WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756-1791)
Overture to La clemenza di Tito, K. 621 (1791), 5 minutes
La clemenza di Tito was first performed on September 6, 1791 in Prague.
The work is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
Composed in the year of his death of 1791, Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus) is set in Rome 80 CE, and surrounds a trio of characters: Titus the emperor, Sesto his loyal friend, and Vitellia, daughter of the former emperor with ambitions to be the next empress. When Titus bypasses Vitellia, she plots his assassination with the help of Sesto, who is in love with her. The plan fails miserably and leads back to Sesto who in turn does not implicate anyone. With a guilty conscious, Vitellia eventually confesses to Titus and he grants clemency to both her and Sesto.
As for the overture, none of this story actually makes it into the music as there is no musical connection to the opera. This may seem strange today since the overture which has carried over into the musical and film world, generally gives the audience a preview of themes to come. But there are many examples of opera overtures bearing no resemblance to the operatic music they preface. Overtures have often functioned less as a preview and more as a call to attention that the show is about to begin.
La Clemenza di Tito was commissioned by Domenico Guardasoni who had been charged to supply music for the coronation of Leopold II from Holy Roman Emperor to King of Bohemia. The overture was written hastily the night before the event, a logistical feat considering the limited time for copyist to make instrumental parts and then rehearsals for a private performance hours after the ceremony. The opera was later given an official public premiere in September 6, 1791.
Given the circumstances, the overture’s regal nature is immediate. The opening begins with a call to attention with a blast of C-major followed by punctuations of an ascending arpeggiation of that chord. Two important rhythms are unleashed, the royal-like dotted rhythm that embodies a march-like quality, and the decoratively swift triplet rhythm that pushes, scoops and heralds strong musical punctuation. This music, in addition to being celebratory and majestic, begins and ends the overture. The music bridging these coronation pillars, focuses on music derived from a two-bar melodic phrase. Consisting of a long note followed by five short notes, these phrases are passed to and from instrumental families in a kind of call and response of magisterial celebration. © MTF
*Digitally published for the Hawaiʻi Symphony Sheraton Starlight Series on May 14-16, 2021.