The first performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 took place in Prague on this date, January 19, in 1787. Intensely dramatic, celebratory, and bursting with counterpoint, this is music on a grand scale. Its premiere at the Bohemian capital’s Estates Theatre was the result of happy circumstances for the composer. While Mozart’s popularity was in decline in Vienna, The Marriage of Figaro created a sensation in Prague. Mozart arrived in the city as a rockstar, noting in a letter,
…here they talk about nothing but Figaro. Nothing is played, sung, or whistled but Figaro. No opera is drawing like Figaro. Nothing, nothing but Figaro. Certainly a great honor for me!
Mozart probably didn’t write Symphony No. 38 with Prague in mind. It was completed in Vienna on December 6, 1786- before he received the invitation to go to Prague, and at a time when he was considering traveling to London. But the work became a spectacular gift to a city which treated Mozart well- forever earning the nickname, the “Prague Symphony.”
Symphony No. 38 is set in three movements rather than the typical four. The minuet is omitted, perhaps because of the monumental scale of the first two movements. The expansive introduction which opens the first movement may be the “longest and most sophisticated” of any symphony up to this point. Throughout this opening movement, we hear echoes of Mozart’s operas from The Magic Flute to the yet unwritten darkness of Don Giovanni. A syncopated, skipping heartbeat in the violins launches the first movement’s allegro section. Listen to all the distinct voices which emerge, overlap and converse. This dizzying counterpoint explodes with full force in the development section. I’ve been playing this symphony in the orchestra this week, alongside a symphony by Mozart’s contemporary, Antonio Salieri. It’s impossible to define fully what sets Mozart’s music apart from the well-crafted but ordinary Salieri. But the array of voices and motives swirling around in the “Prague” Symphony make this music come alive in a unique and sublime way.
In the second movement, the sense of wordless operatic drama continues. Listen to the way this motive tiptoes onto the scene and develops into a canonic duet reminiscent of the duet, Cinque, dieci, venti, which opens the first act of The Marriage of Figaro. The breathless excitement of Figaro’s “Aprite, presto, aprite” seems to provide the seed for the final movement. Celebration, sparkling virtuosity, and humor (notice this passage’s musical cat and mouse game) bring the “Prague” Symphony to an exhilarating conclusion.
Five Great Recordings
- René Jacobs and the Freiburger Barockorchester (This 2007 recording using period instruments is featured above) iTunes
- Claudio Abbado and Orchestra Mozart
- Sir Charles Mackerras and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra
- Karl Böhm and the Berlin Philharmonic
- Bernard Haitink and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe
3 thoughts on “Mozart’s Gift to Prague: Symphony No. 38”
Loved it, thanks!
Love the energetic counterpoint of the first mvt, going from major to minor and then the use of more than one theme! It’s also huge. There may not be a Minuet, but the 2nd mvt acts as one with it’s rhythmic boom, chick, chick appearances. And those speedy triplet runs in mvt 3, plus syncopation, at times even frantic. Whew, it’s exciting, but tiring! Good violin section. Thanks, Tim.
Mozart’s Prague symphony is such a uniquely elaborated and invigorating work of its kind. I have the CDs of Charles Mackerras conducting Prague Chamber Orchestra from Telarc (“Prague” symphony by a Prague orchestra!) and Karl Bohm with Berlin PO on DG and prefer the former for substantially superior sound and longer performance because Mackerras observes repeats. Another precious gem from this Telarc set is Symphony No.31 “Paris” in which Mackerras also performs its original slow movement which, for me, is as exquisitely graceful as the new movement that Mozart somehow decided to substitute. Listening to this performance as a 4-movement symphony (as opposed to 3 movements that all other recordings perform) turns out well for me. This turns out to be a unique recording as all 4 other performances of this same work I listened to did not include this original 2nd movement. What a pity they do not!
Another recording gem of Prague symphony I love very much and enthusiastically encourage eager listeners to seek it out is by James Levine conducting Vienna PO from DG which also observes repeats. Moreover, Levine splits violin groups left-right which produces a very charming effect when listened to by earphone! (I do not remember if Mackerras on Telarc does the same or not.) Levine also records a bold and bright symphony No.25 in the same set as No.38.
Another CD I have is by Bernstein conducting Vienna PO on DG which is good but not more. What I do not like in this performance is that Bernstein appears to like the fast movements performed at a relatively slower tempo than the ones I mentioned above. And the phrasing of all fast movements also sounds smoothed out too much which, for me, robs them of bold and incisive expression (Does Bernstein like Bel Canto performance style? That’s my impression but, for me,it does not suite well for fast movements of Mozart’s symphonies.)