Saturday 11 April 2020

Mozart's Final Symphonies: Classical and Romantic

(This essay was written to accompany a Pentatone recording of Mozart's Symphonies nos 40 and 41 by the NDR SO and Andrew Manze and first published in that form.)

There are many temptations to romanticisation of Mozart, not least the lacunae that persist in our knowledge of his life – and perhaps always will. Lttle is known, for instance, of the circumstances of his final three symphonies, 39-41. We know that Mozart wrote all three in Vienna. within a six-week period during summer of 1788, yet know little concerning performance. They were probably written for winter subscription concerts ‘in the Casino’, either in the Trattnerhof or on the Spiegelgasse; a possible visit to London may also have proved a spur. There are, however, indications enough of possible, even likely, performances during Mozart’s lifetime. So far uncontested evidence has recently come to light of a performance of the G minor Symphony in Gottfried van Swieten’s Vienna apartment. We learn from Johann Nepomuk Wenzel, a Prague musician, that alas, Mozart ‘had to leave the room … because it was performed with so many mistakes.’ Furthermore, it is inconceivable that Mozart would have revised that symphony, adding clarinets to his second version, without expectation of performance. He intended and expected these symphonies to be performed.

Posterity has nevertheless made them its own. Brahms, keen to distinguish between novelty and ‘inner value’, remarked that, although Beethoven’s First Symphony had offered a ‘new outlook […] the last three symphonies by Mozart are much more important!’ A once-heretical judgement now sounds uncontroversial. Indeed, we hear much talk of a valedictory ‘triptych’. Nikolaus Harnoncourt went so far as to suggest that Mozart may have intended the three works as an oratorio without words, a drama of the soul (Seelendrama), liberated by technical and expressive capabilities of instruments vis­-à-vis voices. The Jupiter finale then stood as a finale to all three. For all today’s talk of historical ‘authenticity’, then, we continue to find ourselves mired in neo-Romantic myth. There are worse fates, yet all too readily this can degenerate into that sloppiness (Schlamperei) of Viennese tradition Mahler rightly decried. There is at least equal value in the effort to hear these symphonies ‘in themselves’. In practice, rightly, we do both.

For dramatic tension of a Romantic order and its tragic working out are undeniably the overriding sense of Mozart’s ‘great’ G minor Symphony. Not for nothing did ETA Hoffmann consider Haydn and Mozart, not just Beethoven, as fellow Romantics. Its G minor predecessor, the so-called ‘little’ no.25, had stood very much in an earlier, Sturm und Drang tradition. This has roots therein too; yet, at least with hindsight, it seems to look far beyond into the musical future. Schoenberg was, unsurprisingly, drawn to analysis of a work of often extreme chromaticism in his Harmonielehre. The throbbing of the first bar’s lower strings presents an ongoing scene of quasi-operatic ‘accompaniment’ prior to the first subject’s entry above, Mozart’s divided violas – his favoured instrument as a chamber music player – richly, darkly expressive. Such an opening, in medias res, is very different from the grand slow introductions to Mozart’s Prague symphony and to many symphonies by Haydn and Beethoven. Tension is less built than immediately, intensely present. The opening theme’s nagging semitonal fall prepares us, if only slightly, for perhaps Mozart’s most disorienting chromatic exploration: the shock onset of the development not only yanking first-group material into remote F-sharp minor but by attempting, if never quite succeeding in, Mephistophelian negation through harmony and counterpoint alike. Note Mozart’s typical, ‘Classical’ tragic recapitulation practice of rooting both thematic groups in the tonic minor. In Georg Knepler’s words, this symphony ‘clings relentlessly to the minor mode’.

Chromaticism again haunts the slow movement. We are in E-flat major, yet it is hardly affirmative: more tender, wistful, full of yearning and again of tension. Harmony and counterpoint once again work together to form so dissoluble a union that it is difficult not to think of Bach (whose music Swieten had done much to introduce to Mozart and indeed to the wider musical world). Contrapuntal string variegation suggests – or may be heard to suggest – Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, five fugues from which Mozart had arranged for strings.

Mozart’s G minor daemon drives home cross-rhythms in a Minuet that demonstrates our distance from the dance’s ballroom origins. In an article on the movement’s trio, Leonard B. Meyer argued that his earlier belief, that ‘complexity was at least a necessary condition for [musical] value,’ was ‘at least somewhat confused’, since what truly mattered, this Trio an examplar, was ‘relational richness, and such richness (or complexity) is in no way incompatible with simplicity of musical vocabulary and grammar’. Nevertheless, ‘relative’ simplicity and relaxation of the Trio’s ‘tonal means’ acquire expressive meaning through contrast with complexity elsewhere.

