With a few exceptions, Mozart’s symphonies may be divided into two categories, his earlier three-movement symphonies in the Italian style and his later four-movement symphonies in the Viennese style.
Although Mozart composed his first symphony, the one in E-flat Major, K. 16, in London when he was eight years old, it was probably during his visits to Vienna in 1767-68 and to Italy in 1769-71 that he first developed his skills as a symphonist. But it was during the last decade of his life, when he settled in Vienna, that he, along with Joseph Haydn, brought the Viennese Classical symphony genre to its pinnacle.
The multi-movement symphony for an orchestra of mixed instruments, composed for the purpose of concert performance, derived primarily from the multi-sectional Italian opera overture of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, often also called sinfonia. It evolved from the overture by expanding the three sections of the overture into three independent movements: fast-slow-fast. The first movement is generally cheerful and brilliant, the second melodious and expressive, and the last light-hearted and dance-like. The Viennese composers expanded this into a four-movement work by adding a menuet as the third movement.
Mozart’s Symphony in D Major, K. 196 + 121, is a prime example of an Italian overture-symphony, both in its formal structure and in its origin. The first two movements were composed originally as the two-movement overture to his comic opera, “La finta giardiniera,” K. 196, performed at the 1775 carnival in Munich. The independent Allegro movement K. 121, probably composed in 1775, was added as the finale to form a three- movement symphony. This is a youthful, entertaining, and theatrical piece of music comprising a curtain raiser, a song, and a dance, by the teenage composer.
In contrast to this youthful work is the Symphony in G Minor, K. 550, which together with the Symphony in E- flat, K. 543 and the “Jupiter” Symphony, K. 551, forms the trilogy of Mozart’s last symphonies, the apex of his symphonic output. These masterpieces, composed during the summer of 1788, were not commissioned works, and the reason for their creation is unknown to us. Perhaps they were intended for some projected concerts that never came to pass. In any case, the rapidity of their production was typical of his prolificacy during the last decade of his life in Vienna.
This Symphony in G Minor is arguably the most original of Mozart’s symphonies. It is grand in design and unprecedented in the density of musical ideas and the intensity of musical expression.
The first movement begins surprisingly with a quiet but passionate first theme with a rhythmically agitated accompaniment instead of a sonorous and bright theme expected of the beginning of a molto allegro first movement. This initial theme, composed of a thrice repeated step-wise motive followed by a upward skip, imparts a feeling of yearning that is an affective contrast to the tranquility of the lyrical second theme. The repetition of this theme and the repetition of its main step-wise motive also serve as the vehicle for harmonic exploration in the development section of the movement. This section of 65 measures starts with two abrupt chords that propel the tonality to f-sharp minor, almost the farthest related key to g minor, which creates the suspense of how to bring about the return to the tonic key. By the reiteration of the first theme in a series of sequences, the composer deftly arrives at the D-major chord, the dominant of g minor. The section ends with the magical extended passage above the dominant pedal point based on the descending stepwise motive of the theme that allows the overlapping of the development and the anticipatory and surreptitious entrance of the recapitulation.
The second movement is an intensely emotional piece expressed by the sensitive use of dissonance and the clarity of sparse texture. The strings play throughout, and the winds broaden the spectrum of instrumental color by occasionally doubling the strings or playing the ornamental figure of pairs of fast notes. It is most surprising that the melodic outline of the first four measures of this emotive main theme actually presents the impersonal four-note fugal subject from the coda in the finale of the “Jupiter” Symphony in a totally different guise. With the sequential entrances of the viola, second violin, and first violin, each one measure apart, and playing the intervals of a fourth, a fifth, then a sixth respectively, the downbeats of the first three measures followed by the resolution of the dissonant seventh of the dominant chord to the note G in measure 4, the fugal subject from the “Jupiter” is heard in E-flat major: E-flat – F – A-flat – G.
As is the case in Haydn’s symphonies of the same period, the title Menuet/Menuetto in Mozart’s later symphonies no longer denotes the traditional French baroque menuet. Rather, it had become a generic term for a dance movement. In this third movement, the music suggests a rustic dance in triple time, the choreography of which calls for syncopations and phrase structures of predominantly three-measure and six-measure groupings, coupled with a Trio section, perhaps for solo dancers, that provides more imaginative instrumental sonority, melodic refinement, and a welcome change in tonality.
