Instrumentation: 2 clarinets, 4 horns, strings
Performance time: 16 minutes
Reckonings of Mozart's "great" symphonies usually start with number 25, composed when he was 17. It was then, when he was in his late teens, that the masterpieces started to come with some regularity. This was a time when Mozart was trying his hand at all forms, and — perhaps bolstered in confidence by his first big operatic success, Lucio Silla — combined his early mastery of form with his boldness as an innovator. His Symphony No. 19 came on the cusp of this period. Composed in July, 1772, it is one of several that Mozart wrote that year, demonstrating his ease with symphonies as well as hints of the more familiar works to come. In fact, the beginning of the 19th centers on a motif that Mozart would later use in the opening of his Piano Concerto No. 22, also in E-flat major.
Mozart had been itching to write operas since childhood, and had already completed a number of his early efforts in that direction by 1771; his eagerness to make his mark as an operatic composer surely framed his eagerness to explore Italy further. But the trip went far beyond that in the development of his music of 1771 and 1772, and the formation of his mature style. It was the second of three Italian journeys he would make in his lifetime, and his travels meant spending only five months of that year at home, returning to Salzburg on December 15. He spent the next ten months in residence. Somehow, in the midst of all that activity, he managed to complete one composition after another.
In fact, for Mozart, the exertions of travel — generally masterminded by his father, Leopold — don't seem to have hindered his ability to compose. On his first trip to Italy, about a year earlier, Mozart wrote five symphonies that are said to show strong influences of Italian style: light in texture and sunny in disposition, with highly repetitive (not to say mechanical) figures in the orchestra's string section.
The symphonies composed during and after his second Italian trip are more markedly Mozartian and less markedly Italian, showing increased attention to the aspects of symphonic composition we have come to expect from later Mozart, Beethoven and beyond: brilliant orchestral effects, a sense of grandeur, and a sense of drama that goes beyond mere formulaic development of themes. Though the Italian influence is still there, after two calendar seasons back in Salzburg, in the midst of summer, he was perhaps in the mood to experiment with his Symphony No. 19: analysts point to a canny reversion to the style of Johann Christian Bach, who, in Mozart's lifetime, was more admired than his father, Johann Sebastian.
What to Listen For
Poet William Wordsworth's great description of criticism — that we "murder to dissect" — seems especially apt in listening notes for Mozart. We might as well seek instructions for looking at a flower. But without resorting to homicide we can identify the sense of Italian style in this symphony's elegant lightness and a sense of cheer linked to the "buffo" bounciness of 18th-century Italian comic operas. The alternation of loud and soft, "forte-piano," contributes to this effect.
This symphony is also noted for greater dramatic emphasis on the finale than those that came before, an effect that heightens the dramatic weight of the entire work, and that Mozart would continue in many later symphonies. Later, Beethoven and his heirs would carry this idea to much further extremes.
The last movement is generally identified as a "French rondo" in seven-part form (ABACADA); The New Grove describes it as a gavotte en rondeau "more boisterously Viennese than French." Italy? France? Austria? Our advice is to forget the geography and enjoy the music.