Mozart’s Final Three Symphonies
Right around my early twenties I began to get a bit overwhelmed with the feeling that I didn’t know anything. I was haunted by the urge to grow as a person, especially intellectually. I began to load up on literature, physical exercise and classical music. I had always felt a deep attraction to classical music and sadly, it’s not really something you’re confronted with often if you aren’t looking for it. It’s a strange thing, really. Classical music is all around us, in the soundtracks of the movies we watch, in our commercials, in the old cartoons we watched as children — yet it remains obscure and strangely elitist in a way.
I began reading books about it and I listened to all the composers I could get my filthy hands on — Ravel, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Wagner, Mahler, Shostakovich, Brahms, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Handel, Verdi, Vivaldi, Sibelius and on and on and on. I gave it all a shot and I found out what I liked. I found myself sticking to the older stuff — the baroque and the classical stuff. Let me break it down here:
Baroque: 1600 to 1750 (Bach, Handel)
Classical: 1750 to 1820 (Mozart, Haydn)
Romantic: 1820 to 1900 (Wagner, Brahms)
Modern: 1900 to present (Gershwin, Shostakovich)
I enjoy music from every period, but the baroque and classical stuff really seemed to have a real sense of beauty to me. It was Mozart, Bach and Telemann who really blew me away. There had always been something about Mozart’s music and biography in particular that really drew me in. His story is so interesting — a boy genius who tours Europe under the heavy hand of his father, grows up and matures into the greatest composer of all time, yet remains under appreciated and misunderstood and dies in poverty — I was fascinated right away.
I wanted to write about his three final symphonies. These are some of the most important musical works ever written. I don’t even really see them as symphonies, more a kind of 18th century concept album. Like all concept albums, we may think we know what they’re about, we can tell ourselves we know what they’re about, but nobody really knows. Sometimes the artists themselves don’t know.
Mozart wrote these at break-neck speed in the summer of 1788 along with at least six other works, his piano trios in E and C Major, his Sonata facile, a violin sonatina and two other things that I don’t really know. Nobody knows why he wrote these symphonies. Mozart wrote a lot of letters and he usually wouldn’t shut up about what he was up to at the time, yet we don’t hear anything from the guy when it comes to these. Maybe he was wallowing in shame. Maybe he was just frustrated with the human condition. There isn’t even any solid evidence of a commission paid for these things or even if they were performed during his lifetime. People can only speculate why the hell these things exist. There are three main hypothesis:
1. Mozart may have had plans to have them performed over in England. German composers were a thing up there at the time as all the royalty were from Hanover and still enjoyed some good German music. Handel had made a killing there years earlier and Mozart really needed the cash. The guy was broke all the damn time.
2. June and July 1788 were supposedly months Mozart may have had planned for some subscription concerts at a casino and these may have been something he was working on for that. Mozart was not very popular at the time. His career was in a slump and it’s quite possible these concerts were planned and then cancelled due to lack of interest. Because nobody wanted to hear a new Mozart symphony, not even in a casino. Can you even imagine that? People are the worst.
3. He may have written these things just for the sake of writing them. As an artist, sometimes your impulse to create just can’t help itself. You just have to in spite of everything. If you take them all in together, they do kind of reflect on who Mozart really was, or at least who we tend to think he was. What would later be dubbed his “appeal to eternity”.
4. It is often speculated the these three symphonies were to be played in conjunction with one another as a kind of sprawling, instrumental oratorio. Conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt conducted a version of all three symphonies played in this manner with the orchestra he founded back in 1953, Concentus Musicus Wien.
I personally believe the Harnoncourt version these symphonies to be the truest to what Mozart intended and will be using that version as a point of reference. The entire performance is available here on YouTube.
Symphony 39 starts out with one of those double-dotted rhythms like some kind of baroque French overture, and then all of a sudden we get the entire orchestra going on a single-dotted rhythm. This wasn’t exactly usual form for Mozart. It says he’s switching his shit up and not slumping back into the old model. You better get ready or be left in the dust, motherfucker. When we get to the finale, there is a kind of personalizing there. Although we hardly even notice it, it’s based entirely on a single theme. That is pretty badass. It’s actually very hard to do. For most composers at the time, this would have been a kind of crowning achievement, but nah, he’s just getting warmed up, for real.
Symphony 40 really sits on the throne of Mozart’s best work. Mozart’s stuff has been always called light and happy, fluffy fluff. Kind of like the Disney of composers. Okay, that’s fair enough. I mean, he was writing these things for patrons who wanted happy music for their happy little parties and people should acknowledge that and look beyond that, but whatever. We all have our thing. But finally, here we have something with a dark tone, in a minor key. Only his second to ever have a minor key. Every movement here is in sonata form except for the third.
