation of contrasting elements that was at the heart of Classical sonata form, as in this sparkling, brilliantly developed Overture.
John Henken is the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Director of Publications.