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

About the Work

W.A. Mozart
Quick Look Composer: W.A. Mozart
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Jiri Belohlávek, conductor: Igor Levit, piano, plays Beethoven / Works by Mozart & Martinu Nov. 19 - 21, 2015
© Peter Laki

Three years had passed since 1783, the year Mozart wrote his last symphony, the C-major work known as the "Linz" (No. 36, K. 425).  Those years were among the most productive in Mozart's life; in addition to a magnificent series of piano concertos (no fewer than twelve works!), he composed six great string quartets, a host of other chamber music works, and, last but not least, the opera The Marriage of Figaro.  This list is impressive not only by the sheer quantity of works:  Mozart, who had turned thirty in January 1786, had entered a new artistic phase, reaching an unprecedented level of maturity and sophistication.  Having mastered the musical conventions of the age as a child and created his own personal style as a young adult, he was now beginning to write works that were totally unique in the way they treated that style and those conventions. 

            Every page of the new symphony (known as the ?Prague" because it was first performed in that city) bears witness to Mozart's intention to transcend the scope of what a symphony had normally been in the past.  (The same year, his friend Joseph Haydn achieved a similar breakthrough-independently from Mozart-in his six symphonies for Paris [Nos. 82-87].)  The main novelty is a much more complex web of motivic relationships; a few short motifs and melodic gestures are sufficient to control much of what is happening, and they often appear in places where we might least expect them.  In addition, the technical demands placed on the performers have significantly increased--there are more virtuoso passages, intricate syncopations and sensitive woodwind solos than ever before.

            The "Prague" is one of only three Mozart symphonies that start with a slow introduction (the other two being the "Linz" and No. 39 in E-flat, K. 543).  The introduction begins with a typical Mozartian gesture of repeated tonic notes played in unison with rapid scale figures leading up to them.  (Similar openings may be found, in fast tempo, in the overture to Idomeneo and in the "Jupiter" Symphony, No. 41, K. 551.)  But the introduction of the "Prague" soon diverges from all similar openings:  the harmonies become more and more chromatic, and the progression culminates in a great D-minor chord that sets off a new chain of astonishing modulations.  The intense dramatic power of this introduction presages the overture to Don Giovanni, the new opera Mozart was soon to write for Prague.

            The Allegro starts with a singular non-theme consisting of the note D, repeated by the first violins in syncopation, against which the other strings intone a simple motif of only a few notes (also syncopated but only half as fast as the first violin part).  Two little "tags" are attached to this opening, one in the violins and one in the winds.  In what follows, these elements are combined, transformed, and elaborated contrapuntally; surprisingly, the same material is used when the music reaches the dominant key of A major where one would expect a new theme.  The new theme, a mellifluous cantabile tune, arrives in due course, introduced by the strings alone and repeated in the minor mode with an ingenious counterpoint in the bassoons.  The exposition closes with material derived from the opening motifs, which also provide the basis for the splendid, and densely contrapuntal, development section.  In the recapitulation, Mozart changes a single note (A-sharp instead of A-natural in the second violins), which proves to be enough to introduce a whole series of new harmonic intricacies.

            The second-movement "Andante" is, like the first, in sonata form, with three distinct thematic areas.  The first is a singing melody, the second is more turbulent and contains some sudden modulations and dynamic contrasts, while the third breaks down to a string of short motifs whose enchanting effect derives in part from the graceful interplay of the strings and woodwind.

            For unknown reasons, the "Prague" doesn't have a minuet.  It concludes with a dashing "Presto," again in sonata form.  As in the first movement, syncopations play an important role in the first theme, which is presented both in major and in minor.  After the lyrical second melody, the first theme returns in varied form, and its rhythm serves as accompaniment to the lively closing section.  In the development section, the main theme is subjected to some exciting transformations with much counterpoint and an abundant use of the dramatic minor mode.  The movement has a "false recapitulation," that is, the main theme returns as at the beginning, only to veer off again, back to the development section.  It is fitting, then, that the real recapitulation is much abridged and limited to the second melody and the closing material.