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Tchaikovsky conceived the notion of creating a Mozart-derived work in 1884, when he heard a performance of Beethoven’s First Symphony and was “surprised” (his expression) that he had liked it, despite it not being Beethoven of the titanic sort. In a letter written to composer Sergei Taneyev at the time, he attributes this to his belief that, “It must be because it resembles my god, Mozart.” Tchaikovsky could not, however, get his Mozartian act together until the time came for a celebration of the centennial of the completion of Don Giovanni, to take place in Moscow on November 8, 1887, [the opera was actually completed on October 28, 1787]. The first performance of this Suite took place at a concert devoted entirely to Tchaikovsky’s music on November 26 in Moscow, conducted by the composer.

“I am occupying myself about an hour each day with orchestrating the Mozart piano pieces,” he wrote from a spa in the Caucasus in July of 1887 to his publisher, Jurgenson. “I think there’s a great future, especially abroad, for this suite, thanks to a successful choice of pieces and the novelty of its character: the old given a contemporary treatment.”

And an imaginative choice of pieces it is: for movements one and two respectively, the delectably odd Gigue in G, K. 574, and the even quirkier piano Minuet in D, K. 355 (whose trio, which was provided after Mozart’s death by the Abbé Stadler, was not used by Tchaikovsky), — each only a page long in the original and both richly (Romantically?) chromatic; for movement three, the sublime motet Ave verum corpus for chorus, strings, and organ, K. 618; and for the grand finale, his own variations on Mozart’s variations, K. 455, on “Unser dummer Pöbel meint,” an aria from an opera by Gluck. The version of Ave verum corpus employed is in itself a curiosity: Liszt’s arrangement, as “Preghiera” (Prayer), for piano solo, with his own introduction and coda added.

Tchaikovsky prefaced the score of “Mozartiana” with the following: “A great many of Mozart’s short pieces are, for some incomprehensible reason, little known — not only to the public but to musicians as well. The author who has arranged this suite, entitled ‘Mozartiana,’ had in mind to provide a new occasion for the more frequent performance of these pearls of musical art, unpretentious in form, but filled with unrivalled beauties.”

—Herbert Glass