Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K.550. in 1788 not very long before his death. It formed part of a trilogy that has been shrouded in mystery since it’s conception. Why did he write these symphonies and for whom? No record remains of who might have commissioned the works and where/if they were performed. The alteration of the orchestration (substituting oboe with two clarinets) suggests that it might well have been purposed for a specific performance, but we cannot be sure. What we can be sure of however is that these symphonies have come to epitomise the Classical Era in music and have set the tone for what was to come after, influencing the direction that the subsequent Romantic Era would take. They are perhaps the most recognisable and loved pieces of Western Art Music.
Although unusual for it’s time, Symphony. 40 opens with a soft but rhythmically frenetic viola accompaniment. Shortly after the accompaniment intro the 1st motif is introduced. The violins play a very simple melody with a distinct rhythmical pattern starting on the upbeat, giving a great sense of anticipation which is then responded to by descent down the scale. For me, it conjures up and image of someone skipping down some steps. This pattern is so catchy and so memorable it immediately hooks into my brain and lodges itself there like a nursery rhyme might. It is utterly unforgettable and so fundamentally musical it becomes ‘archetypal’ in it’s essence. I have a feeling I know it already. The frenetic pace and the galloping rhythm gives it a strong forward motion as it travels through various emotional states, expressed through variations in the orchestration and long held notes in the accompaniment. The dynamics are soft with the occasional loud bursts of forte bars serving as the punctuation at the end of phrases.
The second theme, although pleasant and with a somewhat regal feel, does not have the same attention grabbing urgency as the first theme. Strings alternate with woodwinds playing a somewhat stately sounding pattern. The orchestration is typical for it’s time; flute, 2 oboes (revised and replaced with clarinets), horns, bassoons and string choir. Everything is vigorously intensified towards the end of the in the exposition (repeated twice). Mozart goes on to elaborate on the themes throughout the development section, dropping the pitch through key changes. The dynamics are greater and everything gets louder with bigger orchestration and complex textures.
The 2nd Movement is in Eb Major, also sonata form. It starts with the string section and again builds on a very short motif, this time only 2 notes. As with the previous movement the theme is then expanded on and taken through many twists and turns. Bassoons and clarinets are added and extend the theme. The second theme is not quite as contrasting as the second theme was in the first movement, but instead keeps the general flavour going. There’s a third theme which in fact also contains elements of the very first motif. If the pace of the 1st movement was hasty, the pace of the second movement is more of a gentle stroll and together with the 6/8 time signature gives the sense of a floaty and breezy sway.
Ironically the 3/4 Minuet (3rd movement) which would traditionally have been the dance movement has none of the sway of the 2nd movement but is instead dark and threatening. Aside from the soft Trio it has an overall mood of brutality and danger. Again the key is G Minor and consists of overlapping and extremely complex themes.
The fourth and final movement has a large dynamic range, alternating between soft and loud and is played at a fast tempo. The first theme rushes forward in a flurry of eight notes and is passed between various instruments. There’s a cadence and then the lyrical second theme begins in the violins and is subsequently passed to clarinet and bassoon. The development section begins with the entire orchestra playing in unison and Mozart uses a number of jarring melodic leaps, unusual for the time. The movement finally builds to a frenzied cascade of overlapping lines.
This symphony is an amazing achievement and also the beginning of a ‘breaking out’ of some of the Classical norms. I can’t help but wonder where Mozart would have taken us and what would he achieved if he hadn’t died so young? It seems clear to me that he had only just begun and had many masterpieces left in him.