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A multi-award winning double album of some of Mozart's finest symphonic works.
Among various factors possibly bearing on this change in Mozart’s priorities, two stand out. The first of these was his need to support himself and his family as a freelance musician at a time when most musicians could achieve that goal only by working for the Church or by wearing livery in the service of a noble family. Judging from his activities and the catalogue of his works during his final decade, Mozart most wanted and needed to compose operas, piano concertos, and domestic chamber music involving a keyboard instrument. Operas were the most visible, prestigious, and lucrative works possible at the time and, if successful, the surest road to broad international recognition. Besides, Mozart was a theatre person to his bones. Piano concertos enabled Mozart to appear before his patrons at (mostly private) concerts, showing himself to best advantage as composer, keyboard virtuoso, orchestra leader, and impresario. Domestic keyboard works provided fodder for his teaching activities, which were driven by economic need, as well as income from Viennese music publishers, with whom Mozart was on intimate terms and from whom he sometimes cadged advances for not-yet-written music.
The second factor bearing on Mozart’s late symphonies was the ongoing evolution of the styles and functions of symphonies in European musical life, of which his own output provides a striking example, articulated as it was by his move from provincial Salzburg to cosmopolitan Vienna. Symphonies of the 1760s and 1770s were more often relatively brief, usually less than ten minutes and frequently in three movements. They were most commonly employed in framing or articulating functions: as overtures in theatre, church or chamber, and as entr’actes or interludes as well as concluding gestures in the same venues. That is to say, although they were essential to those occasions they were not the main events which they were enjoined from upstaging. However beautiful, novel or clever such symphonies may have been, they were generally meant to be easily performed and easily listened to—and in fact, Haydn’s and Mozart’s symphonies were occasionally criticised for overreaching those constraints. A report of 1792 about the Hamburg Orchestra, for instance, said that the group’s members were 'such good, strong players and keep so calm that they perform correctly and at sight without error', but that when reinforced to play the latest symphonies, they would be 'heroes to venture to play Haydn’s symphonies (let alone Mozart’s) at sight'.
After Mozart had settled in Vienna and turned his attention to other genres, he found he could fill his need for symphonies in his concerts by programming works of other composers while also recycling some of his own symphonies from the 1770s, which were unknown there and which he had his father send from Salzburg. That being the case, why did Mozart write symphonies in Vienna? The answer seems to be, at least in part, that the best new symphonies were increasingly of a longer, more complex, more serious type—works that were gradually moving the symphony from the periphery to centre stage. Indeed, when eight years after Mozart’s death a Hamburg publisher brought out first editions of four of his Salzburg symphonies, a puzzled reviewer remarked that '… there is nothing more to be said of these symphonies, except that they—although not without good value and content—are really just quite ordinary orchestral symphonies, without any conspicuous traits of originality or novelty, and without any special artistic diligence. Thereby one can quite clearly recognise youthful work, because they are on the whole so very plain …' Knowing, as we do, that Mozart prided himself on tailoring his music to the performers and occasions of the moment, we realise that it was lack of historical perspective that caused the reviewer to attribute to the composer’s youth something that was probably more a result of a change in assignment, so to speak.
Symphonies circulated around Europe primarily in hand-written copies. Unlike Paris, Amsterdam and London, with their flourishing music publishing industries, in Vienna symphonies were not published prior to the 1780s. Earlier, Joseph Haydn’s symphonies had circulated exclusively in pirated manuscripts, since Haydn’s boss, Prince Eszterhazy, owned the proprietary rights to his employee’s music. In 1779-80, however, Haydn renegotiated his contract to allow him to sell his own music. Whether these two developments were directly or indirectly related is not clear, but between 1782 and 1787 the Viennese firm Artaria (also Mozart’s principal publisher) brought out editions of seventeen symphonies by Joseph Haydn, three by Michael Haydn, three by Antonio Rosetti, and one by Pleyel, while Koželuch self-published six symphonies. Mozart joined the trend in 1785, when Artaria published his B flat symphony, K319, written in Salzburg, and his D major (‘Haffner’) symphony K385, written for Salzburg—two excellent but, by then, conservative works.
So why did Mozart write symphonies in Vienna? Perhaps many of the symphonies he had previously relied on began to sound old-fashioned or too simple. The ‘Haffner’ symphony was commissioned from Salzburg, although Mozart was happy to reinforce its orchestration for use in Vienna. The ‘Linz’ symphony was written in and for Linz when, returning from Salzburg to Vienna in 1783, needing to put on a pair of concerts with the private orchestra of his melomaniacal patrons, the Counts Thun, father and son, and finding himself without a single symphony in his baggage, Mozart quickly scribbled one. Scribbled? Hardly! The ‘Linz’ is the first of the completely modern, grand symphonies in which Mozart—his back to Salzburg and his face to Vienna—acknowledged and responded to the new symphony aesthetic. After that, there was no turning back, as Mozart’s last four symphonic masterpieces amply attest.
