A string of superlatives characterizes the earliest-known audience account of a performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major. It comes from Iwan Anderwitsch, who attended an all-Mozart memorial concert in Hamburg in March of 1792, a year after the composer’s death:
The opening is so majestic that it so surprised even the coldest, most insensitive listener and non-expert, that even if he wanted to chat, it prevented him from being inattentive, and thus, so to speak, put him in a position to become all ears. It then becomes [so] fiery, full, ineffably grand and rich in ideas, with striking variety in almost all obbligato parts, that it is nearly impossible to follow so rapidly with ear and feeling, and one is nearly paralyzed. This actual paralysis became visible in various connoisseurs and friends of music, and some admitted that they would never have been able to think or imagine they would hear something like this performed so splendidly in Hamburg.
Mozart’s last three symphonies (Nos. 39, 40, and 41) were composed over two months in the summer of 1788. The conductor, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, believed that these three monumental works, the apotheosis of Mozart’s symphonic writing, were conceived as a trilogy. In this way, the opening movement of Symphony No. 39 becomes a kind of overture—a musical “call to order.” The final movement trails off with no coda, leaving the real contrapuntal fireworks for the end of Symphony No. 41, the “Jupiter.” In Symphony No. 39, Mozart took the rare step of omitting the oboes, allowing the two clarinets to rise to greater prominence. The home key of E-flat major suggests boldness and heroism. A similar, triumphant E-flat major chord opens the Overture to Mozart’s final opera, The Magic Flute. In the context of that work, E-flat’s key signature of three flats may contribute to the opera’s intricate layers of masonic symbolism.
Over two hundred years after the memorable Hamburg performance described above, the majestic introduction of the first movement (Adagio—Allegro) still holds a captivating power. Regal fanfare figures and drum beats blend with descending scale flourishes. Beyond the facade of celebration, we hear ghostly, slithering intervals in the violins (0:39), a persistent heartbeat that begins in the low strings and erupts in the full orchestra, and a moment of wrenching dissonance (1:24). This is music filled with mystery and tense anticipation. The commentator, Charles Rosen, has pointed out the seamless, almost cinematic way the introduction melts into the Allegro section. As the movement progresses, the descending scales of the introduction return, erupting as brilliant, celebratory fireworks.
The second movement (Andante con moto) begins with a quietly jaunty theme, filled with flitting dotted rhythms. Listen for the almost comic dialogue which unfolds between the low and high strings (10:27). This cheerful, unassuming theme takes a surprisingly dark and tempestuous turn as A-flat major turns to F minor. We arrive at a moment of serene transcendence with a wistful operatic conversation which emerges between the bassoon, clarinets, and flute (12:04). Listen closely to these instrumental voices and consider the personas or “characters” they might represent.
The third movement (Menuetto e Trio) is a simultaneously elegant and boisterous dance. As the melodic line sweeps upward, always landing on a note we could never have predicted, there is a visceral sense of airborne motion. The Trio section, introduced by the clarinets, is an Austrian country ländler. The call of the horns, with their open fifths, adds to the Trio’s carefree, pastoral sunshine.
The final movement (Allegro) is a jubilant, celebratory romp. The first violins’ virtuosic melodic line (a frequent staple on audition lists for professional orchestra jobs) amounts to the eighteenth century equivalent of a hoedown. The entire movement develops from this single opening theme, which echoes the scales of the first movement. In an ingenious compositional sleight of hand, Mozart gives us a second theme which is really the original theme in disguise. The final bars drift off, mid-celebration, with an ecstatic descending E-flat scale.
Here is a live performance from September, 2020 featuring Andrés Orozco-Estrada and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony:
Five Great Recordings
- Mozart: Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major, K.543, Sir Charles Mackerras, Scottish Chamber Orchestra linnrecords.com
- Nikolaus Harnoncourt and Concentus Musicus Wien
- Frans Brüggen and the Orchestra Of The 18th Century
- Sir Colin Davis and the Staatskapelle Dresden
- Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (live 1988 concert in Tokyo)
Featured Image: The gates of Vienna’s Belvedere Palace