Mnemonics are tricks to help you remember things, such as names and numbers. For example, Mozart lived for only 35 years. We live at No. 35, ___ Lane, Colombo 3. Forming a mental image of the great Amadeus standing at our gate would preserve indelibly the fact of his age at the time of his [...]


The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Playing mnemonics with Mozart


Mnemonics are tricks to help you remember things, such as names and numbers. For example, Mozart lived for only 35 years. We live at No. 35, ___ Lane, Colombo 3. Forming a mental image of the great Amadeus standing at our gate would preserve indelibly the fact of his age at the time of his death.

Faced with Mozart and his prodigious output of music compositions, you may feel the need to fall back on ways to remember how to identify individual favourites. Take this challenge, for example: Mozart wrote 40 symphonies and 27 piano concertos. How do you tell them apart to yourself or to someone else, without a Mozart catalogue in your hand? A couple of Mozart symphonies have tag names, such as the “Jupiter (No. ) and the “Mozart 40”.

Mozart was 11 years old when he wrote his first four piano concertos. He wrote a total of 27 piano concertos.

What do you do when you have for years been conducting 27 secret, not separate, love affairs with the complete set of Mozart piano concertos, and you feel compelled to share your excitement with a sympathetic friend? A couple of the 27 concertos have names, such as “Jeunehomme” and “Coronation,” but that’s it; how do you talk about the other 25 angels?

One evening, many years ago, on the street, we received a stinging blow to our music-listening ears (and music-loving ego) when attempting to talk about a particular Mozart piano concerto, the 23rd, in A Major, K 488. The “488” is the Kochel number in the cataloguing system used to list Mozart compositions.

For personal, if not musical, reasons, we looked to the attractive sequence of numerals, 488, to identify this beloved work, whose melodies have been haunting us since childhood, from the time Mother would repeatedly go over the score’s first violin part in preparation for a symphony concert. One particular melodic line (the second exposition theme, if you insist) stopped us in our tracks. Whatever game it was we were playing – kindergarten cricket, golf or gudu – it had to be suspended so we could follow this melody. It hung in the air long after Mother had ended her practice session for the day. The melody even had a hue to it – a pale, gem-like yellow-green sheen, that part of the spectrum in the rainbow spray spun from the sprinkler on the front lawn. (Mother’s practice hour must have coincided with the hour of watering the garden for us to have made the colour-sound connection. The pale green cover of the Breitkopf & Hartel orchestra score may also have contributed to the “colouring” of the A Major, K 488 concerto. Come to think of it, our copy of the piano score, picked up at a second-hand book store and autographed “Lois Mack”, the well-known pianist and music teacher, also had a pale, apple-green cover.)

The single line of violin play heard daily for weeks would finally mesh with the silver and gold of the whole orchestra gathered on the stage on the evening of the concert. Then, for the first time, we would hear the melody played out in all its golden fullness, shared by the other instruments and the solo piano.

The first time we heard the A Major, K 488 concerto was in the early ’60s, in a performance given by the New Zealand pianist Peter Cooper and the Ceylon Symphony Orchestra. The second time Mother pulled out the 488 violin part was 10 years later, for a performance given by the Ceylonese pianist Rukmani Munasinghe. On both occasions, the venue was the stately CMS Ladies’ College Hall.

The third time we heard the work on a local stage was last week, at the Lionel Wendt Theatre, in a concert given by the Chamber Music Society of Colombo, with Ashan Peiris as soloist.

In the meantime, during the 60s, we had been hearing the work, in parts, on a couple of well-used, highly scratched 78 rpm records. These belonged to a 1946 Artur Rubinstein RCA recording. In Rubinstein’s hands, the second exposition is exquisitely poised, achieving a wistfulness that is almost, but not quite, sadness. It is a difficult line of melody to play on the keyboard: the theme rises, dips and then settles on a single note that is repeated six times successively, with a little rhythmic variation; the good pianist will weigh on the repeat notes with just enough delicacy to make an infinitesimal difference with each repeat, before moving on. When we think of the A Major, K 488, it is with that magically simple yet deeply expressive theme in mind.

Something had prompted us to bring up the concerto, during a lull in the conversation, as the redoubtable musician and music critic Elmer de Haan, Father and self were walking up Alfred House Avenue, on our way to the tea and coffee houses of Bambalapitiya. The time was the early Seventies. Mr. de Haan wanted to know what concerto we were referring to. The K 488, we said. Mr. de Haan wanted the key. The A Major, K 488, we said, expansively.

“Never,” thundered Mr. de Haan, “refer to a piece of music by numbers. Music is identified by the key.” We apologised, stuttered, and Mr. de Haan roared on.

“In music, it is the key that matters, always. It’s those who know nothing about music who talk about numbers.” This was mortifying to hear. Our music-adoring ears were burning with embarrassment.

We never forgot that lesson, even though countless times we have seen and heard Mozart works referred to by numbers only – Kochel number and number in order of composition. The offenders include leading recording companies, international orchestras, local and foreign radio and TV stations, concert programmers, and recognized music writers. To this music fan, the A Major (Mozart wrote two piano concertos in the key of A), No. 23, K 488 has always been “The A Major,” since that evening stroll to Bambalapitiya in the ’70s, in the company of this country’s most piercingly intelligent and perceptive music commentator.

The point here is that Mr. Elmer de Haan had absolute pitch. He could identify a note on hearing it. Those with absolute pitch do not have to be told what key a work starts and ends in; they hear the key instantly. To those gifted with perfect pitch, each piece of music has its distinctive tonality, tonal colour, character. The key of a music composition is the core and essence of its personality. But this can be truly appreciated only by those blessed with absolute pitch. For these, a work written in A cannot be cast in B without losing the soul of the original in A. The late Mr. de Haan would have said, “Without killing the original.”

But not all music lovers have perfect pitch. They can tell whether a note in a piece of music is outside pitch, out of tune, but they will not be able to say what key that work is in, unless they are familiar with the piece, its history and principal features.

A. B . C. D. E. F. G. . . . A. B. C sharp. D. E. F sharp. G sharp. . . . B flat. C. D. E flat. . .

Sadly, all these notes of the music scale are of equal aural significance to the person born without perfect pitch. That includes the majority of the music-loving world.

Finding ways to identify the 27 Mozart piano concertos, without prompting and without the tipping of absolute pitch, is a challenge we are working on.

On days we do not listen to the Mozart A Major, No. 23, K 488, we are usually reminded of the work. That happens whenever our good friend and music lover Mohan A calls; his mobile telephone number ends with the digits “488.”

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