Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K.550 1788/91 | 29 mins
The decline in Mozart’s fortunes that so darkened the last years of his life was well under way in the summer of 1788 when he composed this symphony. The fact that it is one of his last symphonies tells its own tale. The first movement raises questions, posits instabilities, opens abysses. Mozart’s mastery of harmonic architecture is evident in the somber—and so sensual—Andante, in the pathos and powerful polyphony (multiple melodic lines) of the Minuet, and in the dizzying journeys of the Finale. LISTEN FOR: Indeed, the Finale has the most explosive music Mozart ever wrote—listen for the eight measures of rude octaves and frozen silences. For all of the anguish Mozart still feels, this closing movement is a force that ultimately stabilizes, seeks to close wounds, that brings the voyager safely into port.
Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Opus 55, Eroica 1804 | 50 mins
In May 1804, Napoleon, who had been acceptable to Beethoven as a military dictator as long as he called himself First Consul, had himself crowned Emperor, and the disappointed and angry composer scratched out the words “intitolata Bonaparte” (“titled Bonaparte”) on the cover page of his newly completed Third Symphony. The score that was printed in October 1806 instead indicates that this is a sinfonia eroica, a “heroic symphony . . . composed to celebrate the memory of a great man.” The first performances were met with conflicting sentiment, with some shocked at the piece’s “lawlessness.” LISTEN FOR: Beethoven had given his audience plenty to be upset about—among which included a symphony half again as long as any they would have expected, one unprecedented in demands on orchestral virtuosity as well in the complexity of its polyphony, the unbridled force of its rhetoric, and the weirdness of details like the famous “wrong” horn entrance in the first movement (the horn has reached the home chord of E flat while the violins are still preparing its arrival). Another newness in the Eroica is the shift of the center of gravity from the first movement to the Finale. As the music hurdles to the end, we experience Beethoven fulfilling his “heroic symphony” triumphantly in the affirmative.
Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.