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Symphony No. 38 in D major, K. 504, "Prague"

About the Work

Wolfgang Mozart
Quick Look Composer: Wolfgang Mozart
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, conductor/Midori, violin Feb. 23 - 25, 2006
© Richard Freed

Mozart completed the score of this three movement symphony in Vienna on December 6, 1786, and conducted the first performance on January 19, 1787, in Prague. Stanley Chapple conducted the National Symphony Orchestra's first performance of this work, on June 21, 1944; Leonard Slatkin conducted the most recent ones, on September 26-28, 2002.
The score calls for flutes, oboes, bassoons, horns and trumpets in pairs, with timpani and strings. Duration, 25 minutes.



The Marriage of Figaro, introduced at the Burgtheater in Vienna on May 1, 1786, gave Mozart the greatest public success he enjoyed in his brief life. Enthusiastic as the premiere audience was, the response was greater still in Prague the following winter. In January 1787 Mozart and his wife made an extended visit to the Bohemian capital, where he was lionized as the hero of the hour. In a letter to his father, dated January 15, he could report that "the one subject of conversation here is--Figaro; nothing is played, sung or whistled but--Figaro; nobody goes to any opera but--Figaro; everlastingly Figaro!"

Besides raising his spirits (which were only to drop again once he returned to Vienna), the sojourn in Prague brought Mozart a commission for an opera which he was to fulfill with the greatest of his works for the stage, Don Giovanni. He not only conducted at least one performance of Figaro himself, but conducted as well the first performance of the new Symphony in D major he had composed the previous month for presentation during his visit. The enthusiasm of the audience on that occasion was so great that following the performance of the Symphony Mozart was compelled to improvise at the piano for nearly an hour.

This so-called Prague Symphony is sometimes referred to by Germans as the Symphony ohne Menuett ("without minuet"); while Mozart had written such symphonies in his earlier years, this is the only one among the half-dozen composed in his Viennese years. What is far more unusual is that all three movements are in sonata form, a phenomenon perhaps unduplicated among Classical symphonies.

This symphony is also one of only three which Mozart provided with slow introductions à la Haydn, the others being the those that immediately preceded and followed this one (the "Haffner" Symphony, No. 35, of 1782 and the Symphony No. 39 in E-flat that began the final trilogy in the summer of 1788). The opening Adagio in this work is conspicuously longer than either of the two other introductions, and is at once majestic and suspenseful in the best theatrical sense. (Pre-echoes of Don Giovanni and the still later Magic Flute are as prominent here as echoes of Figaro in the work's later sections.) Even more majestic is the robust onset of the Allegro itself, a highly contrapuntal section so rich in themes--no fewer than six--that one all but loses count as they flash by.

Trumpets and drums are silent in the Andante (in G major), as poignant a drama as Mozart ever set before his listeners by means of the orchestra alone, with the single exception of the tragic corresponding movement of the later Symphony in G minor (No. 40). Not only the variety of the themes--whose moods range from radiant hope to serene resignation--must be accounted remarkable here, but the orchestral coloring itself and, perhaps most of all, the gentle but firm rhythmic drive.

Apart from the phenomenon of having all the movements in sonata form, Mozart may have been guided by his keen theatrical instincts in omitting the minuet, which really has no place in this dramatically charged work. The tension of the foregoing movements is resolved brilliantly in the sparkling Presto finale--which must have driven the Figaro-intoxicated Prague audience wild, since its principal theme was lifted from the second act of the opera (Susanna's "Aprite, presto aprite," as she draws Cherubino from his hiding place to make his escape through the window).