Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Length: 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
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.
- Lawyer and lutenist Howard Posner also annotates programs for the Salzburg Festival.