Symphony No. 40

in G Minor, K. 550, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Mozart wrote only two symphonies in a minor key, one in 1773 and the other in 1788. Both are dramatic; both are written in G minor, a key the composer used for tragedy and angst; both forecasted things yet to come: the first in the future work of a young composer, the second as harbinger of future musical compositions derived from emerging Romanticism. Richard Wagner called K. 550 “pivotal to the romantic world.” This symphony was written within the remarkable period between June 28 and August 10 wherein he composed his last three symphonies: 39, 40, and 41.

K. 550 has always attracted attention and comment. Mozart’s biographer Neal Zaslaw remarked, “No symphony of Mozart’s, not even the ‘Jupiter’, has aroused so much comment as this one.” The eminent musicologist, Charles Rosen, added more clarification to the symphony’s prominence saying, “In all of Mozart’s supreme expressions of suffering and terror, there is something shockingly voluptuous. Nor does this detract from its power or effectiveness: the 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. ” We are not used to Mozart’s confessional side, and when it emerges, we are fascinated by the potency of his personal stress, feelings, and their revelation. In this regard, Otto Jahn, Mozart’s 19th century biographer commented that it was “a work of pain and grieving.” Noted for its intensity, high chromatic nature and turbulence, Symphony No. 40 nonetheless remained corseted in classical decorum and structure.

Agitation is immediately expressed in the opening of the first movement. At this time, the composer’s personal life was difficult at best. The family moved to a cheaper residence (per a letter to his patron Michael Puchberg) and Mozart begged Puchberg for more money and support. Maynard Solomon noted that Mozart was depressed not only with his financial woes but also in the failing success of his career. He was not performing publicly, his popularity was waning, and that income stream dried up. Even though Emperor Joseph II appointed him as “chamber composer” to the court in 1787, 800 florins was not enough.

In the first movement, Mozart foregoes his customary slow introduction, and opts for something else: plunging directly into the body proper of the symphony. A restless first theme is whispered first by violins and then iterated with power and insistence by the full orchestra.

Its incessant rhythmic pattern, filled with gasping spaces, adds urgency to the music. A flowing lyrical second theme in B flat major provides contrasting fluency from divided strings and woodwinds. The development focuses on the unforgettable, breathless first theme, and Mozart shows off unusual daring with harmonic digressions, orchestral power, and fugal counterpoint.

An Andante second movement offers a somber, almost fragile melody featuring repeated notes sung by the violas. Second violins, and then the neighboring first violins, join imitatively at successively higher pitches. Winds cool the atmosphere with delicate coloration in their turn. A steady pulsating rhythm is constant.

Mozart’s heavy minuet continues in dark emotions. In traditional classical style, third movement minuets usually provide courtly or perhaps light escape from other movements. In this case, however, Mozart sustains prevailing tension. A strutting heavily accented theme opens the movement. Unaccustomed brusqueness controls the mood, unraveling this dance from its royal, elegant ancestors. The trio, placed in the sunny G major tonality, offers a lyrical release but tranquility is momentary. G minor returns and asserts its potency and heavy atmosphere in the da capo (repeat of the first section.)

The finale has a violent, explosive personality. A bouncing triadic theme, outlining a simple chord opens the fourth movement. Rushing motifs from violins interrupts its orderly nature, and soon the orchestra adds to the ferment. A second theme arises from violins and winds, offering lyric contrast, but is quickly overcome by a turbulent development. Mozart’s polyphonic textures and complex writing twist and turn the theme back on itself in coiling, convulsive patterns. A quick pause gives us a breath before the recapitulation ensues. Symphony No. 40 closes as it began: with stress and agitation, controlled only through the tight grip of classical architecture. It would remain for future composers to shatter that architecture with more explosive, combustible content.

Although K. 550 was destined to become one of Mozart’s most dramatic and loved symphonies, some historians question if it was ever performed during his lifetime. Speculation would seem to answer yes, but the records are not clear. There are two versions of this work: one with clarinets (the second) and the first without. The former was performed on September 18 and 19, 2015.

© Marianne Williams Tobias, Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, 2015

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