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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)
Symphony No 39 in E-flat, K 543 (1788)
Adagio - Allegro
Andante con moto
In 1787, Emperor Joseph II took Austria into a war against Turkey in order to support its ally Russia: in all his long reign, few of his actions made him less popular The fighting may have taken place far from home, but its economic impact in Vienna was debilitating. Many of the rich abandoned the city – either because the men were called up to fight, or to avoid being called up in their estates. The resultant surge in unemployment combined with rampant inflation and general anger about the unpopular war to spark social unrest. Two opera companies closed, and the number of concerts, balls and salons taking place in Vienna plummeted. For Mozart this must all have been tryingly bad news – and as the war continued until August 1791 (just 4 month before Mozart himself died) it helps explain some of the struggles that he faced during his last years. It may also go some way to explaining why it was that Mozart found the time and the inclination during the Summer of 1788 to turn his attention to writing three enormous symphonies of a scale and weight that surpassed all but two of his earlier symphonies; and why, having composed them, he then ignored the genre and wrote no more before he died in 1791. It seems unlikely that he hoped for performances – though he was an optimist. Instead, perhaps he hoped to make money through dedications or for publication, rather than performance. The fact that there are three symphonies supports this view as it was common to publish works in threes or sixes.
The year of the symphonies, 1788, is fascinating for Mozart scholars. Cast an eye across the catalogue of works he created in any given year and most of what you find is an astounding number of one-off occasional pieces which Mozart seemed to churn out constantly. Among these, the three major symphonies stand out as does an unusually large number of canons. These were essentially technical exercises undertaken to test his skill in counterpoint and harmony. Again, they may have been a response to enforced leisure, but they show the man inclined to hone technique at this time, to challenge himself. The marvellous hallmark of all three (or even the last four) of the last symphonies is the extent to which Mozart married just such ‘learned’ thinking with the drama that characterises his operas at their most glorious.
This symphony has long had the misfortune to be overshadowed by its fellows: No 40 with its tempestuous minor key drama captivated the Romantics, while the glories of the ‘Jupiter’, together with its status as Mozart’s final symphony, guarantee it a supreme position in the canon. Yet this wonderful piece shows, perhaps more than any other, Mozart the dramatist masterfully building tensions and easing them; moving effortlessly between sunlight and threat. Hear how the splendid opening darkens within a minute to reach a point of crisis, only to find a more equitable bearing once the first movement proper begins. The control and pacing are impeccable. One other feature gives this symphony a special place among Mozart’s symphonies. It was the first in which he opted for clarinets in place of oboes, They step into the limelight in the Trio, which is an actual folk tune (a Ländler) that Mozart adapted. But elsewhere they are ubiquituous, adding a glow to the texture. which gives it what Sir Charles Mackerras called ‘an orchestral colour unique in Mozart’s symphonies’ in his note to his recording of this piece with the SCO.
© Svend Brown