Wednesday, April 14, 2010

On the Overture to La Clemenza di Tito

Overture to La Clemenza di Tito
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. (KV.621)

La Clemenza di Tito was commissioned by the Estate of Bohemia to celebrate the coronation of Leopold II. Domenico Guardasoni accepted this commission to put on an opera and contracted Mozart in the summer of 1791. La Clemenza di Tito premiered on September 6, 1791 at the Estates Theatre in Prague.

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

The score is available via the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe.


John Eliot Gardiner conducting the English Baroque Soloists.

Where Così fan tutte is the curiosity of the Da Ponte collaborations, La Clemenza di Tito is the same relative to all of Mozart's mature operas. Abert in his great W. A. Mozart devoted about half of the space to Titus as he did to the others and Rosen has said of it, "La Clemenza di Tito has all the finish of Mozart's finest works–Mozart's music is never less than beautiful–but it is difficult to convey how unmemorable it is." [Rosen, 164] For Tovey it was both an "admirable example of a festival overture" and "a piece d'occasion rendered all the more infuriating for the amount of good music which it stifles." [Tovey, 26] Recent scholarship suggests a rehabilitation of the opera's reputation, perhaps starting with Heartz's supplement to Floros' work on Titus, which Heartz wrote demonstrated the "typical underevaluation accorded this festival opera." [Heartz, 319]

Titus is an opera seria, a genre Mozart had not worked in since 1780 with Idomeneo. The overture too stands out opposed to Mozart's recent mature overtures. Mozart begins this festival overture as he did Idomeneo, with a unison fanfare. The allegro opening theme is unmistakably reminiscent of the opening to the Symphony in C, KV.338 from 1780:
Symphony in C, KV.338. Incipit.

The main theme begins at m.8 and its simplicity is evident:

a series of dotted notes, the first a half on the tonic followed by a sequence of quavers staccato and piano with the second violins a sixth below. A mere eight bars in and we pause to reflect, on the simplicity of this opening, its similarities to works from over 10 years previous, and that the whole is a piece composed in haste for the coronation and glorification of a new emperor. What will Mozart make of these materials? Let us keep this question in mind and revisit it later.

The tutti reply to the above theme is a syncopated phrase beginning forte and just slightly shaded with an A-flat in the violas, flutes, oboes, and clarinets. It ends with a scale descending from the dominant into another tonic chord and a repetition of the phrase from m.8-9, after which the second phrase returns.

The following passage features descending scales in thirds and sixths, "each downbeat punctuated by the three-note slide up to the tonic" as Heartz neatly states. [Heartz, 334] At the start of a large crescendo the descending scales in the strings are contrasted by ascending scales in the woodwinds until an unexpected modulation from dominant G to E-flat. In this development section a second subject follows with the winds taking prime place for a lofty and vulnerable theme consisting of two four-part sections:


Heartz aptly points out how closely related this second subject is to the main theme, "the descending parallel sixths of the first theme need only be inverted to become the descending thirds of the second theme." [Heartz, 337]

The passage repeats and is followed by our main theme, this time forte and more menacing over dominant half-notes tremolo in the violas and cellos. Then chord at m.47 steals in, stabbing with its dissonance, followed by the agitating features of the rising triplet figure in the 1st violins and the syncopation in the 2nd violins. After the intense two bars the first theme returns as if the attacker has retreated into hiding, only to return at m.51.

A somber theme at m.55 winding down from G to E-flat (a sequence repeated shortly thereafter in the 2nd violins) precedes the return of our main theme which is here contrapuntally worked out. The effect of this passage is that of our main theme getting lost among many figurations and machinations. At m.78 the theme morphs into one of a more specifically tragic pathos than we have yet heard.

After a return of the main theme and a series with rapid dynamic alternations we enter the recapitulation, which has been much remarked to present the themes in reverse order. Abert [Abert, 1232] and Rice [Rice, 69] both correctly state that this symmetry contributes to the festive tone of the overture, but Konrad Küster suggests a more probable reason for the reversal:
It appears, then, that the 'reversed' order of the themes in the recapitulation results from harmonic problems: Mozart had to prepare the entrance of the second subject. But clearly he did not want to create a 'bifocal close' [Winter] from the half cadence that precedes it in the exposition; furthermore, he wanted to avoid any alteration of the relatively short primary group. The only way to solve these problems was to open the recapitulation with the second subject, to omit the half cadence in the dominant of the dominant and to conclude the recapitulation with the primary group (and, of course, a coda.) [Kuster, 481]
Küster persuades that while, as we saw in the opening, Mozart had in mind his early symphonies in the construction of this overture, he did not simply recycle or imitate them but rather adapted them to his own current practices.

At m.131 we return to the opening fanfare material and the theme from m.8-9 reasserts itself once more and with another crescendo of rushing scales we are brought to a rousing and satisfying conclusion.

So what of Titus then? (Or at least its overture.) For my part I cannot point to any "deficiencies." It is festal enough for a festival overture, grand enough for the themes of Titus, it establishes the tonal center of E-flat for the coming drama. Yet we are not struck as we are by the other overtures. Its character is perhaps simply too indefinite.  Idomeneo captured a specifically tragic pathos, Figaro had its unparalleled drive, Don Giovanni its philosophical dimension, and Così its effervescence. The overture to Titus is beautiful, finely wrought, functional and appropriate, but not entirely affecting.


Abert, Hermann. W. A. Mozart. Yale University Press. New Haven and New York. 2007.

Heartz, Daniel. Mozart's Operas. University of California Press. Berkeley and Los Angeles. 1990.

Küster, Konrad. Essay, "An Early Form in Mozart's Late Style: the Overture to La clemenza di Tito,"in
Wolfgang Amadè Mozart: Essays on his Life and His Music. Sadie, Stanley. (ed.) Oxford University Press, New York. 1996.
Rice, John A. W. A. Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito. (Cambridge Opera Handbooks.) Cambridge University Press, New York. 1991.

Rosen, Charles. The Classical Style. "IV. Serious Opera." W. W. Norton and Company. New York. 1997.

Tovey, Donald Francis. Essays in Musical Analysis. (Six Volumes.) Volume IV: Illustrative Music: Overture to La Clemenza di Tito, KV.621. 1935.


Winter, Robert S. The Bifocal Close and the Evolution of the Viennese Classical Style. American Musicological Society. 1989.

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