(originally published as a programme note for a Salzburg Festival concert, 2013, in which the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and Sir Simon Rattle performed Mozart's final three symphonies)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791)
Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major KV 543
Adagio – Allegro
Andante con moto
Symphony No. 40 in G minor KV 550
Menuetto. Allegretto – Trio
Finale. Allegro assai
Symphony No. 41 in C major ‘Jupiter’ KV 551
Menuetto: Allegretto – Trio
There remain surprising lacunae in our knowledge of Mozart’s life (not the least of temptations towards romanticizing). Little is known of the circumstances of composition and performance of these symphonies, in stark contrast to the acclaim received by the preceding ‘Prague’ Symphony. We know, even if we cannot quite believe the astonishing fact, that Mozart wrote all three within a six-week-period during the summer of 1788, yet have no certain evidence of performance. The old seductive idea that he therefore wrote them as a statement for posterity no longer garners acceptance. Perhaps they were written either for subscription concerts ‘in the Casino’ on Spiegelgasse in the centre of Vienna, which may or may not have taken place. The second version of the G minor symphony, without clarinets, suggests a particular performing imperative, perhaps for a 1791 Tonkünstler-Sozietät concert, at which Salieri conducted an unidentified Mozart symphony. Or they may have been written with a visit to London in mind. Posterity has nevertheless made them its own. Brahms, keen to distinguish between novelty and ‘inner value’, remarked in 1896 that, although Beethoven’s First Symphony had offered a ‘new outlook […] the last three symphonies by Mozart are much more important!’ That once-heretical judgement now sounds uncontroversial.
Slow movements now carry greater emotional weight than had generally been Mozart’s symphonic practice, perhaps influenced by his piano concertos. If the slow movement of Symphony No. 39 lacks a development section, at least as conventionally understood, that is only because development – hints of the ‘developing variation’ Schoenberg discerned in Brahms and his own music – continues throughout the recapitulation. All is transformed by what has come before. Chromaticism again haunts the slow movement of the fortieth symphony; if we are in the major mode, it is hardly at its most affirmative. Complexity, whether harmonic or formal, reaches a new level in the slow, sarabande-like movement of the ‘Jupiter’. It may not be lengthy but it is powerfully concentrated.
Thematic economy marks the E-flat major finale, the second theme a development of the first. The movement seems over in a flash, a quicksilver operatic resolution. Tragic complexity continues to rule in the G minor. One passage of chromatic and rhythmic disjuncture delineates a sequence of all eleven pitches, save for the tonic; this may in a sense be the most radical of all Mozart’s finales and meaning is again imparted partly through contrast between such exploration and the tonality of ‘home’, however uncomforting. In Georg Knepler’s words, this symphony ‘clings relentlessly to the minor mode’. It was, Knepler noted, not an unusual practice for Mozart, though Mozart’s other G minor masterwork, the String Quintet, KV 516, does turn to the tonic major. Tragedy is preferred over a Beethovenian-Romantic journey from ‘darkness to light’ or even the Classical dramatic happy ending. Mozart never confuses sentiment with sentimentality; catharsis shakes us to the core.
Simplicity and complexity
In his article on the Trio of the Symphony No. 40, Lenoard B Meyer argued that the belief to which he had earlier subscribed that ‘complexity was at least a necessary condition for value’, was ‘if not, entirely mistaken, at least somewhat confused’, since what was crucial in music, as exemplified by this Trio, was ‘relational richness, and such richness (or complexity) is in no way incompatible with simplicity of musical vocabulary and grammar’. He proceeded to argue that it was possible for the listener to discern the Trio’s complexities ‘precisely because these arise out of uncomplicated, unassuming tonal means’. Meyer was certainly right to point to that possibility, though the issue of ‘relational richness’ quite rightly complicates –in his sense as well as others – given that the ‘relative’ simplicity of the Trio’s ‘tonal means’ may be understood to acquire some of its meaning from its contrast with complexity elsewhere. There would not be a sense of relaxation were it not for the nigh Schoenbergian extremity of some of Mozart’s writing beforehand. Mozart’s compositional style, here and elsewhere, offers something quite extraordinary, akin to a dialectic in equilibrium, in which simplicity and complexity seem on the one hand to be held in balance and, on the other, dialectically to depend upon one another and to find themselves in dramatic conflict with each other. We may offer all manner of possible explanations for that. Mozart’s experience as an opera composer certainly informs his symphonic writing – sometimes to the chagrin of those who, like Wagner, wish that Mozart’s conception of sonata form had conformed more closely to expectations conditioned by Haydn and Beethoven. The composer’s historical position is another factor. The stage at which Mozart’s musical language finds itself is somewhat analogous to the world of Newtonian physics, then in its popular heyday, a tonal universe extending its bounds almost rationally, tonal relations, remote and close, almost yet not quite classifiable. And yet there remains a ‘progressive’ imperative, ineluctably urging him on towards chromatic dissolution.
Harmonic language is not the only element one may consider in such a fashion. One can learn a great deal from Mozart’s irregularity of phrase length. It is, however, perhaps the most important or at least the most readily apparent. Moreover, as with Schoenberg, the potential, if not yet the realization, of harmonic dissolution necessitated a more rigid form of musical organization. What could be more ‘organized’ than a fugue, or at least fugal writing, in the case of the finale of the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony fused with sonata form?
The sense of a finale offering the culminating achievement of the work, its telos or goal, is not the least of Mozart’s legacies. For the ‘finale problem’ experienced by Beethoven and every German Romantic symphonic composer – a good few non-Germans too – may, with a little exaggeration, find its origin in Mozart’s tour de force. A requirement of ‘Classical’ balance and the scope for throwaway finale humour – always more Haydn’s thing than Mozart’s – have been dealt a blow by a teleology throwing the greatest weight upon a climactic final movement. Lest that seem Romantic sentimentalism, there is a great deal of evidence to indicate that the finale of the ‘Jupiter’ was understood as such at the time. Vincent Novello would recount a conversation with Franz Xaver Mozart, Wolfgang’s son: ‘he considered the Finale to his father’s sinfonie in C – which [Johann Peter] Salomon [the impresario who commissioned Haydn’s London Symphonies] christened the Jupiter – to be the highest triumph of instrumental composition, and I agree with him.’ Complexity is triumphantly reinstated, if ever it had gone away, yet the coda’s quintuple invertible counterpoint – all the movement’s themes are combined in mind-boggling combination and permutation – is all the more miraculous for how lightly-worn the learning is. Yes, there is triumph, but there is no sense of forcibly welding the themes together (as, say, in Wagner’s Meistersinger counterpoint). Mozart’s finale is the product of an eighteenth-century art that conceals art, offering the apparent paradox of effortless climax.