The summer of 1788 was a low point for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, both personally and professionally.
In Vienna, Mozart’s popularity was in decline as the city’s notoriously fickle audiences turned their attention elsewhere. Funding from aristocratic patrons evaporated with the outbreak of the Austro-Turkish War. As income dried up and creditors pounded at the door, Mozart and his family relocated from central Vienna to the suburb of Alsergrund. In June of 1788, Mozart’s six month old daughter died. His wife, Constanze, suffered serious illness. The clock was winding down for Mozart who, three years later, would be dead at the age of 35.
It was in this environment that Mozart composed his final three symphonies (Nos. 39, 40, and 41) between June and August of 1788. Perhaps conceived as a trilogy, these three monumental works represent the apotheosis of Mozart’s symphonic writing. Their impetus remains shrouded in mystery. It is uncertain if Mozart ever heard them performed. The German musicologist Alfred Einstein suggested that they were written for posterity as an “appeal to eternity.” Modern scholarship casts doubt on this theory. Mozart’s later addition of clarinets to Symphony No. 40 suggests that the composer was preparing the work for a specific performance. Surviving copies of a concert poster suggest that Antonio Salieri conducted a performance of “A Grand Symphony composed by Herr Mozart” on April 17, 1791.
No. 40 is one of only two symphonies Mozart set in a minor key. (The other is Symphony No. 25 in G minor, an exhilarating Sturm und Drang thrill ride). From Pamina’s aria in The Magic Flute, “Ach, ich fühl’s to the haunting K. 516 String Quintet, G minor is a key which suggests melancholy and tragedy throughout Mozart’s works. Charles Rosen called Symphony No. 40 “a work of passion, violence, and grief.” Rosen went on to describe the music as “something shockingly voluptuous” in which “grief and the sensuality strengthen each other and end by becoming indivisible, indistinguishable one from the other. In his corruption of sentimental values, Mozart is a subversive artist.”
Formally, the Symphony is firmly rooted in the classical tradition. Yet, within this established structure, it opened the door to powerful new currents which anticipated music to come. Wagner called it “pivotal to the Romantic world.” The British musicologist Eric Blom suggested something similar when he wrote,
It may be that the G minor Symphony is the work in which Classicism and Romanticism meet and where once and for all we see a perfect equilibrium between them, neither outweighing the other by the tiniest fraction. It is in this respect, at least, the perfect musical work.
The first movement (Molto allegro) does not open with a majestic, expansive introduction, as we hear in Symphony No. 39. Instead, it begins with a pulsating rhythmic motor in the low strings and a haunting, restless melody in the violins. This hushed, breathless opening theme is made up of a three beat pickup leading to a sighing resolution. Soon, the woodwinds enter and the theme takes new, unexpected turns. Following a flowing, chromatic second theme, fragments of the first theme return as a vibrant orchestral conversation (1:18). From the abrupt opening bars, this music takes us on a turbulent and unpredictable journey. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the harmonically adventurous development section. Listen to the sneaky way the development melts away, returning us “home” at the beginning of the recapitulation (4:40).
The second movement (Andante) initiates a sublime conversation between instrumental voices. Beginning with the violas and rising through first and second violins, each voice makes its individual entrance, propelled forward by a walking bass line in 6/8 time. This musical conversation covers a range of dramatic territory, from tenderness and mystery to deep reverence and awe. Woven together with sensuous chromaticism, the movement unfolds in sonata form, giving it a sense of weight equal to the first movement. Many of the slow movements of Beethoven’s symphonies give us a sense of blazing intensity and striving that seems to push past perceived limits. Something similar happens in Mozart’s development section.
We might expect the third movement (Menuetto. Allegretto – Trio) to be stately and elegant. Instead, we get a dark and ferocious dance filled with wild syncopation and competing contrapuntal voices. With jarring hemiola (a rhythmic juxtaposition of three against two, simultaneously), this snarling, exhilarating music is anything but polite.
Sonic sparks fly in the wild and virtuosic final movement (Finale. Allegro assai). This music is filled with the fun-loving abandon we hear in the swirling “Turkish dance” section of Mozart’s Fifth Violin Concerto. It begins with an exuberant rising “Mannheim rocket” arpeggio line. (Beethoven seems to have paid homage to this theme in the third movement of his Fifth Symphony). The beginning of the development section (28:14) nearly spins out of control with something close to a twelve tone row. What follows seems like a warmup for the contrapuntal fireworks that unfold in Mozart’s next symphony, the “Jupiter.” The final bars surge to a fiery and emphatic conclusion.
Here is Charles Mackerras’ 2007 recording with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra:
Five Great Recordings
- Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550, Charles Mackerras, Scottish Chamber Orchestra linnrecords.com
- George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra (Live 1970 recording at Bunka Kaikan Hall, Tokyo)
- Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music
- Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra
- Trevor Pinnock and The English Concert
Featured Image: the Mozart Monument in the Burggaten section of Vienna