Complexity continues to rule in a finale that is yet nevertheless conceived as if in a single breath. One passage of chromatic and rhythmic disjuncture delineates a sequence of all eleven pitches save for the tonic G. In perhaps the most radical of all Mozart’s finales, meaning is conveyed through contrast between such proto-Schoenbergian exploration and ‘home’, tragic tonality. It was, Knepler noted, not an unusual practice for Mozart, although another G minor masterwork, the String Quintet, KV 516, does eventually turn to the tonic major. Tragedy is preferred here over either Beethovenian-Romantic journey from ‘darkness to light’ or Classical-operatic ‘happy ending’.

For Mozart’s symphonic method has often been misunderstood. Wagner, for instance, mistook balance and symmetry for feudal conformism. Drama lies in the tension between two principles: that of contrast between first and second thematic groups and that of dynamic propulsion. Such is as true of the Jupiter Symphony as its predecessors. The second group of its first movement takes us unmistakably into the comedic realm of opera buffa, quoting Mozart’s insertion arietta for bass and orchestra, ‘Un bacio di mano’ (KV 541). It offers a perfect foil to the trumpets and drum pomp of earlier material, replete with resonances of the traditional Missa solemnis figuraliter and the forthcoming seria festivities of his coronation opera, La clemenza di Tito. We make sense of them not only in themselves but also in relation to one another. Hence an exposition ‘repeat’ is not really a repeat at all – not in comprehending performance and listening.

Complexity, harmonic and formal, reaches a new level in the slow, sarabande-like Andante cantabile in F major: short, yet so powerfully concentrated so as to seem anything but. (Like Webern?) As with its precursor in the Symphony no.40, its sonata form is best thought of not, near-nonsensically, as being ‘without a development section’, but as in developing variation such as Schoenberg divined not only in Brahms but also in Mozart. It may perhaps be understood as Mozart’s sonata-form response to Haydn’s favoured variation form for slow movements. Serenity and unease prove co-dependent rather than contrasting. Mozart smiles through tears.

The C major Minuet sounds initially simple, if sinuous: again recognisably of a ‘type’ to be heard in the ballroom, if more luxuriantly scored and harmonised. Yet Mozart takes us on a very different journey, ultra-chromatic subversion of the tonic resulting in a passage of only six beats that includes every pitch class other than C. However much that might tempt us to peer once again into the Schoenbergian future, Mozart’s chromaticism retains meaning through relationship to a fundamental tonality, here reiterated by having the trio remain in C major. Its central episode, contrasting and complementary, takes us to the minor mode: development and symmetry work together rather than in binary opposition

Grosse Redoutensaal, Hofburg, Vienna. Mozart wrote a good number of minutes and other dances for this ballroom.
Engraving by Joseph Schütz

The sense of a finale as culminating achievement of the work, its telos or goal, is not the least of Mozart’s legacies. Classical balance and throwaway humour – always more Haydn’s thing than Mozart’s – are retrospectively dealt an historical blow through a construction that accords ultimate weight to a climactic finale. Lest that seem Romantic sentimentalism, there is much evidence to indicate that it was understood as such at the time. Vincent Novello recounted a conversation with Mozart’s son, Franz Xaver: ‘he considered the Finale to his father’s sinfonie in C – which [Johann Peter] Salomon,’ the impresario who invited both Haydn and Mozart to London, ‘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. The coda’s quintuple invertible counterpoint – all themes combined in mind-boggling combination and permutation – is nevertheless all the more miraculous for the lightly-worn quality to Mozart’s contrapuntal learning, rooted here as much in the Austrian Baroque pedagogy of Johann Joachim Fux as in Bach. There is triumph, yet no sense of forcibly welding the themes together – as, say, in Wagner or Richard Strauss. A specifically eighteenth-century art that conceals art offers the apparent paradox of effortless, comedic climax.

It is, moreover, difficult not to feel some sense of signing off, of culmination to more than a single work. Had Mozart lived longer, he would have composed other symphonies; however, he did not and therefore could not. This remains, then, both the gateway to the nineteenth-century Romantic symphony’s ‘finale problem’ after Beethoven, and its inimitable Classical solution: forever – tragicomically – out of reach.