Mozart: Symphony No. 31 in D major, K.297(300a), Paris

JOANNES CHRISOSTOMUS WOLFGANG GOTTLIEB MOZART

BORN: January 27, 1756. Salzburg, Austria

DIED: December 5, 1791. Vienna, Austria

COMPOSED: June 1778, in Paris

WORLD PREMIERE: June 12, 1778, at the Paris home of Count Sickingen. On June 18 it was played in public in the same city by the Concert Spirituel. Following that performance, Mozart replaced the symphony’s original Andante with another movement in the same tempo and the new version of the symphony was unveiled in a Paris concert on August 15. Although a measure of confusion reigns over which of the two extant Andantes was the original and which was the replacement, the balance of evidence suggests that the slow movement heard in this concert, long believed to have been the original version, was in fact the replacement.

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—January 1941. Led by Sir Thomas Beecham. MOST RECENT—January 2015. Paul Goodwin conducted

INSTRUMENTATION:  2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

DURATION: About 15 mins

THE BACKSTORY On July 3, 1778, Mozart wrote from Paris to his father and sister, back in Salzburg, that his mother, Anna Maria Mozart, had become seriously ill. Historians believe that this letter was Wolfgang’s gentle first step in breaking the inevitable news to his father. In fact, his mother had died several hours earlier. For a twenty-two-year-old in a foreign land, essentially alone except for the mother whose presence was supposed to make the going easier, this was a tragically difficult situation. Mother and son had left home together the previous September on a concert tour that would take them through Munich, Augsburg, and Mannheim before they arrived in Paris on April 1. Mozart had thoughts of settling there to seek his fortune, and a goal of this leg of the journey was to investigate job opportunities. The Mozarts were beginning to make some contacts, the young composer’s ballet Les Petits Riens got an airing at the opera house—and then this. But Mozart was an unflappable professional, and somehow he summoned the energy to continue with his musical activities. So it is that, after ruminations on the inevitability of God’s will, his letter shifts gears to cheerier matters. “I have had to compose a symphony for the opening concert of the Concert Spirituel,” he reported. “It was performed on Corpus Christi day with great applause. . . . I was very nervous at the rehearsal, for never in my life have I heard a worse performance.”

Founded in 1725, the Concert Spirituel was the pre-eminent Parisian purveyor of instrumental music until the nation’s cultural life was interrupted by the Revolution of 1789. To have his new symphony programmed by such an entity was certainly a coup, and one can easily sympathize with the disappointment Mozart felt when he heard his piece mistreated in rehearsal. But making a hash of preparing the piece seems to have served the orchestra well enough to alert them to what they needed to do when it counted. Mozart continued:

I prayed to God that it might go well, for it is all to His greater honor and glory: and behold—the symphony began. . . . Just in the middle of the first Allegro there was a passage which I felt sure must please. The audience was quite carried away—and there was a tremendous burst of applause. But as I knew, when I wrote it, what effect it would surely produce, I had introduced the passage again at the close—when there were shouts of “Da capo.” The Andante also found favor, but particularly the last Allegro, because, having observed that all last as well as first Allegros begin here with all the instruments playing together and generally unison, I began mine with two violins only, piano for the first eight bars—followed instantly by a forte; the audience, as I expected, said “hush” at the soft beginning, and when they heard the forte, began at once to clap their hands. I was so happy that as soon as the symphony was over, I went off to the Palais Royal, where I had a large ice, said the Rosary as I had vowed to do—and went home.

THE MUSIC Three and a half years had passed since Mozart had composed his last symphony, and he clearly approached this new effort with excitement. At least fifty-five musicians appear to have participated in the premiere. This marks the first time that a pair of clarinets appears in one of the composer’s symphonies; in ensuing years, their sound would become central to the orchestral timbre we recognize as Mozartian. What’s more, Mozart was a quick enough study to grasp the essence of Parisian musical taste and reflect it in his new score, beginning with the three-movement format (eliminating the minuet movement that was traditional in German-speaking lands). It perhaps sounds unkind to suggest that, in the France of Louis XVI, Parisians stressed style over substance, but the fact is that not a single symphony from that time and place has persisted to achieve repertory status apart from works by foreigners—specifically, this Mozart work and the group of symphonies Haydn composed for a different Paris orchestra a decade later. The beginning of the first movement of the Symphony No. 31 provides a case in point. Its sonority, enriched by trumpets and timpani, makes a fine effect, but the opening tune is really more a display of scale passages than a “proper melody.” Then again, there’s much to be said in favor of “style” per se, and when it comes to style, the French have rarely taken a back seat to anyone. In his bow to the French taste, Mozart’s brilliant orchestral veneer more than compensates for what might be considered a paucity of serious substance. In truth, Mozart did not neglect the “serious” side of this composition. Note, for example, the formal statement he makes by bravely avoiding a repeat of the opening exposition section, and the care he expended in balancing the material of this opening Allegro, cutting fully fifty-nine measures before bringing the movement to its final form. And in the finale, Mozart explores a novel pattern of harmonic structure, in the course of which he proves himself a master of counterpoint.

Mozart’s account of the premiere makes the performance sound more like a sports event than a concert, what with all the applause going on during the piece. But, tellingly, he says almost nothing about the slow movement. From a follow-up letter Mozart wrote to his father on July 9, we learn that Jean LeGros, the director of the Concert Spirituel, admired the symphony on the whole but was not happy with that movement, so “to satisfy him (and, as he maintains, some others) I have composed a fresh Andante—each is good in its own way—for each has a different character.”

It was long assumed that the original Andante—one that Mozart here claimed to prefer—was the elegant movement in flowing 6/8 time performed at this concert. In 1981, however, musicologist Alan Tyson argued (after examining manuscript sources) that the 6/8 movement is the one Mozart wrote to placate LeGros. The original, Tyson contended, was a movement in 3/4 time that had been assumed to be the later Andante. The evidence is not clear-cut, but many Mozart scholars have come around to Tyson’s point of view. Each Andante, as the composer said, is indeed good in its own way.—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback. 

(April 2019)