Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550

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            While Mozart had enjoyed some degree of success with his operas during the years leading up to 1788, by then he was again in deep financial trouble.  His income from time to time was evidently encouraging, but he was notorious for his over-spending.  So, there are extant some heart-rending letters to his friends, literally begging for money.  It is in this context that he moved his family from the inner city of Vienna out to the suburbs for that summer.  There he had at his disposal a quite large apartment adjacent to an attractive garden.  In this pleasant atmosphere, in less than two months, working at what must have been a feverish pace, Mozart wrote three of his most important works:  his last three symphonies—the Eb , the G minor, and the “Jupiter.”  We don’t know his motivation for turning out these masterpieces in so short a time, although there is some evidence that he was preparing for performances called “Concerts in the Casino”—a rather modern sounding affair!  In any case, they are a significant part of his musical legacy.

            While the “Jupiter” symphony is universally hailed as a masterpiece in contrapuntal wizardry, and the Eb symphony is not as often performed as the other two, the G minor symphony is quintessential popular Mozart.  Perhaps with the exception of the opening of the Requiem Mass, no other opening bars of his works is so well known, and just shouts “Mozart!”

            Mozart wrote some of his most heartfelt and serious music in G minor and so it is here.   He much earlier had composed the Sturm und Drang “little” G minor symphony, and these two in G minor are the only symphonies in a minor key out of the forty-one that he composed.  The later G minor symphony exists in two versions, with and without clarinets in the wind section.  The version with clarinets is probably the second version, and most likely made for a specific performance, based upon the local orchestra—the composer being a pragmatist.  Missing from the orchestra in this work are the usual trumpets and timpani.  Which I think adds to the overall dark atmosphere, especially if the version without clarinets is used.

            The brooding, almost ominous, first movement begins with just a bit of a murmur in the lower strings before the famous main theme comes in.  It’s for strings only, but listen for the delightful addition of the sustained woodwinds upon the theme’s repeat—a masterful touch.  A bustling transition leads to the happy, lyrical second theme in the usual relative major—Bb.  Brief allusions to the first theme still appear, though, and we’re soon to a dynamic exploration of it in the development.  Mozart’s absolute mastery of drama—evidenced in his incomparable operas—is on full display here in the variety of, not only harmonic areas, but in contrasts of dynamics, rhythm, and pacing.  The recap comes soon—it’s a remarkable concise movement, without the “fat” by which a lesser composer would have been tempted.

            The following andante in Eb major takes us away from the turmoil and crepuscular atmosphere of the first movement. The first theme begins smoothly stepwise, followed by an expressive droop over a throbbing bass. The second theme features a birdlike “chirping” rhythm—easy to spot and becomes a signal motive in the movement.  A third theme closes out the beginning.  Development of these ideas begins with an intensification of the pounding bass, and the main ideas are, again, clear, as Mozart works with them.  In his maturity Mozart gained a mastery of orchestra color, even with the somewhat limited resources of the classical orchestra.  That skill comes to the fore in this section in the imaginative contrasts of color and mass. 

            The third movement was conventionally a minuet in those times, but this one is only an “honorary” minuet.  I can’t imagine it being danced to, but of course it provides the traditional contrast in tempo and rhythm that every symphony needs at this point.  Its salient characteristic—other than being in a dark minor mode—is the hemiola rhythm.  Hemiola is just a nice Greek word for factoring the six beats in two bars as 2+2+2 rather than the usual 3+3.  That rhythmic fillip adds a distinct flavor to the rather sinister affair, especially as the platform for the essential gritty dissonance here.  The usual middle section features a turn to the pleasant parallel G major key—its only incidence in the symphony.  Here, the woodwinds assume prominence, aided by the pair of horns.  A repeat of the beginning rounds it off in conventional manner.

            The energetic finale begins with a standard cliché of the times, a “Mannheim rocket”—a rapid ascending arpeggio covering more than an octave. The second theme, in the usual relative Bb major, and in the best Mozartian style, is somewhat more lyrical.  The strings take the first turn at it, and then it’s heard prominently in the solo clarinet.  The relentless tempo drives right into the development, where the opening figure is driven all over the harmonic map, accompanied by impressive contrapuntal figuration.  The recap blazes to a dramatic ending, no less evocative and darkly emphatic than any tragic opera.  The great analyst Donald Tovy was spot on when he that wrote that the musical language and spirit of this work was right out of Mozart’s immortal opere buffe.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2020 William E. Runyan