The first movement begins with some dark accompaniment from the divided violas. You want contrast and diversity? Okay we got that here. Here is a precise and steady hand with a kind of spontaneity and surprise you wouldn’t think could be in something like that. There is rigor and emotion. It has a personal feel to it contrasted with a universality and all-encompassing humanity. There is a kind of internal stillness in the music, and you know that if one note were to fall outside of where it landed, the whole thing would have been fucked up. The pervasive melancholy and the introspection and its weightiness has made it persevere through history making it very influential for the important Romantic composers of the 19th century.
The second movement, although in E flat major, keeps going on with the melancholy and instead of breaking it, it kind of extends that mood. Here we have instrumentation full of low-end, three-bar phrasing, an ominous dread that tries to take away any sense of beauty and there is an almost planned lumbering going on in the cross-accented rhythm. But it is lyrical and the 6/8 timing makes it very interesting.
The principal theme of the finale is of a rising phrase and then a sinking one, crashing to the ground. It suggests victory and defeat, hope and disappointment. Sweet dreams and flying machines and pieces on the ground. Then at the beginning of the development section, there is a disruption of the rising phrase with a darker note before launching into a sequence of ten tones of the chromatic scale all in unison except for G. It’s all in unison, no hint of counterpoint, nothing like that. Just a modulating passage. This is the kind of tone row that Arnold Schoenberg claims to have invented in the 1920s.
The rest of the finale seems a little lighter, the burden a little less heavy. There is promise, there is redemption in there and then, finally in a burst of light, we end it.
Symphony 41 was originally designated as Mozart’s fourth symphony posthumously. That’s fucking sad. It suggests just how few of these things had been issued during his lifetime. They call it Jupiter now because of its sheer weight and intensity. It’s a massive hulking beast of a symphony. It has this big, bombastic and epic opening with a threefold tutti outburst on an ascending motion that leads in a triplet from the dominant tone to the fundamental tone followed by a response. The second movement is a withdrawn andante cantabile playing off a French sarabande, kind of like something from Bach.
The third movement is a slippery-slidey menuetto that wields dark and light, meditative calm and wildness and has a way of blending the vibe of the prior two movements. The finale is the big deal. They call it a fugue. I’m no scholar, but I don’t quite think you can really call it that. There is a kind of weight and brassiness to it that goes far beyond that term. There’s a whole lot of counterpoint going on. There’s an inversion of the main theme. There’s some silliness, some imitative figures. It’s almost cute at times and then, a final explosion. There are five motifs that come together at the coda. Listen, I’m doing a really piss poor job of explaining this to you. The complexity of the thing is really hard to grasp even upon the first few listening sessions. I must have listened to the thing hundreds of times and I’m still finding something new. It gives and gives and gives. It’s so big and heavy and resonates with all this crazy significance. Even on a personal level for Mozart himself, it closes his career up and almost makes me wonder if he knew he was going to die and wrote this as a kind of symphonic goodbye. There are so many things you can find in there. Look, even the primary theme of it, with the whole notes of C-D-F-E was the theme of Mozart’s very first symphony as well. All that structure and craftsmanship and yet it sounds as natural and easy as a walk in the fucking woods. You can’t touch this.
What I really love about this piece is the flow of its five themes that flow through five string instruments, doubled by the winds while the horns pound out the pulse. The final note of each theme falls smoothly into the next as if it were just a natural thing that happens like blood flow or photosynthesis. Not forced at all, just something that had to be done. Just as we get used to that, he skips a beat with two entrances on top of one another and then blesses you with that amazing finish I went on and on about.
I got into this music because I saw something in it that nothing else could offer me, I didn’t quite know what it was. Though it says with me because of how deeply it affects me. I don’t really care about the technical stuff, to tell you the truth. I am no music scholar. It’s hard to know what’s is going on if you don’t have a score in your hand and I’m not really the best at reading music. It’s hard to believe now, but Mozart’s music wasn’t really taken very seriously until after WWI. His stuff had been considered fodder. It was taken as fluffy, effete and silly. LPs and books of his music produced with his music were decorated in pastels, florals, stuff like that. It wasn’t until we were pretty well into the 20th century that the greater music community started to take on Mozart’s work as serious stuff. This is thanks in part to his later operas and these great, late symphonies.
These pieces of music have comforted me, inspired me and kept me from losing my mind for years. A constant and steady friend. They have been there for me through high times, low times. They are a true gift to the world.