The finale is a powerful and exciting movement in sonata form. The main theme consists of two motives, a soft ascending arpeggio by the strings followed by a loud reply of a repeated harmonic progression by the full orchestra. The rhythmic vitality of this theme, with the fleeting motion of the strings and the chordal punctuation of the winds, predominates throughout the movement. The appearances of the lyrical second theme provide moments of welcome repose from the relentless forward thrust of the music. Excitement is further generated by adventurous harmonic explorations in the extended 80-measure development section. It begins with a succession of diminished chords, then the first sequence of modulation from d minor to c minor, mostly through the descending circle of fifths, followed by the extended sequences of modulations from c minor to c-sharp minor, through the ascending circle of fifths, then reverts to the descending circle of fifths to return to the dominant of g minor. This section ends with an interrogative diminished-seventh chord for which the answer, after a suspenseful silent, is the appearance of the recapitulation, thus bringing a wildly exuberant ending to this great symphony.
Concerto in F Major, K. 459, is one of Mozart’s symphonic piano concertos in which the orchestra is musically an equal partner with the soloist, and the wind instruments play soloistic parts as well as accompaniment. This is perhaps the happiest piano concerto by the composer. It is a work that exudes buoyancy and cheerful lightheartedness throughout. The occurrence of musical events in each movement shows a carefree attitude towards formal structure that seems surprising yet spontaneous and worry-free. There is not a moment of great pathos or anxiety in the entire work.
The orchestral exposition begins the Allegro first movement with a jaunty dance-like theme in cut-time, which is followed by a series of short melodies that tumble forth in succession like the patterns in a kaleidoscope. The solo exposition begins with the piano alone as expected, but the repeat of the main theme is played by the oboe and bassoon accompanied by the piano playing broken-chord figures in triplets. Following the appearance of the second theme, first as a dialogue between the strings and winds, then repeated and embellished by the piano, the rhythmic motive of the main theme and the triplet figures of the piano return and together predominate throughout the movement. The carefree dance character of the movement is greatly enhanced by the brilliance of the piano part, which contributes to the scintillating quality of the overall orchestral sonorities. The outpouring of youthful and innocent happiness in this movement is suggestive of ballet music for fairy tales.
The second movement is not a slow movement as expected. It is instead an elegant and graceful dance-like movement in C major, 6/8 meter, and moderate tempo, marked Allegretto. In texture it is a chamber music work in which the wind choir and the piano carry on extended dialogues, with the strings mostly providing harmonic accompaniment. Structurally the movement is a truncated sonata form that has no development section. The first tutti section, which announces only the first theme, serves as an orchestral introduction to a complete exposition with two themes played by he soloist and orchestra in partnership. The second theme, evocating the feeling of a valse triste, is the only suggestion of melancholy in this movement. The recapitulation, which is the repeat of the exposition in its entirety, but with the appropriate change in the tonality of the second theme, leads to a coda that starts with full orchestral sonority, becomes softer with the repetition of an ascending scale played in succession by the winds and piano, and then fades into silence.
The Allegro assai finale is the most symphonic of the three movements in terms of thematic material, formal design, and orchestration. It is a sonata/rondo movement, the duality of which brings to the piece the rich variety of thematic contrasts of a rondo and the dramatic structural organization of the sonata form. The rondo refrain (the main theme) is whimsical in character and homophonic in texture, and the piano and the winds are presented as equal partners in a dialogue. Then comes a surprising thematic contrast in the juxtaposition of this refrain with the serious contrapuntal first couplet, which is a 4-voice fugato, with the piano silent. The solo exposition, which also begins with the main theme, is followed by the piano’s display of virtuosity that continues almost throughout the movement. This display, consisting primarily of fleeting broken-chord figures in triplets, serves mostly as accompaniment to the orchestra’s quotations of motives of the main theme and the fugal subject. This music is intensified in the development section by a series of harmonic modulations. It is intensified further in the recapitulation by the enrichment of texture, by the addition of a piano accompaniment to the winds’ answers in the refrain, and by the introduction of another voice in the fugato which repeats the rhythmic motive of the refrain. Thus the music increases in sonority, momentum, and intensity till the very end of this brilliant masterpiece, which the composer himself considered one of his “grand piano concertos.”
©2006 John Hsu
(Additional note by Daniel Pyle—Mozart’s name which he was given at his baptism was Johann Chrysostom Wolfgang Theophilus Mozart: “Johann Chrysostom” in honor of the saint of the same name, and “Theophilus” in honor of his godfather. “Amadeus,” by which we know him, is simply a Latin translation of the Greek “Theophilus,” He also used the form “Amadeo” at times, but the form he himself used most often was “Amadé” or “Amadè.”)