Mozart: Symphony No. 40 

Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K.550

JOANNES CHRISOSTOMUS WOLFGANG GOTTLIEB MOZART (He began to call himself Wolfgango Amadeo about 1770 and Wolfgang Amadè in 1777)
BORN: January 27, 1756. Salzburg, Austria
DIED: December 5, 1791. Vienna

COMPOSED/WORLD PREMIERE: Mozart entered the Symphony No. 40 into his catalogue on July 25, 1788. A later version, heard most often today and played at these performances, adds a pair of clarinets to the orchestration and was probably made for concerts in Vienna on April 16 and 17, 1791

US PREMIERE: April 25, 1846. Henry C. Timm conducted the New York Philharmonic Society at the Apollo Rooms, in New York

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—January 1916. Alfred Hertz conducted. MOST RECENT—January 2012. Pinchas Zukerman conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: Flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings

DURATION: 29 min

THE BACKSTORY  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 the G minor Symphony and its two so different companion pieces, that rich and physical comedy, No. 39 in E-flat, and the Jupiter. The very fact that they are his last symphonies tells its own tale. In June, just as he was about to begin on this project, he wrote the first in an agonizing series of letters in which he entreated his friend (and fellow Freemason) Michael Puchberg for financial help. He mentions a series of concerts about to begin at the Casino “next week” and encloses a pair of tickets. But there is no evidence that these concerts ever took place. Perhaps the subscribers were too few. Nor did Mozart give other concerts of his own in Vienna after that.

At these performances, we hear the G minor Symphony in its later version, adding clarinets. Mozart redistributed music material from the original rather than adding any, and accommodating the clarinets essentially involved extensive recasting of the oboe parts. He did not write out a whole new score, but only a nine‑page supplement with the new oboe and clarinet lines. It all caused editors considerable trouble, and it was not until the appearance in 1930 of the Eulenburg miniature score edited by Theodore Kroyer that all the details were straightened out.

THE MUSIC   What at once distinguishes this symphony from some of Mozart’s major earlier pieces is the urgency of the first movement. That begins with the violas’ breathless accompaniment that, for a second or two, emerges before the melody, and it continues through the character of the first melody itself, upbeat leading to upbeat leading to upbeat. We know, too, that Mozart altered the tempo mark from Allegro assai (in a quick manner) to Molto allegro (very fast), which is a change toward the faster. The subtle voicing for instruments is a wonder in itself: the transparency Mozart achieves by never having notes duplicated in melody and accompaniment, the new atmosphere that is generated when the cellos and basses first play sustained notes rather than detached, the stretching of horizons at the first appearance of woodwinds, the discreet supporting chords of oboes and bassoons that make the repetition of the first melody not just a repetition, but a development and a continuation. And all that in just the first half-minute.

The harmony in those opening pages is simple, the better to prepare the violent dislocations of the development. Mozart’s mastery of harmonic architecture produces not only this, but also the somber—and so sensual—chromaticism of the Andante, the dizzying journeys of the Finale, and the pathos of the pastoral trio in the Minuet, where for the only time in the symphony Mozart settles in the key of G major (the trio being, as well, the only part of the symphony he did not rescore). In the powerfully polyphonic Minuet, Mozart comes very close to the corresponding movement in Haydn’s Symphony No. 39, also in G minor.

The Finale has the most explosive music Mozart ever wrote—listen for the eight measures of rude octaves and frozen silences. The context, though, is music more consistently regular in rhythm than we have heard in the first two movements and in the main part of the Minuet. The normality of most of the Finale, the sense of straight‑ahead momentum it generates, most markedly establishes the difference between this movement and the first Allegro. The first movement raises questions, posits instabilities, opens abysses. The finale, for all of the anguish Mozart still feels—and even though it is here that he brings his language closest to its breaking point—must at the last be a force that stabilizes, that seeks to close wounds, that brings the voyager safely into port.

Michael Steinberg 

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.

Charles Mackerras conducting the Prague Chamber Orchestra (Telarc)  |  George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra (Sony Essential Classics)  |  René Jacobs conducting the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra in a “historically informed” performance (Harmonia Mundi)

ReadingThe Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia, edited by Cliff Eisen and Simon P. Keefe (Cambridge University Press)  |  Mozart: A Musical Biography, by Konrad Küster (Oxford)  |  The Mozart Compendium: A Guide to Mozart’s Life and Music, edited by H.C. Robbins Landon (Schirmer)  |  Mozart: The Golden Years, by H.C. Robbins Landon (Schirmer)  |   Mozart: A Cultural Biography, by Robert W. Gutman (Harcourt)  |  Mozart: A Documentary Biography, by Otto Erich Deutsch (Oxford)  |  Mozart’s Symphonies: Context, Performance Practice, Reception, by Neal Zaslaw (Oxford)   

(February 2018)