Symphony No. 40 (Mozart)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his Symphony No. 40 in G minor, KV. 550, in 1788. It is sometimes referred to as the "Great G minor symphony," to distinguish it from the "Little G minor symphony," No. 25. The two are the only extant minor key symphonies Mozart wrote.
The 40th Symphony was completed on 25 July 1788. The composition occupied an exceptionally productive period of just a few weeks in 1788, during which time he also completed the 39th and 41st symphonies (26 June and 10 August, respectively).
As Neal Zaslaw has pointed out, writers on Mozart have often suggested—or even asserted—that Mozart never heard his 40th Symphony performed. Some commentators go further, suggesting that Mozart wrote the symphony (and its companions, #39 and #41) without even intending it to be performed, but rather for posterity; as (to use Alfred Einstein's words), an "appeal to eternity".
Modern scholarship suggests that these conjectures are not correct. First, in a recently discovered 10 July 1802 letter by the musician Johann Wenzel (1762-1831) to the publisher Ambrosius Kühnel in Leipzig, Wenzel refers to a performance of KV. 550 at the home of Baron Gottfried van Swieten with Mozart present, but the execution was so poor that the composer soon left the room.
There is strong circumstantial evidence for other, probably better, performances. On several occasions between the composition of the symphony and the composer's death, symphony concerts were given featuring Mozart's music for which copies of the program have survived, announcing a symphony unidentified by date or key. These include:
- Dresden, 14 April 1789, during Mozart's Berlin journey
- Leipzig, 12 May 1789, on the same trip
- Frankfurt, 15 October 1790
- Copies survive of a poster for a concert given by the Tonkünstlersocietät (Society of Musicians) April 17, 1791 in the Burgtheater in Vienna, conducted by Mozart's colleague Antonio Salieri. The first item on the program was billed as "A Grand Symphony composed by Herr Mozart".
Most important is the fact that Mozart revised his symphony (the manuscripts of both versions still exist). As Zaslaw says, this "demonstrates that [the symphony] was performed, for Mozart would hardly have gone to the trouble of adding the clarinets and rewriting the flutes and oboes to accommodate them, had he not had a specific performance in view." The orchestra for the 1791 Vienna concert included the clarinetist brothers Anton and Johann Nepomuk Stadler; which, as Zaslaw points out, limits the possibilities to just the 39th and 40th symphonies.
Zaslaw adds: "The version without clarinets must also have been performed, for the reorchestrated version of two passages in the slow movement, which exists in Mozart's hand, must have resulted from his having heard the work and discovered an aspect needing improvement."
Regarding the concerts for which the Symphony was originally intended when it was composed in 1788, Otto Erich Deutsch suggests that Mozart was preparing to hold a series of three "Concerts in the Casino", in a new casino in the Spiegelgasse owned by Philipp Otto. Mozart even sent a pair of tickets for this series to his friend Michael Puchberg. But it seems impossible to determine whether the concert series was held, or was cancelled for lack of interest. Zaslaw suggests that only the first of the three concerts was actually held.
The music 
The first movement begins darkly, not with its first theme but with accompaniment, played by the lower strings with divided violas. The technique of beginning a work with an accompaniment figure was later used by Mozart in his final piano concerto (KV. 595) and later became a favorite of the Romantics (examples include the openings of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto and Sergei Rachmaninoff's Third Piano Concerto).
The second movement is a lyrical work in 6/8 time, in E flat major, the submediant major of the overall G minor key of the symphony.
The minuet begins with an angry, cross-accented hemiola rhythm and a pair of three-bar phrases; various commentators have asserted that while the music is labeled "minuet," it would hardly be suitable for dancing. The contrasting gentle trio section, in G major, alternates the playing of the string section with that of the winds.
The fourth movement opens with a series of rapidly ascending notes outlining the tonic triad illustrating what is commonly referred to as the Mannheim rocket. The movement is written largely in eight-bar phrases, following the general tendency toward rhythmic squareness in the finales of classical-era symphonies. A remarkable modulating passage, which strongly destabilizes the key, occurs at the beginning of the development section, in which every tone but one in the chromatic scale is played. The single note left out is in fact a g-natural (the tonic).
This work has elicited varying interpretations from critics. Robert Schumann regarded it as possessing "Grecian lightness and grace". Donald Francis Tovey saw in it the character of opera buffa. Almost certainly, however, the most common perception today is that the symphony is tragic in tone and intensely emotional; for example, Charles Rosen (in The Classical Style) has called the symphony "a work of passion, violence, and grief."
Although interpretations differ, the symphony is unquestionably one of Mozart's most greatly admired works, and it is frequently performed and recorded.
Ludwig van Beethoven knew the symphony well, copying out 29 bars from the score in one of his sketchbooks. It is thought that the opening theme of the last movement may have inspired Beethoven in composing the third movement of his Fifth Symphony.
The following files contain a digital recording of a performance of the 40th Symphony by the Fulda Symphonic Orchestra. The performance took place on March 18, 2001 in the Orangerie in Fulda, Germany.
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- A possible exception is the so-called "Odense Symphony", whose attribution to Mozart is doubtful; see Mozart symphonies of spurious or doubtful authenticity.
- Deutsch 1965, p. 320
- For discussion of claims of this sort, see Zaslaw (1994); the quotation from Einstein is taken from this source.
- Milada Jonášová: "Eine Aufführung der g-moll-Sinfonie KV 550 bei Baron van Swieten im Beisein Mozarts", in: Mozart Studien 20, Tutzing 2011, p. 253-268.
- List from Zaslaw 1983
- The text of the poster is given in Deutsch (1965, p. 393)
- They belong to the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Society of Friends of Music) in Vienna; a gift to the Society long ago from Johannes Brahms (Zaslaw 1983, 10)
- Zaslaw 1983, 9
- Zaslaw (1983, 9-10)
- Hopkins, 1981
- Deutsch, Otto Erich (1965) Mozart: A Documentary Biography. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Hopkins, Antony (1981) The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven. Heineman.
- Schoenberg, Arnold (1954, rvs. 1969) Structural Functions of Harmony (W.W. Norton and Company, 1954, rev. 1969). Analyzes the wide-ranging development sections of both outer movements at some length
- Zaslaw, Neal (1983) Introductory notes to a recording of the 31st and 40th Symphonies made by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, Oiseau-Lyre 410-197-2.
- Zaslaw, Neal (1994) Mozart as working stiff. In James M. Morris, ed. On Mozart. Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press.
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Versions of the score:
- Sinfonie in g minor K. 550 (1st version): Score and critical report (German) in the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe
- Sinfonie in g minor K. 550 (2nd version): Score in the Neue Mozart-Ausgabe
- Symphony No. 40: Free scores at the International Music Score Library Project
- Kalmus miniature editions, from the William and Gayle Cook Music Library at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music
- A Public Domain version by the Columbia University Orchestra at TEOC Classical Music Radio: Symphony No. 40
- The apartment where Mozart wrote his last three Symphonies: Michael Lorenz, "Mozart's Apartment on the Alsergrund" Article online