About this Piece
Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, and strings
First LA Phil performance: February 17, 1927, with John Barbirolli conducting
“It is probably still a popular misconception that many of [Mozart’s] great works date from early youth – but while it is true that there are flashes of inspiration in many of the early works, the first which has a firm footing in the modern repertoire is the… G-minor Symphony, K. 183, written when he was 17. Nevertheless, the shade of ‘the prodigy of Salzburg’ has come to haunt two centuries of musically talented children and the lids of chocolate boxes.” (John Stone, in The Mozart Companion)
In part, this "firm footing" was achieved through the Romantic era’s (and well beyond) concept of K. 183 as angry, as atypical, as bursting the bounds of the putative Classical dictates of suppression of the darker emotions and dedication to “style” above feeling. But why so angry, young Wolfgang? Some biographers suggest, with little if any substantiation, a blighted love affair preceding the composition of K. 183 in Salzburg in the fall of 1773. It is not at all conjectural, however, that between 1770 and 1773 Joseph Haydn produced a trio of tempestuous minor-key symphonies. Colorful nicknames have become attached to two of them, “Mourning” to No. 44 in E minor, “Farewell” to No. 45 in F-sharp minor, while a third, sans sobriquet and therefore less well known, but perhaps most pertinent to the present subject, is No. 39 in G minor.
Mozart was a keen student of Haydn’s symphonies, and the latter’s G-minor must have served as a model for the first of the younger composer’s two symphonies in that dark key, not least for its scoring for four horns instead of the usual two of the Classical orchestra. The horn quartet – a pair each in B-flat and G – is employed in K. 183 to add weight to the overall sonority, and more importantly to supply the chromatic textures virtually impossible to achieve with the valveless, basically diatonic instrument of the time.
The symphony opens with a splendidly theatrical falling diminished seventh – the prelude to a drama that unfolds rather like the storm scenes of operas of the time. This is tense, terse music, marked by fierce syncopations, pregnant silences, and a powerful bass line, the last employed for melodic purposes rather than as mere accompaniment. The ensuing Andante is again operatic, but this time in the form of an aria, notable for the sweetly sad appoggiaturas of the opening measures and the imaginatively scored dialogues for violins (muted) and bassoons that follow.
The minuet is far removed from the ballroom: a stern, stomping affair, announced by the bare octaves of the full orchestra, with relief coming in the form of a gently rustic trio, scored for wind band. In the finale, the composer returns to the driven, hectoring mood of the opening movement — intensified here by even greater compression and precipitate dynamic shifts.
— Herbert Glass