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Length: c. 35 minutes
Orchestration: flute, 2 oboes, [2 clarinets,] 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: October 24, 1929, Artur Rodzinski conducting
Myth and reality often collide as we look back at the last years of Mozart’s short life. The persistent myth is that an impoverished, forsaken, unappreciated genius composed masterpieces for posterity while hurtling toward an untimely death and a pauper’s grave. Exhibit A supporting this story is the last three symphonies, written, it is said, with no prospect of having them performed, to be discovered only after his death. The story is mostly romantic balderdash, but there is a bit of mystery to Mozart’s last three symphonies all the same.
Mozart was 32 when he wrote them in the summer of 1788, and seven successful years as an independent composer-performer-impresario in Vienna had made him prosperous. But when the Holy Roman Empire, of which Vienna was the capital, declared war on Turkey in February of that year, the Viennese economy fizzled, and Mozart’s career fizzled with it. His livelihood depended on the Viennese moneyed class, which dwindled as upper-class men left the city to serve as military officers, or went to their country estates to avoid questions about why they weren’t serving. Mozart nonetheless planned a concert series for that summer, with an unrequited optimism that continued over the next three years, as he treated the drop in his income as a temporary problem that he could solve by borrowing money rather than cutting his expenses. Doubtless he would have been proved right had he survived a few years longer. But in the short term, he had to cancel his concert series – it isn’t clear whether the first concert took place – but he still finished the new symphonies now commonly, if inaccurately, known as numbers 39, 40, and 41.
Contrary to myth, the evidence indicates that Mozart heard the three symphonies performed. He had orchestra parts copied, an expense he would not have incurred unless he needed them for a performance. He also went to the trouble of reorchestrating the G-minor Symphony to add clarinets, an effort that would have made no sense unless the Symphony were going to be played. Mozart included symphonies in concerts he gave in Leipzig in 1789 and Frankfurt in 1790, and a Mozart symphony was performed at a concert led by Antonio Salieri in Vienna in 1791. No specific symphony can be identified for any of these events, but it hardly seems possible that Mozart would have passed up a chance to show off one or another of his new works. The orchestra for the 1791 Vienna concert included the clarinetists Johann and Anton Stadler (Mozart wrote his clarinet quintet and concerto for Anton), which may have supplied the occasion for the second version of the G-minor Symphony.
Myth and reality are on more friendly terms when it comes to the effect Mozart’s later works had on contemporary ears. His music was indeed seen as difficult, for both player and listener. His later symphonies particularly must have departed radically from normalcy in a way modern listeners can scarcely imagine. Our notion of “symphony” starts with Beethoven, and we assume that a symphony will be a major work containing a composer’s most profound utterances. Mozart’s audiences, on the other hand, expected a symphony to be relatively small and light. Only 17 years before Mozart wrote his last symphonies, a prominent German musician, describing the symphony for musical laymen, wrote, “Because it will not be practiced like the sonata but must be sightread, it should contain no difficulties that cannot be met and performed clearly by several players simultaneously.” Great emotional power and extended architecture were the territory of oratorio, serious opera, and liturgical music. Symphonies were rarely even in minor keys: aside from Symphony No. 40, all of Mozart’s symphonies except the earlier “little” G-minor Symphony and a sinfonia from an early opera are in major keys.
More has been said and written about the G-minor Symphony than perhaps any other Mozart work. The 19th century, by and large, thought it epitomized Classical elegance, refinement, and lightness, which was faint praise in an era that exalted the tragic and dramatic. In the 20th century a competing point of view emerged, saying the Symphony was actually a heavy, tragic work of pre-Romantic boldness – the 19th-century ideal, if only the 19th century had realized it. This approach naturally led to heavy, portentous playing, which makes little sense on the instruments Mozart knew. (The competition between the two points of view became nerve-wracking at a New York Philharmonic rehearsal of the first movement in the 1930s when guest-conductor Bruno Walter, an exponent of the classical lightness approach, kept insisting that the orchestra lighten up, which the players did reluctantly because they saw their notoriously uncompromising music director, Arturo Toscanini, an advocate of the tragic approach, fuming in the back of the hall.)
The “early music” approach has tended to drop the baggage of extra-musical meaning and take the Symphony on its own musical terms. Those terms are imposing enough.
The choice of key is significant, since it excludes trumpets (the valveless trumpet that was standard until the mid-1800s could play a limited sequence of notes in whatever key was established by its length, and there was no such thing as a trumpet in G), and thus also excludes tympani, which by convention were used only in works with trumpets. It thus eschews pomp and fireworks, offering instead polyphonic intensity.
Much of the development in the outer movements is fugal in effect, and the very melodic ideas of the inner movements are rooted in counterpoint. The main theme of the Andante is a series of entrances piled on each other in a pyramid of dissonance and resolution, and the Minuet gets its relentless drive from the push and pull of dissonance between the warring voices.
There are surprising chromatic shifts and remote keys. After the first movement’s exposition closes in a perfectly normal B-flat major, it modulates abruptly back to G minor, then slides immediately down to an exotic F-sharp minor, only to slither chromatically down to E minor. This was bizarre stuff in 1788. A unison passage that begins the finale’s development section has been called an early example of twelve-tone writing (it actually has every note but the tonic G). But for all its boldness and complexity, the Symphony is also unusually direct, without introductions, flourishes, or gesture for gesture’s sake. It has much to say, and says it forthrightly and powerfully.