— At the Festival

Published on July 16 2019


In the summer of 1788, Mozart composed a host of works, including a set of three symphonies for which we do not know the name of the commissioner, but which seem to have been wanted urgently. No. 40 was one of the last three symphonies of this young, mature, prolific composer, who would live only three more years. Considering the tragic tone of this opus, one could legitimately wonder whether the composer was already aware of his impending death. Moreover, he had recently endured many hardships. The death of two of his newborn children in less than a year and the death of his father, Leopold, marked the beginning of the collapse of his protective surroundings, which would finally fall apart with the death of Joseph II. The symphonic triptych, which curiously retraces the composer’s own arc, takes us from insouciance (No. 39) to triumphant grandeur (No. 41), by way of hardship and suffering (No. 40). In Mozart’s overall oeuvre, only two symphonies were written in a minor key (No. 25 and No. 40). Both were in G minor, a darker tonality in the same vein as Sturm und Drang. Symphony No. 40, a mature work, is still one of the composer’s better known pieces today, and one of the most often played in the world. The first movement served as a model for many other composers (e.g., Schumann, Brahms and Schoenberg) thanks to its efficient formal construction. This movement, which is in the form of a sonata, is based on the opposition between the first theme, in G minor, which is both gripping and insistent, and which is exposed by the first violins; and a second, more joyful theme that unites string and wind instruments. The movement then repeats the exposition of these themes in minor, then in major. With unrivaled dramatic force, this movement lingers with us like a nagging, bewitching, haunting complaint, the result of some inextinguishable outrage. The violas surreptitiously launch into the graceful first theme of the Andante. A second contemplative theme follows. The atmosphere eventually darkens, and becomes more menacing, from the beginning of the development until the recapitulation. The Menuetto lays out a pastoral atmosphere, tinged with threatening clouds. The string section leads this dance, followed by the winds, which are helped by the horns. Next comes a moment of relaxation, until the strings return, full of tension. Filled with a precipitous enthusiasm, the last movement alternates between stormy rage and serene calm.

[...] Symphony No. 41 finished the set of three symphonies written in the summer of 1788. The triptych represents the culmination of this triangular structure. The three works demonstrate Mozart’s savoir-faire and reveal the density of oeuvre, which was capable of navigating the vagaries of the human condition (gaiety, pain and doubt), then of transcending them in order to reach the immaterial (spirituality and hope). This opus is the result of a creative process that began with a cheerful piece in the galant style (No. 39), moved onto the dark and choleric Symphony No. 40, and ended with the celestial radiance of No. 41. The choice of tonalities for each symphony is highly symbolic: the E flat major of the spirit; the oppressive G minor; and the triumphant C major. The composer, violinist and concert organizer Johann Peter Salomon —and not Mozart—gave this symphony the subtitle “Jupiter,” because he found it both radiant and masterful. While the first movement of a classical symphony generally utilizes two distinct themes, Mozart chose to break away from this convention by proposing, first, a dramatic and predominantly rhythmic theme; second, a light, mischievous, somewhat cantabile theme; and, third, a relatively popular theme. Here, Mozart attempts to surprise us—like Haydn—by abruptly interrupting the second theme and plunging us into silence, which he then replaces with powerful chords. This lively Allegro, rife with surprise, borrow its third theme from the comic piece “Un bacio di mano” K. 541. Unlike traditional classic symphonies, the Andante does not bring in the trumpets and timpani, already used extensively in the fast movements. The serene mood of the first theme darkens little by little. An eerie, Pre-Romantic atmosphere sets in, and lingers like a cloud on the horizon. The Menuetto is less dance and more counterpoint. Although the melodic line is in the galant style, a Johann-Sebastian-Bach-like counterpoint prevails. People wrongly refer to the final movement as a “final fugue.” It is, in reality, in sonata form, with fugue parts in the exposition of the first theme, in the development, and in the coda. Chaos is at last behind us. It is time for triumphant hope!

Aurélie Barbuscia