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Mozart’s “Haffner” Symphony: Music of Celebration

A new commission was the last thing the 26-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wanted in the summer of 1782. He had just moved to the musical mecca of Vienna, shaking off the provincialism of his native Salzburg and its “coarse, slovenly, dissolute court musicians.” In addition to a busy teaching and composition schedule, he was getting ready to move to a new house in preparation for his marriage to Constanze Weber. But in July, 1782, Mozart received a letter from his father, Leopold, requesting music for a party intended to celebrate the ennoblement of Sigmund Haffner. Haffner, who was a childhood friend of Mozart, belonged to one of Salzburg’s most prominent families. In 1776, Mozart had written a serenade (now known as the “Haffner” Serenade) for the wedding of Sigmund’s sister. In reply to his father, Mozart wrote,

I am up to my ears in work. By a week from Sunday, I must arrange my opera for wind instruments, or someone else will do it and secure the profits instead of me. And now you ask for a new symphony, too! How on earth can I do that? …well, I will have to stay up all night, for that is the only way; for you, dearest father, I will make the sacrifice. You may rely on having something from me in each mail delivery.

Mozart’s new serenade, written in his father’s favorite key of D major, was completed and sent to Salzburg, but it probably missed its deadline. (Mozart told his father that he was unwilling to “scribble off inferior stuff.”) Some musicologists have speculated that Leopold Mozart, a notoriously manipulative stage father, deliberately timed the request for a new composition in an attempt to derail his son’s marriage to Constanze, whom Leopold considered unsuitable.

Regardless, this hastily-written background party music provided the seed for Symphony No. 35, a piece which marked Mozart’s musical maturity in sophisticated Vienna. In December of 1782, Mozart requested that Leopold return the score. Marches, which opened and closed the serenade, were removed and the orchestration was expanded with pairs of flutes and clarinets added in the first and last movements.

From its triumphant opening announcement, the “Haffner” Symphony is music which demands that we listen. The first movement explodes with a joyful sense of celebration and liberation. Similar to the music of Haydn, a single idea is relentlessly developed throughout this opening movement. Notice the way this idea, heard in the opening, gets tossed and turned throughout the development section. A few moments earlier around the 2:12 mark, alternating groups of instruments in the inner voices answer each other in a kind of eighteenth century stereo effect. Throughout the movement, these voices seem to leap out at us, dance, play, and come alive in a unique and extraordinary way.

In the final movement, you may hear echoes of the comic aria, “O wie will icy triumphieren” from The Abduction from the Seraglio. This was the newly-completed opera Mozart referenced in his letter to his father. There were no copyright laws at the time. Perhaps the loss of the ability to sell chamber arrangements of a popular opera might be equivalent to the loss of a recording deal today.

Figaro’s “Vedrò mentr’io sospiro”

Listen to the opening of Vedrò mentr’io sospiro” from the third act of The Marriage of Figaro (completed four years later in 1786) and see if it reminds you of the opening of the “Haffner” Symphony. The aria is set in the same key of D major. This follows the moment when Count Almaviva overhears Figaro and Susanna discussing ways they can defeat the Count’s scheme to prevent their marriage through legal means. The aria is the Count’s furious, vengeful soliloquy. It’s interesting to hear Mozart’s originally celebratory music re-emerge in this ironic context.

Additional Recordings

  • Mozart, Symphony No. 35 in D Major, K. 385, Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Iona Brown (recording featured above) iTunes
  • George Szell’s impressive and exhilarating 1960 studio recording with the Cleveland Orchestra
  • Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s sparkling 1979 live performance with Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
  • Trevor Pinnock’s period recording with The English Concert

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