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Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.


BORN: January 27, 1756. Salzburg, Austria

DIED: December 5, 1791. Vienna, Austria

COMPOSED: Between Autumn 1780 and the first weeks of 1781

WORLD PREMIERE: January 29, 1781, at the Residenztheater in Munich

US PREMIERE: The United States did not see a staged performance of Idomeneo until 1947, though excerpts had been performed often since the nineteenth century

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST AND ONLY— November 1977. Philippe Entremont conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 each of flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns, and trumpets; timpani; and strings

DURATION: About 26 mins

THE BACKSTORY Mozart was one of the most astonishing child prodigies in the history of music. He composed his opera Idomeneo in 1780-81, at the age of twenty-five. He had already been a professional musician for two decades. As a youngster he toured from his home in Salzburg to the musical capitals of Europe—London, Bologna, Vienna, Mannheim, Paris—usually accompanied by his father (a distinguished violinist) and sometimes his sister, who was also prodigiously talented.

The first time he embarked on a trip alone, without a parental chaperone, was when he traveled to Munich to prepare a production of his tenth (!) opera, Idomeneo. Idomeneo is an opera seria of the sort favored by mid-eighteenth-century audiences, a well-made play (in principle, anyway) derived from ancient legends. In this case, Idomeneo, the king of Crete, survives a storm at sea and thanks Neptune for his lucky break by promising to offer the first living being he encounters on shore as a sacrifice. This unfortunate person happens to be his own son, Idamante.

Munich had a splendid orchestra and Mozart took full advantage of that, not only in the accompaniments to the vocal numbers but also in the marches inserted into the action and particularly the marvelous ballet music. (Eighteenth-century opera seria often included a ballet). On the evidence of the music we would guess that he enjoyed this part of his task, but at least one letter makes reference to “these accursed dances.”

THE MUSIC The drama is peppered with opportunities for sheer spectacle, one of which occurs at the end. Here all the participants join in an extended ballet, the crowning portion of which is a grand Chaconne. A Chaconne is most typically a set of variations on a repeated pattern of harmonies or over a repeated bass, the label being used almost interchangeably with passacaglia; however, in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century music it often denotes a piece in which one refrain comes after each in an often quite long succession of episodes. This is the sort of chaconne we have here; in fact, it is quite a complex structure in which the episode-and-refrain pattern (Allegro) is broken by a section at a slower tempo (Larghetto).

We can infer that the corps de ballet danced the refrain, but that individual dancers were featured in the episodes since they are marked as “Pas seul de Mad. Falgera,” “Pas de deux de Mad. Hartig et Mr. Antoine,” and so forth. The Munich ballet master, a certain Monsieur LeGrand, gave himself the biggest portion as a pas seul. Mozart’s basic chaconne theme is borrowed from Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide of 1774, perhaps as homage to that great senior figure of the operatic world, perhaps because the theme, like so many chaconne and passacaglia patters, was virtually a cliché and in effect common property. This is one of Mozart’s most powerful and varied instrumental movements.

Next comes a movement in four parts, each section being quicker than the one preceding. This is Monsieur LeGrand’s pas seul. Three dances follow, a passepied, a gavotte, and a concluding passacaille—a rondo-like piece analogous to the opening Chaconne, but predominantly lyric rather than majestic and brilliant.

Idomeneo met with reasonable success, but Mozart had his sights set on bigger things. Vienna beckoned, and when later in 1781 an opportunity arose for him to move there, he went. The ensuing decade would see the appearance of substantially all of his greatest masterpieces.—Michael Steinberg and James M. Keller


Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback. 

(June 2019)