Jane Ellen

1.11 A Little Night Music

Jane's Musical Takeaway
bits and bobs and my two cents

Episode 11: A Little Night Music (not!)

Ready for a challenge? In today's episode we're going to do a little musical sleuthing, commonly known as musical analysis. Actually, there's nothing little about the classical work commonly known as A Little Night Music or Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (sorry, Sondheim fans will have to wait for another episode). Although there are only 4 extant movements of the original 5, resulting in about 15-17 minutes of music, it seems that everyone knows some of the melody even if they can't remember who wrote it in the first place.

A brief jaunt through the archives of YouTube produces somewhat amazing results. One can listen to any of the movements as written for a small chamber ensemble, or discover a mind-boggling array of alternative versions, such as:

What, I ask you, would inspire such a phenomenal display of creativity (or insanity)? Perhaps it has to do with the incomprehensible genius of the composer himself: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91). 'Too many notes!' the Emperor declares in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus, but any fewer would have deprived the world of a sublime musical genius who was surely western music's rock star of the 18th century. Although the tragic story of his sister's lost compositional legacy is becoming more widely known, it cannot detract from the younger Mozart's 600+ compositions written in less than 30 years. Here is a brief bio:

By now you may have guessed that I'm going to focus on only one piece: the remarkable Serenade 13 in G Major, K525, for 2 violins, viola, cello, and optional double bass. The Serenade was written in 1787 when Mozart was 31, but not published until 36 years after the composer's death in 1827. Serenades began their musical lives as a genre associated with romance, something to be sung from a garden, beneath the window of a prospective amore. By Mozart's time the composition of serenades had become quite profitable as they were widely performed in the parks and gardens of Vienna. In a handwritten catalogue of his compositional output, Mozart wrote 'Eine Kleine Nachtmusik' next to the entry for the Serenade, and this iconic piece has come to be known by that title alone.

Let's begin with a gentle introduction to the work by watching the Gewandhaus Quartet play the second movement, the Romanza - or Romance, as in quiet or expressive music. (Hint: in case you're tempted to cut it short, you may be surprised by what happens about 3.5 minutes into the work.)

While the second movement is my favourite, most people are more familiar with the first. Here's a clever 30 Second Classics video made from the beginning and final few seconds of the opening movement (albeit decidedly slow for my taste):

For my Takeaway, however, I'll be looking at the fourth and final movement, as performed by the New Century Chamber Orchestra in 2013:

Jane's Musical Takeaway:

  • 1. Performance tempos (the speed of a piece) can vary widely according to interpretation, but this cheerfully brisk version, clocking in at just over 3 minutes, feels perfect to me. To be honest, even at this speed it sometimes feels as if it's over before it's properly begun. Perhaps that is what fascinates me the most about this final section: it can be seen as a microcosm of 18th century compositional theory and technique despite its apparent simplicity. For this reason alone, the complete work is often considered to be the ideal introduction to the study of classical music. Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is even sometimes performed as part of a program of Mozart Symphonies because the 4 movement work as we know it today has a similar symphonic structure.
  • 2. Let's begin by breaking it down into small bits. This movement is written in what is called Sonata Rondo form. All you need to know is that there are three major sections: the Exposition (the theme), the Development (exploring the theme), and the Recapitulation (revisiting the theme). Believe me, it's not as difficult as it sounds, and you don't need to have any formal music training because I'm going to walk us through one step at a time (minutes and seconds listed on the left).
  • 3. Here we go:
    0.03 - EXPOSITION: 1st theme (hear how it goes up like a rocket?)
    0.18 - transition to a new key or tonal centre
    0.26 - 2nd theme in new key
    0.43 - return of 1st theme
    Listen to the way Mozart is doing a lot with very little. By alternating two different themes, with some simple key changes (moving to different tonal centres), and clever use of dynamic shading (louds and softs) he's already created over a minute of interesting and engaging music. Suddenly, this happens:
    1.08 - the orchestra plays a strong phrase in unison (which sounds completely out of place from what has gone before) signalling that we are quickly moving into the
    1.22 - DEVELOPMENT: with the music now in a minor key, the entire emotional quality of the movement has changed; the cheerful character is gone and has been replaced by an angry conversation. But wait!
    1.37 - RECAPITULATION: 15 seconds later we've spun on the proverbial dime and find ourselves back to the 2nd theme from the exposition
    1.54 - the original ascending melody (1st theme) now returns in all of its glory
    2.20 - the strong unison orchestral phrase from 1.08 returns to signal another brief transition, followed by a rest, until we finally reach the
    2.28 - CODA: the closing section which is based on the 1st theme
    3.04 - APPLAUSE! We made it :)
  • 4. Granted, we've cut more than a few corners, but my hope is that you can begin to see the complexity in this masterful work (which is why I chose to focus on only one movement). Try listening to another piece of music that you like (one that's not too long), and see if you can begin to identify melodies that repeat. Listen for sections that sound familiar or similar and try mapping them out like a pop song: use A for a 'verse', B for a repeating 'chorus', and C for something completely new. The tendency is to listen to music passively, especially if it's something that is overly familiar; active listening can lead to a deeper and more meaningful relationship with a musical work.
  • 5. It's ironic that what is perhaps the most famous piece of Mozart's repertoire comes from a year in his life about which little is known. There are no clues as to why, or for whom, or what occasion, it was written. The only reason it has survived the ages is that it was part of a lot of manuscripts his wife Constanze was forced to sell in 1799 after which it languished for decades before publication. But perhaps it's not ironic at all, as scholars still strive to understand the workings of a mind such as Mozart's.

Musical analysis can be a tool for beginning to understand the beauty of a composer's works in order to better appreciate their legacy, to assist in performing their works, or to impart the love of music to another, which is perhaps the greatest gift.

More About Mozart!
first page of the score to Eine Kleine Nachtmusik in Mozart's hand
The Man Behind the Great Symphony 40 (55min documentary)
Biography (Austrian website)
Mozart.com (in German, English, or Spanish)
Maria Anna Mozart: the Family's First Prodigy

This episode goes out to one of my Ko-Fi supporters, Sara, who is an ardent Mozart devotee. Thank you!
If you enjoyed this episode of Jane's Musical Takeaway, buy me a cup of coffee :)