Symphony No. 39

in E-Flat Major, K. 543, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Three years before his death in 1791, Mozart embraced a renewed zest for writing symphonies in the summer of 1788. Two years before, his successful Prague Symphony Number 38, forecast  possible changes in its expanded drama, highly contrasting dynamics,  change of standard symphony form (no minuet) and textural contrasts (more polyphony).  Martin Bookspan explained in 101 Masterpieces of Music and their Composers,  “he had an inner compulsion to create—a matter of personal expression without regard to the demands of patrons or public. That motivation goes far to explain their extraordinary scope and striking ingenuity which surely would have been lost on audiences of that time.”

Mozart’s energetic focus produced his three last symphonies, 39, 40 and 41, on June 26, July 25 and August 10. This trilogy stands apart from his previous symphonic repertoire in innovation, emotion, increased dissonance, and profound content. How did he do it?  On June 1788, he wrote to a friend with disarming simplicity, “As it is, I have very little to do in town, and I am not exposed to many visitors, I shall have more time for work.” Precisely why he did it has been the topic of speculation over many years.

Mozart’s stellar productivity at this time was in marked contrast to the depressing personal struggles in his life.  First of all, he was financially broke. Viennese audiences had moved on to favor other composers and his popularity waned. Consequently, he had few concert opportunities and commissions were lacking. He begged for help from his friend Michael Puchberg, “Just imagine my situation: sick and full of worry and grief… I am forced to sell my quartets {K 575, 589, 590] for a trifle just to get some cash into my hands and meet my immediate obligations…Anything would be a help just now. … If you could possibly be kind enough to lend me around one or two thousand gulden, over one or two years at a suitable rate of interest, you really would be doing me a favor.” Later, after a failed European tour in 1789 to raise money he wrote, “I haven’t the heart to be in your company because I would be obliged to admit that I cannot possibly pay you back what you are owed and I beg you to be patient with me.  I am so sorry.”

His Symphony No. 39 had zero fanfare or announcement vis-a-vis its introduction. There is no firm date for its premiere, and Mozart’s plan to introduce it at the “Concerts in the Casino” series was cancelled due to lack of ticket sales. Sometimes upcoming concerts programmed an “unidentified symphony” which possibly was number 39. Compounding this sad situation was the death of his only daughter three days after he completed K. 543.

The first movement, Adagio-Allegro opens with a slow, serious, chromatic introduction, colored by brass fanfares and descending lines. Such solemnity was a new type of beginning for Mozart. And he offered another innovation— his orchestration omits oboes and includes, instead paired clarinets.

This stately beginning yields quietly to the opening Allegro section. However, instead of a brisk beginning, the music begins modestly in ¾ meter before  announcing contrasting, substantial  main themes.  From that point forward, Mozart takes firm control, following traditional sonata-allegro format for the duration of this movement.

The Andante con moto begins quietly with the declamation of its main theme which is repeated. Another theme enters and again is repeated. Mozart omits a full development section and opts for tonal and dynamic coloration of his ideas instead of motivic treatment. Tempo changes also add variety. Notice the sharing of material throughout the orchestra—horns and winds, for example. The material used herein is derived in part from a sketch for his Prague symphony.

A traditional Austrian landler, a country based folk dance, provides the content for a minuet. This choice results in a bit of informality and geniality, rather than the poised aloofness traditional minuet behavior. Clear accentuation propels the theme. The mid-section trio contrasts by featuring a duet between a clarinet and flute in a quiet, unique combination with occasional tiny string participation.

Mozart chooses a single theme, which emerges in two formats for his finale—each begins the same way, but continues into different regions as they extend. A rapid idea immediately dances onto the stage, with energetic orchestral responses. The music reflects high spirits and deft craftsmanship as the tune (in both shapes) is treated to ingenious, zippy personality changes in the development. Rhythms are precise; dynamics are colorful; the tempo unflagging. Listen for his extensive writing for winds which add light, imitative commentary throughout. A traditional recapitulation concludes the movement without fanfare—there is no coda.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2016.

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