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Symphony No. 31 in D major, K.297 (Paris)

About the Work

Wolfgang Mozart
Quick Look Composer: Wolfgang Mozart
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Giancarlo Guerrero, Conducting Mar. 6 - 8, 2003
© Richard Freed
Untitled Document

This three-movement symphony was composed in Paris in June 1778 and introduced at the Concert Spirituel on the 18th of that month. The National Symphony Orchestra first performed the work on January 20, 1941, at the Mosque Theater in Richmond, Virginia, Hans Kindler conducting, and presented it last on June 25, 1993, under Christopher Hogwood.

The score calls for flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets in pairs, with timpani and strings. Approximate duration, 16 minutes.

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The half-year Mozart spent in Paris--March 23 to September 26, 1778--was a trying time for him, filled with a number of professional frustrations and disasters and a major personal tragedy: the death, on July 3, of his mother, who had accompanied him on the trip. This symphony, composed in the middle of that dismal period, was the only one he produced in the French capital, and it afforded him one of the few happy experiences of that unfortunate sojourn. His only other concert work completed there, the Concerto in C major for Flute and Harp, K. 299, was commissioned by the Duc de Guines, a serious amateur flutist, for himself and his daughter, a fairly talented harpist, but Mozart did not receive the promised fee, and was not even given the satisfaction of a performance. At least he was able to save the music for subsequent performance after returning home; the work that follows the symphony in the present concerts has an even more distressing history, and these were by no means the only disappointments and outrages he encountered in the course of that visit.

The Paris Symphony was composed for the Concert Spirituel, the city's pre-eminent concert series at that time, whose orchestra was the only one in Europe said to rival the brilliance and precision of the celebrated one in Mannheim. Mozart had spent four months in Mannheim before proceeding to Paris, and he noted that, while the Mannheimers were famous for their spectacular crescendo, the Parisians had a specialty of their own: “le premier coup d'archet,” a no less brilliant entry for the unison strings. Naturally, it was expected that composers writing for such an ensemble would be mindful of its special distinctions and exploit them to the fullest; this Mozart did, even to the point, as Alfred Einstein observed, of slight parody of the style in the opening movement of this work.

It may be noted that this was the first symphony in which Mozart used clarinets, and that it is scored for a larger orchestra than he had specified for any of his earlier symphonies. Indeed, even among the later ones, only the festive No. 35 (the “Haffner,” K. 385, also in D major) is so richly scored. The clarinet was not in widespread use at the time, and, though it was to play a conspicuous role in the works of Mozart's final years in Vienna, the instrument did not appear in a symphony of Haydn's until 1794, when he began his final set of six for the second of his two visits to London. (Haydn also composed symphonies for Paris in 1785-86 (his Nos. 83-87); unlike Mozart, he was not present for their performance, but he was properly honored and enjoyed the full benefit of those works' great success.)

The Paris Symphony is in three movements, without minuet; it is the last symphony Mozart composed in this format except for the splendid one, again in D major (No. 38, K. 504), which he wrote in December 1786 for his triumphal visit to Prague for performances there of The Marriage of Figaro. The first movement ( Allegro assai ) begins with the brilliance and bustle demanded by the Paris audiences, and its vivacity continues unchecked, ornamented by passages in which the unison strings are set off against sustained notes and chording in the winds.

Although Joseph Legros (or Le Gros), the director of the Concert Spiritue, acknowledged this work as “the best symphony” ever written for his series, he felt the second movement was too long, and Mozart had to produce an alternative slow movement for him. When the score was published both the original Andantino (whose marking Mozart subsequently changed to Andante) and the simpler alternative were included, since Mozart felt that “each is good in its own way; each has a different character.” It is the original slow movement that that became permanently attached to the work, though, and it is recognized as one of the most effective ones Mozart created for any of his pre-Viennese symphonies. It is characterized by a noble simplicity that affords subtle premonitions of the depth and restrained passion of his later works.

The last movement, however, is the most ingenious. Mozart described the effect it made at the premiere in a letter to his father:

Having observed that all last as well as first allegros begin with all the instruments playing together and generally unisono, I began mine with two violins only, piano, for the first eight bars--followed instantly by a forte; the audience, as I expected, said “Hush!” at the soft beginning, and when they heard the forte began to clap their hands.

According to Alfred Einstein, in his admired biographical study of the composer,

The fact that the last of the three movements was the most successful does honor to the taste of the Parisians. The second theme of this movement is a fugato, supplying the natural material for development; it does not return in the recapitulation--one of the strokes of genius in this masterful movement, which hovers continually between brilliant tumult and graceful seriousness.

In the already quoted letter home reporting on the premiere, Mozart added that after the performance “I went off to the Palais Royal, where I had a large ice, and said the rosary as I had vowed to.” The new symphony was given several further performances before the month ended.