Which comes first?

Did you watch any of the recent Winter Olympics?  Anne and I did not catch much of the coverage, but were very impressed by some of the newer (for us) disciplines with contestants alternately skiing down precipitous slopes and then jumping huge vertical distances, in seemingly endless sequences and all at breakneck speed.  It seemed a bit like a skiing roller coaster.

Carlos spent a lot of time with the sopranos at last night’s rehearsal.  Not that the rest of us were better than them, but rather that they are called upon by Mozart to be vocal skiers of the most modern sort.  The Kyrie in D minor in particular has some very tricky sections for them.  They start on a high note, slip gently and securely down a few adjacent notes, then have to jump nimbly down several notes, land securely and quickly gather poise to leap up, either in one jump or by a series of notes, towards the top again.  And then it starts all over again, but not exactly the same; similar in principle but very different in detail, and often seemingly at a skier’s breakneck speed.  It’s demanding stuff and they did well to have pretty well mastered it by the end of the rehearsal.

During the basses’ down-time, listening to the sopranos, it was easy to fall into musing – which came first for Mozart, the melody or the harmony?  For some composers, we know the answer.  Elgar, for example, carried a music manuscript notebook with him all the time.  As he walked and cycled around the Malvern Hills a melody would come to him; he would jot it down and, once back home in his study, refine it and add appropriate harmonies.  Incidentally, his music manuscript books were made by his wife Alice.  She had a five-nibbed pen for drawing musical staves, and she laboriously drew up all Edward’s manuscript paper with this pen, a ruler and of course, do you remember it, ink.  Quite a remove from the days of composing software!

For Mozart, we do not know the answer.  I sensed last night that it might be a bit of both.  Sometimes the flow of the melody seemed to dominate and to determine the harmony.  At other times it seemed that Mozart wanted to use a particular sequence of chords, particularly when moving from key to key, and then found a tune which made the most of them.  And maybe sometimes, being the genius he was, he thought of them both at the same time.

We will never know what fired Mozart’s great creative genius.  All we can do is to enjoy the fruits of his labours, and make the most of the opportunities we have to share his brilliant creativity with the members of our audiences.