The so-called ‘Prague’ Symphony was composed for a series of Advent concerts in Vienna. Soon afterwards Mozart took off for Prague, where the Symphony’s brilliant success made it into a canonic work and provided its nickname. As reported in 1798 by the Prague school-master Franz Niemetschek, who had met Mozart and would become his biographer and help to educate his orphaned sons, the ‘Prague’ Symphony, “played with great élan and fire, so that the very soul is carried to sublime heights... is still always a favourite in Prague, although it has no doubt been heard a hundred times”.
The final three symphonies, completed in the summer of 1788, were presumably intended, following Mozart’s usual methods for wringing maximum income from his music in an era before the existence of copyright laws, in the first instance for subscription concerts in the autumn of that year, then for sale in manuscript to a small circle of faithful patrons, and finally, when the novelty and exclusivity had faded, for publication. That there were three symphonies was probably not fortuitous, as opuses most often comprised three works, or multiples of three, in the same genre. Alas for Mozart’s plans, in February 1788 Austria had entered an ill-fated war against Turkey, the nobility were mostly either fighting at the front or cowering on their country estates, the economy sagged, theatres were closed and cultural life slowed to a crawl. The need for monumental new symphonies evaporated. Mozart turned his attention to his upper-middle class friends and patrons and the kinds of chamber music they liked and could afford.
The theatres, halls, music rooms and salons in which Mozart performed his symphonies were small compared to most modern concert halls. His orchestras were correspondingly smaller than a full symphony orchestra as well, and his listeners were positioned correspondingly closer to the musicians. (At private concerts they would sometimes play along, or sit or stand in the orchestra to observe more closely.) These factors meant that orchestral music must have sounded more intimate, nuanced and transparent than we often hear in large modern halls with enlarged performing forces. How delightful, then, that the close microphones and digital technologies of a modern recording of Mozart’s last four symphonies performed by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras, seem to restore some of the intimacy, nuance and transparency we imagine that Mozart’s audiences enjoyed.
Neal Zaslaw © 2007
Similarly, the next symphony, Symphony No 39 in E flat, K543, has an orchestral colour unique in Mozart’s symphonies. This comes from his use of clarinets rather then traditional oboes as the main woodwind instrument. Mozart had already used the clarinet in the key of E flat to gorgeous effect in both da Ponte operas (consider much of the music associated with the Figaro Countess and Donna Elvira). He had also used the softer colours of the clarinet in his E flat Piano Concerto, K482. However, the instrument pervades the whole symphony and there is hardly a phrase where its limpid quality does not add entirely new colours to Mozart’s symphonic palette. The immense range of the clarinet (because of its cylindrical bore) is used to great effect in the trio of the minuet in which the first plays a serene melody high up in its register, while the second chortles away on an accompaniment two octaves lower.
The Symphony No 40 in G minor, K550, has been described severally as 'frantic, anguished neuroticism' (H.C Robbins Landon) and of 'Grecian lightness and grace' (Robert Schumann). The outer movements indeed express a nervous quality not present in Mozart’s minor key piano concertos or in his earlier ‘Sturm und Drang’ ‘little’ G minor Symphony, K183. Note how the consoling second subject in the relative major key sinks to the depth of despair in the recapitulation, as it refuses all comfort in the home minor key. This is especially true of the Finale where the development section starts off with an almost Schönbergian tone row and then leads the listener through a bewildering number of foreign keys until finally it lands back in its original G minor.
Mozart first composed this tragic work featuring the plangent tones of the oboes against the throbbing of the strings. However, he re-wrote the woodwind parts to include his favourite clarinets. In the slow movement we again hear the clarinets in the key of E flat, while in the trio of the minuet the oboes are allowed to come to the fore in a sunny G major.
Mozart’s last symphony, Symphony No 41 in C, K551, later dubbed ‘Jupiter’, probably because of its majestic opening movement or its ‘jovial’ and ‘Titanic’ finale, seems to sum up Mozart’s whole symphonic production with its subtlety and grandeur. But amidst the fanfares of trumpets and drums of those outer movements, Mozart still has one new colour up his sleeve: the muted violins of the slow second movement. Mozart hardly ever used this colour in a symphony and yet the Master says ‘farewell’ to the symphonic form by means of a gorgeous veil over the sound, investing a special quality in it which even pervades the great C major climax in the second part of the movement. A truly original colour in this final symphony of endless tonal variety.
Sir Charles Mackerras © 2007