Length: c. 25 minutes
Orchestration: 2 oboes, 2 horns, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 18, 1941, John Barbirolli conducting
K. 183 and K. 201, the symphonies written by the 18-year-old Mozart in Salzburg after returning in the fall of 1773 from a trip to Vienna with his father, are easily his finest to that time in terms of expressivity and formal mastery. The ostensible purpose of the trip was social, a visit with an old family friend, Anton Mesmer – the physician noted, and notorious, for his practice of what came to be called “mesmerism”; to keep it simple, since this is not an article about him, let’s equate it with “hypnotism” (as a treatment for hysteria) – and his cousin Joseph Conrad Mesmer, director of the St. Stephen’s Cathedral School. The latter’s admiration for the young composer was great, and he offered Wolfgang admission to the school, with all expenses paid. One wonders what Mesmer thought the young man could be taught.
It can be assumed that the real reason for the Viennese sojourn was to find employment for the teenager. As such, it was a failure, but in the Imperial capital Wolfgang’s horizons were expanded by exposure to important new music, including the six Op. 20 quartets and the latest “Sturm und Drang” symphonies by his friend and idol, Joseph Haydn.
The Symphony in A was completed the following April. It begins softly in the strings, with an octave drop, the theme subsequently repeated in skipping octaves as the oboes and horns join in. The second theme, introduced by the first violins, is marked by a recurrent trill. Movement two is the symphony's warmly beating heart, a serenade for muted violins which, to quote Edward Downes (the late musicologist, not the late conductor), reveals “an enchanting Rococo ornamentation and delicate texture which seems closer to that of a string quartet than of a symphony.”
Movement three, after a deceptively genteel opening, evolves into a propulsive minuet, with dotted rhythms and sudden fortissimos. Particularly striking here are the unison wind octaves with which each of its two sections concludes. The finale is a dashing, harmonically rich affair, in the style of Haydn’s “hunting” finales.