Mozart: Ave verum corpus, K.618 │ Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major, K.543

Wolfgang Amadè Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria, on January 27, 1756, and died in Vienna on December 5, 1791. He wrote the Ave verum corpus on June 16-17, 1791, while visiting his wife and their son Karl at Baden, a spa near Vienna. The work was a gift for Anton Stoll, organist and choirmaster of the Baden parish church. Stoll likely led the first performance, probably on June 23, 1791, the Feast of Corpus Christi. The date of the first North American performance is not known. The San Francisco Symphony first performed the work in April 1965, with Josef Krips conducting; Michael Tilson Thomas led the most recent performances, with the SFS Chorus, in November 2006. The work is scored for mixed four-part chorus with strings and organ. Performance time: about three minutes.

Mozart composed his Symphony No. 39 in Vienna at the beginning of summer 1788, completing it on June 26. Nothing is known about its early per­formance history. The first performance in the United States was given on January 9, 1847, by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Henry C. Timm. The San Francisco Symphony first performed the work in November 1913, with Henry Hadley conducting. The most recent performances, in February 2012, were given under the direction of Rinaldo Alessandrini. The score calls for an orchestra of two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings. Performance time: about twenty-five minutes.

The Ave verum corpus is Mozart’s most exquisitely simple and briefest music to a sacred text. Together with his last piano concerto, completed in January 1791, and parts of The Magic Flute, it raises the forever unanswerable question whether Mozart in his last years might have been searching for a new simplicity of style after the gorgeous complexities of the 1780s. We have no more exquisite example of much-in-little than this flawlessly cut jewel. The harmonies are plain, the texture hardly less so, yet in his whole life—chronologically so short, artistically so long—Mozart never invented anything more affecting than those forty-six perfect measures.

Mozart's biography reads like a novel. One might think it was all made up; but then there's the inescapable evidence that he did live and breathe--and write music unlike anything produced before, during, or after his lifetime. The story of his final three symphonies occupies a full chapter. More than two centuries after they were written, these works—the Symphonies No. 39, No. 40, and No. 41 (the Jupiter)--continue to stand at the summit of the symphonic repertory, where they keep company with a small and supremely select group of fellow-masterpieces by the A-list of composers.

Nonetheless, Mozart seems scarcely to have broken a sweat in writing them. Incredibly, all three of these symphonies were produced in about nine weeks, in the summer of 1788. We don't know precisely when he began writing the Symphony No. 39, but it was probably around the beginning of June, not quite a month after Don Giovanni was granted a lukewarm reception at its Vienna premiere. In any case, there is no question that he finished the Symphony No. 39 on June 26, and that he went on to complete the succeeding symphonies on July 25 and August 10. Each is a full-scale work; unlike the three-movement Symphony No. 38 (the Prague), which Mozart had written two years earlier, these comprise the standard four movements of the late-Classical symphony. Twelve movements in nine weeks would mean that, on the average, Mozart expended five days and a few hours on the composition of each movement. That doesn't figure in the fact that he was also writing other pieces at the same time, or that he was also giving piano lessons, tending a sick wife, entertaining friends, moving to a new apartment, and begging his fellow Freemason Michael Puchberg for assistance that might see him and his family through what was turning into an extended financial crisis.

In the first of his desperate letters to Puchberg (written in June 1788, just as the Symphony No. 39 was taking form), Mozart mentioned that he had hopes for some income from two concerts that were to take place in the Vienna Casino the following week. But none of the city's newspapers made mention of the concerts, and it seems probable that they were canceled--perhaps because of insufficient interest from listeners. (If they did take place, Mozart was certainly not encouraged by them, for he never performed in public thereafter.) It is possible that he was intending to unveil this symphony at his Casino concerts. As it is, no evidence exists that it was performed in his lifetime.

The Symphony No. 39 opens grandly, with a slow, darkly dramatic introduction in which the orchestral texture and the harmonic dissonance increase to near the breaking point. This gives way to a lyrical Allegro in which buoyancy rubs shoulders with measured grace. The movement's two main themes are set apart not only by their contrasting melodic character but by their instrumentation; the first is conceived for the strings, while the second employs the rich texture of Mozart's beloved clarinets. The rhythms of the introduction appear again in the slow movement, a subtle Adagio with a poignant contrasting theme. Mozart employed a modest instrumentation for this symphony, but in this second movement he grows still more economical by foreswearing the trumpets and timpani. The resultant intimacy suggests the spirit of chamber music, especially in light of the delicate writing for one-on-a-part winds.

Often the third movement is the least memorable in a Classical symphony--a throw-away minuet that sometimes serves only to “cleanse the palate" between the more imposing courses of the slow movement and the finale. But in Mozart's Symphony No. 39, the third movement may be the most memorable. This Minuet is unusually boisterous, and the contrasting central section contains one of the composer's most endearing dance-tunes, a lilting clarinet melody with delightful echo effects. Still, it steals none of the finale’s thunder. In this final movement, a single theme undergoes all manner of rhythmic and contrapuntal exploration, very much à la Haydn.

Words come with difficulty when one tries to discuss Mozart's final symphonies. One can dissect their harmonic structures, their deployment of themes, their instrumentation and yet fail to convey the exceptionally well-wrought personalities that each makes evident even at first hearing. Each is sublimely beautiful, but each elicits a very different response. The G minor (No. 40) is a work of storm and stress, a score whose overriding emotions range from the unsettling to the downright terrifying, perhaps a mirror of Mozart's inner demons. In the Jupiter (No. 41), Mozart seems intent on showing off his sheer brilliance as a composer; in the Finale he renders the listener slack-jawed through a breathtaking display of quintuple counterpoint. And what of the Symphony No. 39? Its character is less easily suggested in the space of a sentence. Certainly it does not lack deep emotion, and it displays abundant compositional virtuosity. But one may well leave a performance of the Symphony No. 39 feeling that one has glimpsed Mozart reveling in the very act of music-making, providing a score crafted at every turn to delight the instrumentalists who will bring it to life. Mozart may never have heard this symphony performed, but he surely knew how deeply satisfying it would be not only to hear, but also to play.

Michael Steinberg (Ave verum corpus) and James M. Keller (Symphony No. 39)

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s program annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

More About the Music
Recordings: For the Ave verum corpus—Ton Koopman conducting the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra and Chorus (Erato)  |  Colin Davis conducting the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus (Philips)  |  Harry Christophers and the Handel and Haydn Society (Coro)   

For the Symphony—Charles Mackerras conducting the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Telarc)  |  Peter Maag conducting the Padua and Veneto Orchestra (Arts Music)  |  George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony)  |  John Eliot Gardiner conducting the English Baroque Soloists (Soli Deo Gloria)  |  Trevor Pinnock conducting the English Concert (DG Archiv)

Reading: Mozart: A Musical Biography, by Konrad Küster (Oxford University Press)  |  Mozart: A Cultural Biography, by Robert W. Gutman (Harcourt)  |  The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia, edited by Cliff Eisen and Simon P. Keefe (Cambridge)  |  The Mozart Compendium: A Guide to Mozart’s Life and Music, edited by H.C. Robbins Landon (Schirmer)