25 Feb 2011

Mozart – Symphony No. 40

Written by Jeff Counts

Instrumentation: flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, strings.
Duration: 35 minutes in four movements (with pauses).

Late in Mozart’s very short life, his financial circumstances were not at all comfortable. By mid-1788 he had moved from the center of Vienna to the suburb of Alsergrund in search of cheaper rental rates. There is a sad selection of surviving letters from this period from Mozart to a fellow Mason in which he pleads for loans and other financial assistance. Personal difficulty did not lead to writer’s block in these last years, thankfully, as Mozart remained productive right to the end.

There is much of Mozart the opera composer in his late symphonies and in the Symphony No. 40 of 1788 we hear some of his most dramatic, emotionally charged music. Descriptions of the piece vary greatly. Robert Schumann called it a work of “weightless, Hellenic grace” while historian Charles Rosen called it “a work of passion, violence and grief.” There is great distance between Schumann’s Grecian lightness and the outright pathos of Rosen’s comment but little doubt that Mozart’s G-minor masterpiece is filled to its limits with vitality and expression. Mozart’s music is often noted for its superficiality, even while the genius and ease of his creativity is lauded. Symphony No. 40 is nothing if not an anecdote to this sort of thinking. Mozart not only shows his capacity for depth and darkness, he shines light on a new path later taken up in earnest by Beethoven, Bruckner and Mahler. There is an urgency in the score of No. 40 that is best captured by the late Michael Steinberg’s inspiring prose. “The first movement raises questions, posits instabilities, opens abysses.” Of the finale, he feels it “must at last be the force that stabilizes, sets solid ground under our feet, seeks to close wounds, and brings the voyager safely – if bruised – into port.”

1788 saw the formal implementation of the United States Constitution and Connecticut’s official entry into statehood. The city of Cincinnati had its beginnings as a few buildings were erected along the Ohio River. Elsewhere, France was in economic chaos as grain product plummets and prices soar. Russia gained support from Austria in her war with the Ottoman Empire.