The Kennedy Center

Symphony No. 34 in C major, K. 338

About the Work

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
© Peter Laki


This is the last symphony Mozart wrote before his move to Vienna—the main turning point in his adult life. At the time, the composer was at a crossroads both professionally and musically. Profoundly frustrated in the service of the unsympathetic Archbishop Colloredo in Salzburg, he had been trying to get away for years, without success. In 1780, he secured a commission from the Court Theater in Munich for the opera Idomeneo, his most prestigious project to date. Although this commission did not result in permanent employment, it contributed greatly to his growing reputation.

Symphony No. 34 was written just three months before Mozart left for Munich. The symphony has a fanfare-like opening that became a real Mozartian signature: we find it in the Overture to Idomeneo, but also in such later works as the "Prague" (No. 38) and "Jupiter" (No. 41) symphonies, as well as the Overture to his final opera, La clemenza di Tito.

Like this fanfare, most of the musical elements used in the symphony are fairly simple in themselves, but they are handled and developed in a most sophisticated way. The repetition of part of the fanfare theme in the minor mode adds an unexpected twist to the festive opening only seconds into the first movement. Similarly, the lyrical second theme, which starts in fairly regular metric groups of 4 +4 measures, becomes utterly unpredictable at the repeat, as the end of the phrase keeps being delayed by added measures. A new melodic idea begins before the previous one has been brought to a satisfactory close; as a result, we listeners are left in suspense, waiting for a cadence we know must be coming, but clueless as to how long we will have to wait.

The cadence does come eventually; however, the reassurance it brings is soon cancelled out by a new kind of instability, namely a series of modulations that take us deep into the darker region of the flat keys for almost the entire duration of the development section. The recapitulation does what its name suggests, yet there is another twist: the opening fanfare is substantially shortened and Mozart jumps ahead to the lyrical second theme. To our surprise, however, he returns to the fanfare material at the end of the movement and fashions it into a highly effective coda. It is clearly a theatrical gesture: the festive procession that entered at the beginning is now leaving the stage. (The fact that Mozart, contrary to normal practice, did not repeat the exposition seems to be consistent with the theatrical analogy: the procession cannot enter the stage twice.)

Mozart designated the second movement as Andante di molto, which could be translated, roughly, as "moving right along." He must have found that performers took the Andante to mean slow, for he entered a remark in one of the violin parts that the tempo should be "Allegretto, rather" (più tosto allegretto). The movement is scored for strings alone, plus bassoons playing along with the cellos and double basses. The first measures are played by first and second violins, at first unaccompanied and in parallel motion. Later the two violin sections go their separate ways, receiving support from the lower strings. Throughout the movement, unaccompanied violin passages alternate effectively with the sound of the full string orchestra.

Most of Mozart's mature symphonies are in four movements, with a minuet in third place. No. 34 has no minuet. Mozart did plan to write one, originally intending it as the second movement. Most of it was, however, torn from the manuscript, leaving only the first 14 measures which had been written on the back of the last page of the first movement. The reason why Mozart deleted the minuet is unclear: perhaps he wanted (or was prevailed upon) to adhere to an older, three-movement symphonic form. In 1780, the minuet was still a recent addition to multi-movement instrumental works, and not one that was welcomed by everyone. Many musical authorities of the day were vehemently opposed to the inclusion of minuets, arguing that they introduced an incongruous dance element into an otherwise "serious" composition. Mozart, who had written symphonies both with and without minuets in his early years, tended more and more toward the four-movement scheme; Nos. 31 ("Paris"), 34, and 38 ("Prague") are the only three-movement symphonies among his mature works.

Like the first movement, the finale seems to evoke a scene from an opera. The themes—in the tempo and meter of the quick tarantella dance—follow on one another's heels like actions and situation in a fast-paced, surprise-filled comic opera. One of the characteristic harmonic progressions (an extended sequence of alternating dissonances and consonances) will return almost literally in the last movement of the "Linz" symphony (No. 36), written in the same key of C major three years later.

When Mozart arrived in Vienna in the spring of 1781, this symphony was his most recent representative work. As he reported to his father on April 11, 1781, "the symphony conducted by Bono (Imperial conductor Giuseppe Bonno) went magnifique, and had great success. Forty violins played—the wind instruments were doubled—ten violas, ten double-basses, eight violoncellos, and six bassoons." This instrumentation seems enormous for the time; six bassoons would be a luxury even today. It goes to show the extent to which the composition of an orchestra depended on the availability of musicians and personal tastes.

In any event, the performance helped to strengthen Mozart's reputation in Vienna, the capital of the Habsburg Empire. The composer was acquiring friends and supporters, and could therefore face the final showdown with the Archbishop. This took place in May, shortly after the performance of Symphony No. 34, when Mozart was literally kicked out by Count d'Arco, a member of the Archbishop's retinue. The die was cast: Mozart did not return to Salzburg but remained in Vienna as one of the first freelance composers in the history of music. It was a bold experiment that met with varying degrees of success over the decade to follow.