People tend to make a big fuss over birthdays, whether the occasion marks their own anniversary or that of a family member, lover, or friend— or perhaps even a pet. Most such celebrations of a natal day are doubtless driven by true affection, perhaps with a tinge of guilt added. The idea that any excuse for a party is a good excuse may also come into play. But lurking even deeper, one will probably find the superstitious feeling that, having put Death off for another year, we might as well laugh at having missed the scythe, for who knows what the next 12 months will bring?
Mozart only celebrated 35 birthdays in his short life from Jan. 27, 1756, to Dec. 5, 1791, and many of them were markers of staggeringly eventful experiences. Beethoven managed to pack 56 birthdays into his tumultuous life, though we have to go by his baptismal date of Dec. 17, 1770, in lieu of a recorded birth date; his death date was March 26, 1827. The two may have met in Vienna in spring of 1787, when the young Beethoven was there auditioning and prospecting for opportunities, but modern scholarship is unable to confirm or deny the meeting. There’s no denying that Mozart’s works inspired Beethoven greatly over the course of time.
Santa Fe Pro Musica celebrates Mozart’s birthday and also his artistic link to Beethoven with two upcoming concerts. On Thursday, Jan. 28, the Pro Musica Chamber Orchestra conducted by Thomas O’Connor observes Mozart’s birthday, and they perform a Beethoven program on Saturday, Jan. 30. American pianist Conrad Tao is the featured soloist on both concerts.
At 15, Tao is already an established artist; and like Mozart, he took to piano very early— he was reportedly playing children’s songs at 18 months, and he gave his first public recital at age 4. His professional concerto debut came at 8, when he played the Mozart Concerto in A Major, K. 414, with the Utah Chamber Music Festival Orchestra. Mozart, of course, grew up steeped in music; both he and his older sister Maria Anna, “Nannerl,” were taught from toddler age by their professional-fiddler father, Leopold. Tao is now a composer, but Mozart has him beat there. His first compositions— those that have been kept, at any rate— date from age 5, and he was soon churning them out steadily. Churning isn’t a bad verb, either, though it carries no tedious connotation here: Mozart wrote as easily as he thought.
Mozart toured Europe with his father and often his sister as a child, off and on from 1762 through 1773, so sometimes Jan. 27 would be celebrated on the road,
sometimes at home. He was just shy of 15 when his first opera seria, Mitridate, re di Ponto, had its premiere, almost exactly a month before his 15th birthday. The first birthday that came after his marriage to ConstanzeWeber in August 1782 must have been a special occasion. The final birthday came in 1791, the year in which The Magic Flute had its triumphant premiere.
Pro Musica’s concert comes very close to Mozart’s 254th birthday. The Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat Major, in which Tao will solo, dates from December 1785, when Mozart had just turned 29. A letter from Leopold to Nannerl dated Jan. 13, 1786, notes that “I have had only one reply from your brother, dated December 28th, in which he said that he gave without much preparation three subscription concerts to 120 subscribers, that he composed for this purpose a new piano concert in E-flat, in which (a rather unusual occurrence!), he had to repeat the Andante.”
The other programmed piece, the Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551, nicknamed “Jupiter,” dates from three years later, in 1788. It’s one of three composed that summer: the two preceding, the Nos. 39 and 40, were completed in late June and July, respectively. The “Jupiter” — a nickname it received later— was finished Aug. 10.
Tao moves on to a beloved Beethoven concerto for the Jan. 30 concert — the concerto in G Major, op. 58. The music-making begins with one of Beethoven’s most famous works, the Symphony No. 5 in C Minor, with its oft-imitated “da-da-da dah” opening rhythm. This work has almost become obscured over time by the many legends associated with the theme and by its constant imitation in other media, from rock to film to pop music.
One legend, from Beethoven’s friend Anton Schindler, has it that the composer referred to it as “Fate knocking at the door.” Music historians, however, doubt Schindler’s veracity; he was writing years after Beethoven’s death and is known to have forged some entries in the deaf composer’s conversation books. Another possible source comes from Beethoven pupil Carl Czerny, the pianist-composer, who said that the theme came to the composer from a bird singing in Vienna’s Prater— a yellowhammer, to be exact. Oh, not a woodpecker?