Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)
Ouvertüre zur Oper «Don Giovanni»
Gustav Mahler (1860 – 1911)
Robert Schumann (1810 – 1856)
Sinfonie Nr. 4 d-Moll op. 120
The Pull of D minor
Pushkin's play about Mozart and Salieri, which inspired Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, presents the fictional Mozart sitting at the piano, introducing a piece he'd just composed:
Picture – well, whom should you?
Say, even me – a little younger, though;
In love not much, just lightly having fun
With a good-looking girl, or friend say, you;
I'm merry ... All at once a deathly vision,
A sudden gloom, or something of that sort
Here Pushkin captures that stark Mozartean contrast that made Don Giovanni so fascinating for the Romantics: a party in full swing, champagne and merriment, then a terrifying guest who drags the host down to Hell. The D-minor music of the Commendatore's Statue is indeed terrifying: his steps heavy and unstoppable, the odd scales running up and down in the violins chilling. We hear it at the very start of the Overture, but then a lively allegro in D major, full of life, wipes away all memories of that apparition (until the opera's final act).
In Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, set to a selection of poems by Friedrich Rückert, D minor is also the key of death: a black resignation in the first song, a hellish anguish in the last. Mahler, in a leap of artistic imagination, was able to enter into the grief of losing a child (which he had not yet experienced himself). Following the example of Schubert's bleak song cycle Die Winterreise, Mahler's darkness is almost unremitting aside from some faint glimpses, in D major, of the children resting in God, like the tender lullaby at the end.
they are resting, as if in their mother’s house,
where no storm can frighten them,
sheltered by God’s hand.
The D-minor of Schumann's Fourth Symphony behaves very differently. The introductory theme has neither a strong rhythm nor even a sense of pulse, as if the music is still taking shape and can only hint at what is to come. The Symphony's structure is unusual precisely because this hazy anticipatory material interferes with the normally discrete symphonic movements. The allegro of the first movement is dominated by an obsessive rhythmic pattern and is full of anxiety, occasionally breaking through into heroism. The second movement, following immediately, is a melancholy Romance, a tale of bygone days with archaic colouring, with an oboe and a solo cello in the foreground. The hazy material reappears, working its way
round to an enticing D-major violin solo. The Scherzo, also following without a break, contains nothing entirely new, since both the resolute main theme and the lyrical trio can be traced back to the hazy material. Only the finale breaks free, with some effort, into a mood of fiery jubilation. Perhaps the unusual design even owes something to Schumann's lifelong struggle with manic depression, the melancholy interiority and the odd insistence on D minor throughout pointing in this direction.
Marina Frolova-Walker FBA
Professor of Music History, University of Cambridge