Three Late Songs, K. 596 – 598

May 19, 2019: Wendy Bryn Harmer, soprano; Ken Noda, piano

Mozart composed three songs on January 14, 1791, just short of two weeks before his thirty-fifth and last birthday. His lodge brother Ignaz Alberti printed them early that same year in the Frühlingslieder (Spring Songs) section of the Liedersammlung für Kinder und Kinderfreunde (Song collection for children and their friends). This four-volume set, of which only the spring and winter volumes survive, was edited by teacher, poet, humanities scholar, and Catholic priest Placidus Partsch, who likely had the responsibility of assigning texts to different composers. Mozart’s three songs are all strophic—that is, several verses sung to the same melody and, unlike his usual practice, Mozart formatted them like piano pieces with one verse written between the staves. The remaining verses were printed on separate pages.

Sehnsucht nach dem Frühling (Yearning for spring), placed first in the spring volume, has achieved folk-song-level popularity owing to its happy melody and charming storytelling images. The poem by Christian Adolf Overbeck (1755–1821) was originally titled Fritzchen an den Mai (Little Fritz, to May), referring to an appealing character Overbeck had contributed to German children=s literature. The title Mozart used stems from a collection edited by J. H. Campe, though many people know the song simply by its first line, Komm, lieber Mai (Come, dear May). The poem consists of five verses, but many modern performers often omit one or more of the middle verses. Clearly Mozart had the melody on his mind because he had just used it as the theme of the rondo finale in his last Piano Concerto, K. 595, completed only nine days earlier.

For Im Frühlingsanfange (At spring’s beginning), Mozart sets a poem by Christian Christoph Sturm (1740–1786) titled simply Der Frühling (Spring). Mozart’s own title stems from the catalog he kept of his works, but the first edition bore the title Dankesempfindungen gegen den Schöpfer des Frühlings (Thankful feelings toward the creator of spring). Here, despite the strophic setting, Mozart leaves the world of childhood behind with his dramatic opening chords, a touching melody with signature upward leap and gently elaborated descent, a throbbing bass repeated note in the middle, judicious chromatic harmonies, and a sophisticated if brief piano postlude. Sturm’s poem contains six verses (ordered differently from the Mozart complete works edition as given below), but performers often omit two or three of them.

Mozart returns to childlike fun and Overbeck’s poetry for Das Kinderspiel (Children’s play). The nine-verse poem was originally titled simply Kinderlied (Children’s song), but its carefree high spirits, which Mozart captures perfectly, make Kinderspiel an especially fitting title. As with the other songs in this set, singers today often omit some of the interior verses. Mozart gives the performance direction Munter (Blithely) and sets the text in a lightly dancing 3/8 meter. Little leaps and oscillations add to the playful atmosphere.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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