AN 2 9834

Mozart: Symphonies Nos. 40 & 41

Release date September 19, 2006
Album code AN 2 9834
Periods Classical

Album information

In a remarkably short span of time during the summer of 1788, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) wrote what were to become his three last symphonies: Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major (K.543), Symphony No. 40 in G Minor (K.550) and Symphony No. 41 in C Major (K.551), the “Jupiter”. His incentive for writing them is unclear; it was unusual for Mozart to compose without the framework of a commission or specific occasion.

In early June, he writes to his friend and fellow Mason Michael Puchberg: “I dare to implore you to help me out with a hundred gulden until next week, when my concerts in the Casino are to begin. By that time I shall certainly have received my subscription money [from his new string quintets] and shall then be able quite easily to pay you back… I take the liberty of sending you two tickets which, as a brother, I beg you to accept without payment…”

The offer of tickets suggests forthcoming performances, perhaps of that summer’s symphonies and piano trios, but no further record of any concerts having taken place exists. So this may have been a rare instance of the composer writing purely on speculation. Mozart had often expressed the desire to travel to London, (as Haydn would do in the next decade), an occasion which would have required a trunk load of new works. If Mozart had lived to realize his own dream of a triumphant London journey, how fitting that he would have returned after a quarter century to the very place where as an eight-year-old he had produced his fledgling essays in the genre—in the style of his mentor Johann Christian Bach—with this trilogy of masterpieces, the quintessence of the eighteenth-century Viennese symphony.

Symphony No. 40 in G minor (K. 550)

While we may never know whether or not the symphonies were performed in the Casino concerts, it is certain that Mozart later revised the score of his G Minor symphony, adding a pair of clarinet parts for his friends the Stadler brothers, and very likely this version was performed at a Tonkünstler-Sozietät concert in April, 1791 with, of all people, Antonio Salieri conducting. In this recording, the original orchestration—one flute, pairs of oboes, bassoons and horns, and the usual string section—is retained.

Mozart did not often write in the dark key of G minor but each of his works in that key is memorable for its heightened emotional intensity. In the poignant aria in G minor “Ach, ich fühl’s” from Die Zauberflöte, Tamina longs for death. The String Quintet (K.516) from the previous year, the Piano Quartet (K.478), and his earlier symphony, the “Little G Minor” (K.183) share this disturbing affekt.

The unusual character of the G-minor Symphony is established in the first bar of the Allegro molto. The violas offer a brief but quietly restless introduction—or as Neal Zaslaw describes it, “an accompaniment waiting for a tune to accompany”—to the rhythmically propulsive first theme, which remains piano for sixteen bars, a rare occurrence in classical symphonies. Chromaticism flavours the melodies and harmonic structure of the entire piece. The second theme appears in the relative major key of B-flat in the exposition, but stays fixed in the tonic minor in the recapitulation, maintaining the dark mood to the end of the movement. In a musical sleight-of-hand at the recapitulation, the first theme slips in before the expected accompaniment, and we hear that familiar melody as from a different perspective, with a plaintive countermelody from the bassoon deepening its meaning.

The Andante, in E-flat major and also in sonata form, is generally more lyrical and relaxed in character than the first movement, but its sighing motives and chromatic inflections maintain a gravity which intensifies in the development. Haydn quoted this movement in his own Die Jahreszeiten (The Seasons) a few years later. In the aria “Erblicke hier, bethörter Mensch,” winter is compared to old age, and the elderly Haydn must have reflected upon the memory of his younger friend, who achieved a life span only half that of his own.

In the severe Menuetto one is kept off balance by the three-bar phrases and tense, driving syncopation. The Trio, in G major, is more regular in its phrasing and provides a brief oasis of calm amid the storm with a courtly dialogue between the string and wind choirs.

In the last movement of his G Minor string quintet Mozart transformed the overall tragic mood with a joyful Rondo finale in G Major, but no such relief is part of the design for the Allegro assai of the symphony. One of the most shocking moments in the work occurs at the beginning of the development when the full orchestra plays a violent sequence of unison notes punctuated by halting silences, ranging through all of the notes of the chromatic scale except, interestingly enough, the tonic G. The harmony goes even further afield in the development, with excursions into the remote key of C-sharp minor, and a fugato in F minor based on the opening motive. As in the first movement, the second theme retains the minor mode in the recapitulation.

