The Polyphonic Mozart

An article accompanying the New Dutch Academy's performance in the Holland Festival Festival Oude Muziek Utrecht 2005.


On Buckshot Lefonque’s recent acid/progressive/jazz/hip-hop album, “Music Evolution”, the musicians of the young band talk about their musical relationship to the previous musical generation(s). The members of the band are busy being modern, forging new new paths, creating new styles and new aesthetics, but are simultaneously most aware that the traditions of their music are deeply rooted in the “old school” style of their predecessors. In a spoken intro to one particular track, they talk with each other about how fast they are going to play the next number. One of band members makes the comment that the music they play now is generally played faster than the music from which it derives 30 years previously, to which another says: Yeah man, but if it’s good enough for James [Brown], it’s good enough for me. This is met with a raptuous chorus of approval from all involved and they get busy, playing a track which is in their own new style but in which they also revel in the coolness of the past. They pay tribute to their musical heroes of the previous generations and pay tribute to the coolness of bit of the “Old School technique” – the very thing which has made their own new musical language possible.

The cutting-edge composers involved in the emergence of the classical language in the mid to late eighteenth century also had a similar respect for, what was for them, “Old School” and an awareness that the music of the previous generation/s formed a basis for the music of a

new generation, even when the musical styles themselves may change in between. While these new composers were busy composing and creating a cool new innovative style and through this process defining their own aesthetic, they always had room for a bit of old school cool.

For them, “Old School” was polyphony.

Simon Murphy and the NDA in performance at HFOMU 2005

Not too cool for school: The presence of “Old School” technique in the second half of the eighteenth century

Whilst it is (too) easy to characterise the 18th century classical musical language as being homophonic and its emergence c. 1750 as marking a break with a polyphonic past, in fact the musicians involved in the formation of this new classical musical language had no problem in including aspects of the formal, “Old School” polyphonic techniques within their new style. The programme this evening takes this as its inspiration and aims to take you on a musical exploration through the minds of some key composers in the second half of the eighteenth century.

The programme this evening hopes to offer an alternative view to polyphony within music, looking at polyphony actually being a constant thread though music history instead of something which was discarded when styles have changed. Focusing on the presence of polyphony in the later eighteenth century, the programme aims to show that polyphonic (contrapuntal, fugal …) writing by no means ends with Bach, illustrating instead that not only did glorious polyphonic writing continue into the later 18th century but that in fact in two of the greatest crucibles of the formation of the new classical style – Mannheim and Vienna – polyphony (old school cool) was an integral element in the formation of the new classical musical language itself.

Mannheim: Key Mannheim composers, such as Richter, revel in combining polyphonic structural elements and techniques in their musical composition at the same time as they are busy developing their new classical musical language and with it the symphonic style. Richter’s use of polyphonic techniques goes far beyond mere imitation, and reaches fully flegded, complex fugal structures. An example of this is the last movement of his 1754 E flat Sinfonia a quattro featured in the programme this evening. Richter offers a key to an understanding of the influence of polyphony on the emergence of classical style, through his fascinating combination of writing in the new language of classical symphonic composition, this being combined with the richness of a polyphonic approach, in which he equally revels.

Vienna: In Vienna, the tone was already set for a furtherance of polyphonic interest into the classical period when the court composer Johann Joseph Fux (1660 – 1741) published his major treatise on counterpoint, “Gradus ad Parnassum” in 1725. This classic work had a massive influence on the technical and stylistic development of a whole new generation of composers, including Haydn and Beethoven. Albrechtsberger, as the leading later 18th century Viennese musical theory teacher, indeed also used Fux’s work as a basis for his own treatise “Gründliche Anweisung zur Komposition”. Albrechtsberger, a student of Georg Matthias Monn (1717 – 1750), composed more than 240 fugues, was a highly respected composer and performer in Vienna, and was Beethovens’s instructor in counterpoint. Gassmann, court composer in Vienna, also founded Vienna’s oldest musical society, the “Tonkünstler-Societät”. Similarly to the Mannheimer Richter, the Viennese Gassmann writes in the new newly forming classical style but primarily uses this new language with polyphonic compositional techniques.

The programme

In the first half of the programme we hope to give some tastes of polyphonic awareness in the formative period of the classical language, in the important centres of Mannheim and Vienna. The half features many examples of the, clearly contemporaneously popular, orchestral form of

the “Adagio and Fugue”. The half also includes a Mannheim symphony by Richter which displays composition in the classical language being combined with polyphonic elements and is included also simply as a wonderful example of classic early Mannheim orchestral writing. The

inclusion of the Adagio and Fugue by the neither Mannheim nor Viennese WF Bach is meant as a slight excursion afield, displaying the interest in polyphonic writing in the classical period as a pan-European phenomenon. The first half of the concert closes with Mozart’s response to this, his own classic Adagio and Fugue for strings, written in 1788.

The second half of the programme focuses on Mozart’s monumental last symphony, no 41 in C. This piece is surely the ultimate confirmation of polyphony being an inspiration for the classical composers, and is surely the ultimate example of the combination of polyphonic writing in the classical musical and symphonic language: In the super coda of the closing movement of this symphony, Mozart, using the classical symphonic musical language as a vehicle to achieve this, totally steals the show by genially combining the movement’s all four themes at the same time (!) in a dazzling, virtuosic tour de force of symphonic polyphonic display.

We are delighted to be able to present this programme to you this evening in the exciting setting of the Holland Festival of Early Music in Utrecht and through this to be able to share our love of this music with you. We are also especially pleased to be able to make a contribution to the exploration and illustration of the central theme of polyphony of this year’s festival through this programme and hope that some of these ideas might provide you with a fresh and inspiring view on some aspects of polyphony in classical composition and on the geniality and musical expression of the composers represented in the programme.

We wish you much listening pleasure and enjoyment!

Simon Murphy, Artistic Director of The New Dutch Academy


The Polyphonic Mozart, Holland Festival Festival of Early Music Utrecht, Tuesday 30 August 2005, 20:00 Grote Zaal Vredenburg


Franz Xaver Richter (1709-1789)

Sinfonia a 8 in D

Johann Georg Albrechtsberger (1736-1809)

Adagio and Fugue in d for strings

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710-1784)

Adagio and Fugue in d (Falck 65)

Florian Leopold Gassmann (1729-1774)

Andante and Allegro in G for strings

Franz Xaver Richter

Fugue (from: Sinfonia a quattro in E Flat, 1754)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Adagio and Fugue in c for strings KV 546 (1788)


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Symphony no. 41 ‘Jupiter’ KV 551 (1788) [Allegro Vivace - Andante Cantabile - Menuetto (Allegro) - Molto Allegro]

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Ouverture tot Die Zauberflöte (1791)


Listen to the NDA perform Mozart's Symphony no 41 "Jupiter" live on the Web Radio