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About this Piece

Composed: 1785

Length: 6 minutes

Orchestration: 2 oboes, clarinet, 3 basset-horns, contrabassoon, 2 horns, and strings

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 10, 1958, Bruno Walter conducting

That Mozart and other luminaries of his time, not least among them George Washington, should have been Freemasons is not surprising. Although secretive in their way - no small inducement to making governments suspicious of them - the Freemasons embodied the humanitarian principles of the Enlightenment, of universal brotherhood, of "light" (education, knowledge) versus "dark," which is to say ignorance and bigotry.

The Austrian Empress Maria Theresa made Freemasonry illegal in 1764: the Freemasons were, to her mind, secret societies aimed at toppling "legal" governments, or at least the divine rights of emperors. The Emperor Joseph II lifted the ban, but in 1785, Joseph, the so-called liberal, decided that there were too many lodges in Vienna and decreed that the several should be reduced to a few, the more easily to be kept under his watchful eye. One result was the creation of the "Loge zur gekrönten Hoffnung" (Crowned Hope Lodge), which opened in 1786 and of which Mozart was a prominent member. (Leopold II, Joseph's successor, re-imposed the total ban. Hitler and Stalin, not surprisingly, banned Freemasonry from their realms.)

What we know of Mozart's Masonic activities is embodied in his music, of which the prime example is his opera Die Zauberflöte, which, in the words of David Mailton in The Compleat Mozart, "celebrates Masonic ideals of truth, brotherhood, and love". Mozart composed several other ceremonial pieces for the lodges to which he belonged, including the Trauermusik (Funeral Music): a work of striking, profound dignity.

The score came into being in 1785, in response to the deaths on consecutive days of two of his lodge brothers. On November 17, 1785 the Trauermusik was performed at a double memorial service at the Crowned Hope Lodge. The score is, in fact, an arrangement of Mozart's Meistermusik, for men's voices, winds, and strings, written for another, non-funereal occasion a few months earlier.

The Trauermusik is scored for 2 oboes, clarinet, basset-horn, 2 horns, and strings, with two additional basset-horns and contrabassoon added for a second performance, which took place on December 9. The piece is in three interlaced parts: a dirgelike march, out of which emerges a stark chorale melody which is interrupted by convulsive stabs of brass and jarring harmonic shifts; and, finally, a coda which offers a relatively soothing finale to these five-plus minutes of anguished grandeur.

- Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist-critic for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.