Wednesday, January 27, 2010

On the Overture to Idomeneo

Overture to Idomeneo
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. (KV.366)

Idomeneo was commissioned in 1780 by Karl Theodor, Elector of Bavaria, and premiered at the Cuvilliés Theatre of the Munich Residenz January 29, 1781.

Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets (autograph reads: clarin trumpets), timpani, strings (2 violins, 2 violas, cello, bass.)

The score is available via the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe.

Incipit. 1st violin.

John Eliot Gardiner conducting the English Baroque Soloists.

". . . magnificent in terms of both its design and its execution, a piece aglow from first to last with supremely tragic emotion." [1]

"The overture is the score and the drama in microcosm: grand but ominous, driven forward relentlessly as though by the surge and sweep of the sea felt both as physical presence and as the angry Neptune, a symbol of the power of malignant fate over human affairs. . . This is the pattern of the overture: authority threatened by forces beyond its control." [2]

In their observations quoted above, Abert and Cairns capture the essence of Mozart’s overture for Idomeneo. As such I hope simply to elaborate on why and how the piece, in all of its terrifying splendor, is so effective.

The overture opens with a fanfare-like tune in D major for the whole orchestra. Yet like the final piano sonata KV.576, this festive opening quickly gives way to something altogether different. Where the sonata continued into whimsy, though, Idomeneo plunges into strife. In the 7th measure the 2nd violins give way to a series of half-note tremolos as the rest of the strings yield to a menacing motive, amplified by a like response in the woodwinds:

8m. Strings.
9m. Woodwinds.

The contest is repeated two times until the 1st violins break out into a dotted crotchet figure repeated against a persistent, agitating quaver figure in the 2nd violins, one we will hear incessantly through the rest of the piece.

mm. 14-15

The descending figure in the 1st violins is played and then repeated twice, though the third time in abbreviated form with only the descending element. Shortened, as if struggling and weakening against immovable forces, it falls into a skittish crescendo of tremolo crotchets. At m. 23 we have a forte chord with the basses then thrice launching the violins into an ascending passage. The violins then give up a lovely little secondary theme, (perhaps a cousin of the theme from mm. 57-61 of the Sinfonia Concertante, KV.364, written not long before Idomeneo), which is then taken up by the basses before a descending scalar passage leads into that little theme’s full flowering. Yet this glorious blossoming is against that persistent agitating figure in the 2nd violins again. The theme is then taken up in part by the violas and basses as if in support. At bar 41 the little theme, as if deflated and exhausted, falls piano in a little chromatic descent.

The descent leads into a tremolo, out of which the 2nd violins grow into another incessant and agitating quaver figure, now dotted, and against which the first violins cautiously press on:

mm. 49-53

The little theme in the first violins continues on, sighing and meandering until at last the winds take it over and into another forte chord, after which another series of rising passages driven on and up by the timpani follow. The horn and trombone then take up our little theme from mm. 14-15 against the persistent violins, a contest which ends with a slightly innocent little descending dotted passage and little sighs before a forte unison.

We return to a variant of our first two themes, the chromatic crescendo in the strings and the woodwind reply. It is played and then repeated three times, escalating in intensity each, but descends not into a fury but a fortissimo dotted rhythm and another forte unison.

After the recapitulation of the major themes in which the woodwinds see an increased role trading the material with the strings, the movement draws down to an ominous close. At m. 137 we get a rising scale piano in the oboes and clarinets followed by a descending chromatic figure in the flute, cut off by a harsh chord. The pattern repeats, with the woodwinds a tone or semitone lower each time. Eventually just the flute repeats its little figure against the pedal points:

m. 152

Cairns is quite right to note how “the tonality is a chromatically inflected D minor; the grand D major of the opening seems far away.” Both Cairns and Abert have noted the similarity between Mozart’s closing figure here and one from the opening of Gluck’s overture to his Iphigénie en Tauride.


The quotation is both a fitting homage toward the great Gluck and his masterpiece and an appropriately somber place at which to introduce us to Illia, who we find lamenting the destruction of her Trojan home and longing for Idamante, her rescuer, who is in love Argive princess.

Idomeneo’s overture is an ingenious balance between the sinfonia and the overture, functioning both to set the mood of the opening scene and to introduce the essential theme of the whole opera, the grand tragic struggle.

[1] Abert, Hermann. W. A. Mozart. Yale University Press. New Haven and New York. 2007. (p. 613)
[2] Cairns, David. Mozart and His Operas. University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles. 2006. (pp. 54-55)

- Sheet music to Mozart's Idomeneo via the Neue Mozart Ausgabe.
- Sheet music to Gluck's Iphigénie en Auride via the Petrucci Music Library. [PDF]

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