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Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550

About the Work

Wolfgang Mozart
Quick Look Composer: Wolfgang Mozart
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Cornelius Meister, conductor / Nikolai Lugansky, piano, plays Prokofiev Apr. 17 - 19, 2014
© Robert Markow

During the summer of 1788, when Mozart was beset by financial woes, declining popularity, illness of his wife, and the failure of his latest opera, Don Giovanni, to impress the fickle Viennese, he wrote his last three symphonies-three of the greatest ever written by anyone-with no apparent prospect of a performance. This is startling enough in itself, for in Mozart's time one wrote to order-or not at all. Until recently, it was believed that Mozart never heard any of these masterpieces played, although we are now fairly certain there was at least one performance of the G-minor symphony (possibly on April 16, 1791, conducted by Salieri) since it exists in an alternate orchestration with added clarinets and different oboe parts (the version usually performed today). Startling also is the speed with which these symphonies were composed-all three within the space of about ten weeks, along with other material.

There is more that sets the G-minor symphony apart from nearly all others. For one thing, it opens not with a theme, but with an accompaniment pattern (violas). Even more unusual is the dynamic marking at the opening: piano (softly), something almost unheard of in a classical symphony unless there was a slow introduction, which is not the case here. Moreover, use of the minor tonality was rare at the time-listeners liked their music jolly and good-natured. Only two of Mozart's symphonies are in a minor key (the other is No. 25, also in G minor). Minor in itself usually signaled music of stress, anxiety and dark passions, but in this symphony Mozart raises the bar considerably in its tone of urgent pathos, the use of short motivic fragments rather than extended themes (much as Beethoven was to do so forcefully in the first movement of his Fifth Symphony), and the general level of dissonance, boldness of modulations and chromaticism in the harmonic progressions. Then there is the almost obsessive concentration on the home key, on what Boston Symphony annotator Steven Ledbetter calls "the unrelieved ‘minor-ness' of the symphony." Three of the four movements are in G minor, and they stay in G minor for much of their length. There is no concession to a happy ending; G minor persists right up to the final measure.

This symphony is regarded by virtually the entire civilized world as one of the icons of musical classicism as well as a potent harbinger of the romantic era looming on the horizon. It has generated more encomiums, exegeses, eloquent commentary and learned analyses than just about any symphony in the repertory. An early German biographer, Otto Jahn, put the matter succinctly: "a symphony of pain and lamentation." To the French biographer François-Joseph Fétis it was "one of the most beautiful manifestations of the human spirit." Berlioz found in it "grace, delicacy, melodic charm, and fineness of workmanship." To Wagner the finale was "exuberant with rapture and audacity." Closer to our own time, the pianist and scholar Charles Rosen finds in the symphony "something shockingly voluptuous. Nor does this detract from its power or effectiveness: the grief and the sensuality strengthen each other." To the musicologist Bernard Jacobson, this is the "most intensely expressive of all Mozart's symphonies. To hear this music is to be dumbfounded afresh that the nineteenth century-and even some recalcitrant persons in the twentieth-could regard its composer as nothing more than a charming miniaturist. ... Its nature seems to stake out new territory for the symphonic medium."

The opening theme, famously supported by the "vamp-till-ready" figure in the divided violas, begins with the interval of the falling minor second, the same interval that initiates the second theme. While the first is given to violins alone, the second is divided between strings and woodwinds in alternating phrases. In the development section Mozart puts this material, often in fragments, through a galaxy of harmonic and chromatic adventures that must have been jarring in the extreme to early listeners, and to a large extent still is today.

Violas launch the slow movement as well, with an even rhythmic pulse imitated by the other string sections in quick succession. Somewhat later a wistful theme in the violins serves as a second subject, but, as in the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, or in all four of the Seventh, it is the rhythmic patterns-the even, repeated notes of the opening and the quick, two-note fillips that pervade the movement-that provide most of the developmental interest.

The Minuet is rugged, powerful, even aggressive, and is far removed from the courtly, stylish ballrooms of Mozart's age. Syncopation, canonic imitation, rhythmic ambiguity, driving energy, and a grim tone confound any attempt to dance to this music, but they provide the ear with a fascinating voyage through new musical terrain. The quiet, gracious Trio section offers an oasis of repose, an escape from the restlessness, turmoil, polyphony and chromatic harmony that otherwise prevail in the symphony.

In the finale we find some of the fiercest, most fiery writing Mozart ever composed. As in the first movement, the drama derives from the endlessly fascinating ways in which melodic fragments are tossed about, from how the music ventures through remote harmonic regions with almost reckless abandon, and from the constant sharp contrasts of loud and soft, of full and sparse instrumentation, and of stable and unstable harmony. "But for all the anguish Mozart still feels and expresses," writes musicologist Michael Steinberg, "and even though it is in this movement that he brings his language closest to the breaking point, the finale must at the last be a force that stabilizes, sets solid ground under our feet, seeks to close the wounds, and brings the voyager safely-if bruised-into port."