(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’.
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.
|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.