Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Mozart’s last three symphonies were written in the summer of 1788, with the composer finishing the G-minor Symphony on July 25th. Little is known about the performance history of these three symphonies under their composer. He undoubtedly wrote them for a series of subscription concerts he planned for that summer, but there is no indication that those performances ever took place.
The G-minor Symphony, however, was indeed performed twice in April 1791, when the conductor was Antonio Salieri, the composer and court musician most remembered today for the unfounded claim that he poisoned Mozart seven months later. (In another irony, those concerts were benefits for widows and orphans, of which the composer would shortly leave his own.) For these performances Mozart added a pair of clarinets to the orchestration, working them into his existing oboe parts. In the 19th century the work was known primarily in its original version, but performing it with the clarinets gradually became standard practice in the 20th century. (The clarinets seem so characteristically Mozartian, but he only used them in four of his symphonies, and two of those – including this one – as revisions.)
In either version, however, this is urgent, passionate music. The beginning – soft, murmurous accompaniment waiting on its melody – became a Romantic-era trope, but was surely a shock to Mozart’s contemporaries. Schumann found the work “full of Hellenic grace,” but it is also full of violent dislocations, such as the abrupt lurch into F-sharp minor for the development section of the opening movement, in which harmony is further stretched as Mozart obsesses with the head of the main theme. Amazingly, Mozart is able to increase tension throughout, into a coda of deepest, darkest feeling.
The sighing Andante seems a lighter, brighter world, if only through the major key (E-flat) and more sedate pace. But Mozart takes this music to strange, chromatically unsettling, places, and the throbbing eighth notes prove as insistent as the more manic energies of the opening.
The bold swagger of the Minuet, back in minor mode, comes from its canonic reinforcement. The Trio section, in G major, is the only music in the Symphony that Mozart did not change in his revision, making the oboes a particularly prominent dash of color. Another long-spanned sonata form, the finale seeks to answer the questions that the first movement had asked, with vehement energy. But it too enters development with expectation-shattering strokes and finds further terror there. Propulsive confidence reasserts itself, of course, and closes the Symphony with great brilliance, refocusing rather than banishing the dangers.
— John Henken