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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Symphony No 40 in G minor, K550 (1788)
Of Mozart’s last great triptych of symphonies, the G minor forms the dark, deeply serious centrepiece. Nobody knows why he composed this work and its two very different companion pieces, the glowing Symphony No 39 and the brilliant 'Jupiter', at such high speed and in a single surge of inspiration in the summer of 1788. Nobody had commissioned them; no performances were planned; and though the death in June of his youngest child, at the age of six months, might have been responsible for the febrile pathos of the G minor Symphony, it cannot be said to have had any obvious bearing on the other two works.
The likelihood is that Mozart saw the symphonies as being helpful to what was, at the time, a faltering career. He was between operas, Don Giovanni having been launched the previous year, Così fan tutte still lying two years ahead. His popularity as a pianist was on the wane, though whether this was due to Vienna’s notorious fickleness or to Mozart’s by then alarmingly crooked fingers (ultimately so arthritic, according to observers, that he could not even cut his meat) it is impossible to say.
As a portfolio of masterpieces, however, the symphonies spoke for themselves. Even if they were simply works he had on his mind, which could explain the speed at which he wrote them, they were bound to invite interest because they were by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, renowned throughout Europe, whatever the Viennese happened to feel about him at that particular moment. By the time he composed The Magic Flute in 1791 he would be back in favour.
Schumann, when he heard the G minor Symphony, spoke of its “poised Grecian gracefulness,” which is not how we respond to it today, The restless beauty of the first movement and the headlong, jagged intensity of the finale suggest other things entirely. Yet it is easy to understand how Schumann heard them purely in terms of an eighteenth-century technique so impeccable that Mozart produced two subtly contrasted versions of the work. The first of them featured poignant oboes. The second was warmed by the sound of creamy clarinets, added, it would seem, for his friend Anton Stadler, who (with his brother Johann) was a vital presence in several of Mozart’s last great works.
Whichever version is performed, however, the music’s serenity is invariably under threat. Even before the unveiling of the opening melody, the throbbing viola accompaniment creates an air of sombre unrest. The E-flat major security of the seemingly tranquil slow movement is disturbed, as early as the second bar, by plaintive chromaticisms. The minuet’s dance rhythms are distorted by stabbing accents and clashing discords, relieved only by the brief major-key sweetness of the trio section. The finale reaches its stormy highpoint in its central development section, where the flow is so jaggedly disrupted that the music seems on the point of collapse. The key of G minor is sternly maintained to the end. This is not a symphony which finds or seeks final jollity – as the D minor Piano Concerto famously does - by closing merrily in a major key.
© Conrad Wilson