Symphony No. 41 in C major (K. 551), the “Jupiter”

It was not Mozart who coined the nickname “Jupiter” but Johann Peter Salomon, the violinist and impresario who brought Haydn to London (and surely would have done so for Mozart). The C major Symphony had been known, particularly in German-speaking countries, as the Symphonie mit der Schlussfuge (symphony with the fugal finale). Exactly why it was called “Jupiter” is unknown, but the name has endured, and is well-suited to its majestic, regal character, and to its grand proportions.

Unlike the furtive beginning of the G-minor Symphony, the “Jupiter” has a commanding opening, enhanced by the addition of trumpets and timpani to the instrumentation of the earlier work. The entire first movement is a study in contrasts: the first theme’s three military-style gestures, for example, is followed by a gracefully rising violin phrase. The second theme is also built of contrasting elements: a gently rising chromatic line with a lively dotted figure completing the phrase. A brief silence sets up a surprising subito forte outburst in C minor from the full orchestra. This quickly reverts to major and sets up yet another theme in the dominant key. Providing a taste of opera buffa, Mozart quotes an arietta, “Un bacio di mano” (K. 541), which he had written earlier that summer for insertion in an opera by Anfossi. This tune is the first point of departure in the development, where its closing bars are turned into a canonic duel between the upper and lower strings. The opening theme is reintroduced in F Major, but the true recapitulation does not occur until after yet more modulations have been explored.

The Andante cantabile is in sonata form, but with a concise development. The broad theme is played by muted violins, but abrupt forte chords and chromatically inflected thirty-second note runs, which become quite intense in the recapitulation, undermine the serene mood. An agitated episode in C minor, which is revisited in the development, recalls the dark world of Mozart’s previous symphony.

The high-spirited Menuetto is traditional in its phrase structure, but the chromaticism of its melodies and the use of canonic techniques link it to the rest of the symphony. The Trio begins with a cadence, which is like starting a joke with a punch line. The more assertive second half of the Trio offers a preview of the coming finale’s first theme.

In the Molto allegro finale, Mozart famously combines sonata form with elements of the fugue. The opening four-note motive—do, re, fa, mi—dates back to Gregorian chant and was well-known to eighteenth-century composers; Mozart himself had used it in several earlier works, including his first symphony (K.16). These four whole notes form the first half of a phrase which is completed by four bars of rhythmically lively flourishes. Next comes a transitional theme comprised of fanfares and brilliant scales, followed by a four-part canonic mini-development of the original four-note motive. The second theme begins quietly in the violins but soon expands to a vigorous canonic episode engaging the full orchestra. The development section deals mainly with the first theme group, juxtaposing the four-note and fanfare motives. A quiet version of the fanfare gracefully ushers in the recapitulation.

After all of the requirements of sonata form have been fulfilled, we arrive at the coda, Mozart’s miracle of contrapuntal writing. In this recording, the development repeat is taken, which prolongs the suspense before reaching this point. What follows is not a strict fugue, but a fugato in five-part invertible counterpoint. All of these organically related motives have been heard previously, and treated to various types of development, but are now presented in every imaginable juxtaposition and stratification. One important motive not included in the fugato is the merry second half of the opening theme, but just at the point where the contrapuntal interplay threatens to overwhelm, it reappears, uniting the various voices and sweeping them toward the final cadences, with theatrical flourishes from the trumpets and timpani bringing all to a triumphant conclusion.

Among all composers, Mozart is exceptional for the neatness and clarity of his manuscripts, which rarely contain mistakes or corrections. However, Bruno Weil makes a persuasive case for a possible error in the final movement (Molto allegro) of the “Jupiter” Symphony. In the recapitulation, if bars 255-259 are played exactly as written, the bassoons create dissonances reminiscent of Debussy and perhaps not intended. Weil proposes that if these notes, which are in bass clef, are instead read as if in treble clef (but down an octave) the resulting notes will instead match the harmony in exactly the same way that they do in an analogous passage in the exposition (bars 57-60). In that passage, the bassoon parts basically double the brass instruments. It is possible that in haste Mozart wrote notes for the bassoons which look the same on the staff as the brass notes, neglecting to transpose them to the bassoon’s more familiar clef. This recording represents the first aural argument for this discovery.

The Letters of Mozart and his family, by Emily Anderson.
London: Macmillan Publishing, 1985.

Letters: to Puchberg June 1788.

© Allen Whear

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