Symphony no. 40
There are more questions surrounding Mozart's final three symphonies (nos.
39, 40, and 41 or "Jupiter") than answers. What we do know of the works is
scant: that Mozart appears to have composed them in a six- to eight-week period
in the summer of 1788, entering them in his catalog on July 25. We also know
that he first scored no. 40 for only flute, oboes, and bassoons, then revised
the score to give portions of the oboe parts to two clarinets, leading scholars
to assume that he made the alteration with a real performance in mind.
But beyond that, we have only speculation. Mozart may have composed all three
symphonies for a series of summer concerts that may never have taken place. Or
he may have led one or more of the symphonies during a tour of Germany in 1789.
Or the concerts led by Antonio Salieri in Vienna on April 16 and 17, 1791, may
have featured symphony no. 40. The fact that Salieri's orchestra on that
occasion included clarinetist Anton Stadler, a friend of Mozart's for whom the
composer had written several pieces, is seen as evidence that the rescoring of
the symphony was meant for this occasion.
However, all of this is mere historical guesswork. Speculation of a different
sort surrounds the thematic interpretations of the 40th symphony. Mozart's
circumstances when he wrote the piece were increasingly grim—his growing
poverty, fading popularity with the Viennese public, and increasing marital
strains all coalesce in a letter begging for a loan from friend Michael Puchberg.
"Black thoughts ... often come to me," Mozart wrote, "thoughts that I push away
with a tremendous effort." Some critics have seen Mozart's ‘black thoughts'
expressed within this symphony, one of only two that the composer set in a minor
key. (Symphonies no. 40 and 25 are set in G-minor, with the 40th sometimes
referred to as the "Great G-minor.") Alfred Einstein called the first and last
movements "plunges into the abyss of the soul," while Charles Rosen calls the
work one of Mozart's "supreme expressions of suffering and terror." Yet Mozart
was firmly rooted in the classical tradition, and he never intended his
compositions to express his personal emotions. Composer Robert Schumann found
only "weightless, Hellenic grace" in this symphony, while critic Donald Tovey
points out its pulsing rhythms, akin to those of opera buffa, and scolds, "it is
not only difficult to see the depths of agony in the rhythms and idioms of
comedy, but it is not very intelligent to attempt to see them."
Such disagreements may stem simply from the fact that symphony no. 40
displays such innovation in its unusual harmonic tension, presaging 20th century
musical exploration by three centuries, and in its concentration of means,
abbreviating introductory or expository material. The first movement, Molto
allegro, begins not with a great declarative statement but with quiet, pulsing
violas, followed by violins sounding a nervous, urgent theme. The effect is as
if we had dropped into a work already in progress. A contrasting B-flat major
theme is all grace, yet woodwinds continue to sound fragments of the opening in
the background, and we are deposited quite briskly back into the recapitulation
of the main theme, where a series of further modulations carry us to even darker
expressions of urgency.
The athletic chromaticism of the first movement is mirrored in a more subtle
way in the Andante. Its stately opening appears to return us to more familiar
ground, but soon features short two-note figures, called Seufzer (sighs) in
Mozart's day. The violins add a countermelody that rises in unexpected
directions as the movement explores various chromatic relationships against an
insistent, albeit reserved, ostinato background. The forceful Menuetto
(Allegretto) then returns us to a sense of urgency. Though it follows the form
and rhythm of the courtly dance, its impression is anything but decorous,
leading critics to uniformly describe its powerful polyphony as "fierce," "stern,"
or "rugged." Only the mild G-major trio offers a brief respite from this
movement's grim dance.
The Finale (Allegro assai) begins with a brief, rising two-bar gesture that
quickly becomes the thematic material, the developing consisting almost entirely
of variations on this theme. The finale also includes the most harmonically
challenging music Mozart wrote, a near twelve-tone row in "rude octaves and
frozen silences" (critic Michael Steinberg) that appears half-way into the
movement, after the double-bar in the Allegro assai section. This step toward
Schoenberg's idiom comes as an almost otherworldly gesture, made more so because
the only two tones that Mozart omits are the tonic (G) and fifth (D) of the
symphony's key. Yet the context surrounding this interruption is a movement
whose forward motion, free of the questioning figures that appear throughout the
previous movements, still brings us decisively home to G-minor. Mozart has taken
us on an unusual voyage, but in the end his musical language still achieves a
balance, order, and resolution. — Barbara Heninger
September 20, 2003