Symphony Studies Nos. 32–37 of 118 | Mozart: Symphonies 35, 36, 38, 39, 40, 41

by Glenn on March 5, 2016

Mozart Amadè Mozart (1756–1791)

Symphony No. 35 in D Major, K. 385 “Haffner”
fp: 1782 | Vienna, 23 March 1783 (final version)

Symphony No. 36 in C Major, K. 425 “Linz”
fp: Linz, 4 November 1783

Symphony No. 38 in D Major, K. 504 “Prague”
fp: Prague, 19 January 1787

Symphony No. 39 in E-Flat Major, K. 543
completed: 26 June 1788

Symphony No. 40 in g minor, K. 550
completed: 25 June 1788 | fp: 16/17 April 1791

Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551 “Jupiter”
completed: 10 August 1788


I’ve been having my own Mozart Festival the last few weeks. There is a to-do list aspect to this symphony project—you’re checking things off a list—I expected to read the chapters for and listen to the six Mozart symphonies that Michael Steinberg includes in The Symphony then move on. But I got stuck. I am loving both the music and the performances, which are all by Sir Charles Mackerras and the Prague Chamber Orchestra.





It’s like I’ve never heard these Mozart treasures before, even though I played No. 40 in college—perhaps we played it a little too regularly—and I conducted the second movement of No. 40 for my master’s degree recital. (I’m wishing I knew anything about performance practice at that point as I would have moved the tempo along a little better to add a measure of lilt.)

I’m sure I’ve heard many of the other symphonies, but am equally sure that, beyond No. 40, I haven’t really listened carefully to any of them.

They are stunning. And Elegant. Clean. Exquisite. Playful. Delicate. Refined. Proportionate. Simple. Complex. Bright. Dark.

Mozart is irritating, of course, because he wrote so well, wrote so quickly , and wrote (usually) for money. His music wasn’t art for art’s sake. He wrote if there was an audience and/or a paycheck. But when he did write, he was exceptional. Even if he was writing quickly, it feels like his music is just perfect.

One example is Mozart’s “Linz” Symphony, No. 36, which he wrote in about four days. He arrived in Linz at 9:00 am on 30 October 1783, discovered a symphony was requested of him and because he didn’t have one on him began writing one and performed this new symphony with Count Thun’s orchestra on 4 November. How is this possible? It feels redonkulous, which is the in-fashion word to describe Stephen Curry, but it also feels like Mozart is the Steph Curry of the Enlightenment, performing way above the norm.

I expected to hear these Mozart symphonies as cookies made with the same cutter but while there may be some homogeneity of style, each is unique. They’re a bit like Frank Lloyd Wright homes: clearly there’s a look, but still there’s variety within the style and each of them has its own delights. And they are spectacular—both Mozart’s symphonies and Frank Lloyd Wright’s homes, although I’ve heard that sometimes the Wright homes can be a little leaky and lacking in storage.


A confluence of three streams of input has me thinking about progress.

The first stream is my re-reading C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, where he writes,

“We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.”

In context, Lewis has said that there is a moral law and that Some One or Some Thing is attempting to confront us from the outside with it. He is addressing those who think they’ve outgrown the idea of religion: “You may have felt you were ready to listen to me as long as you thought I had anything new to say; but if it turns out to be only religion, well, the world has tried that and you cannot put the clock back.” Lewis says he “would rather get away from that whole idea of clocks,” and then makes his statement about progress.

The second stream is a recent political event I attended in a behind-the-scenes role. It was a conservative group I was working with, but the kind of political group is not important. Some of their discussions reminded me that every political group has issues that they are concerned with—the minimum wage, the environment, universal health care, abortion, gay marriage, for starters. Every issue has sides, and everyone on a particular side of an issue would like to see progress made for their side of an issue. But your idea of progress is based on which side of an issue you are one. One person’s “progress” is another person’s “We’re going to hell in a hand basket.”

The third stream is these six symphonies by Mozart. They are phenomenal. The last symphonies I listened to prior to the Mozart symphonies were Bruckner’s Fourth and Charles Ives’s Fourth and just recently I listened to Elgar’s Symphony No. 2, all of which represent significant change from what Mozart was doing. Is it progress?

The symphony as an idea begins before Mozart, but it’s hard not to characterize Mozart’s work in these late symphonies as an important moment (the climax?) in the history of the art form known as the symphony. As soon as Beethoven comes along, that art form is changed. As it should be. This is appropriate. It’s how art works. To do exactly what Mozart did would have been imitation, which Emerson in “Self Reliance” said would have characterized as suicide. But then how do we think about that change?

Progress is difficult to ascertain and find agreement on. Does everything that comes after Mozart constitute progress? If not, when does progress end? It’s tempting to view all evolution as an unquestioned good. “Every day in every way I am getting better and better” is the way they say it in the personal growth movement. Sometimes it feels like we’re supposed to feel the same about change in art.

If all change in art is not progress, how do you evaluate that in a way that doesn’t feel like a political skirmish (“I love Bruckner!” vs “I hate Bruckner!”)?

Is there a way to talk about beauty as something beyond us in the same way that Lewis speaks of the Moral Law as outside us? While we may not all agree on what is beautiful, can we all agree that there is an ideal of Beauty?

Then the problem becomes, how do we create a definition of beauty that we can then apply to the music we hear so that as we hear these Mozart symphonies, we can say, thoughtfully, which is the most beautiful? And as we listen to those composers who, coming after Mozart, take the idea of a symphony and alter it to their purposes, we can say, again thoughtfully, how what they’ve done is more or less beautiful than what Mozart has done.


A word about the recordings. They are excellent. I’m not sure where I got the recommendation, originally, but Sir Charles Mackerras is consistently praised for these recordings and I am grateful for whoever recommended them. A typical glowing review of Nos. 40 & 41 by Rob Barnett can be found here.

Mackerras later recorded these symphonies with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and reviewer Tony Haywood says that Mackerras “proves to be his own most serious competitor.”

With many of the symphonies I’ve heard, it’s been fun to go and listen to another recording. Different conductors and bands bring a different approach to the music. With these Mozart symphonies I feel like I’ve found fantastic recordings and don’t really need to look elsewhere. (My only issue with them are some edit points that, once you are aware of them, you can’t “unhear” them.)

I enjoy the split of the violins left and right. On the recording you can really hear the interplay between the two violin parts. Mozart’s polyphony comes alive.

I love the acoustics. I’ve read some reviews that say there is too much reverb. I thought it was just right. Plenty of space for the sound to go and blend, but enough presence so that you can hear the detail. They aren’t trying to bury anything, though. As far as detail, the Prague Chamber Symphony plays very cleanly.

And I like Mackerras’s approach to HIPP (historically informed performance practice). They use modern instruments and don’t try to act like they don’t—for example making strings play with absolutely no vibrato. Instead, it’s a modern band that plays lightly and uses quicker tempos in line with scholarship rather than tradition. I don’t mind an authentic-sounding band that uses period instruments and it will be interesting at some point to hear these played by one. For now, I think Mackerras has found the perfect compromise—playing in the style with the best instruments currently available.


There are some wonderful moments in these six Mozart symphonies. I thought I would identify a favorite moment in each. (The following highlights included here are by Sir Charles Mackerras and the Prague Chamber Symphony. These are from recordings that I have purchased and are presented with the idea of “fair use” for educational purposes. No copyright violation is intended. I encourage people to seek out and purchase their own recordings of the compositions.)

I picked the opening of the last movement of Symphony No. 35 in D Major, K. 385 “Haffner” for the pure fireworks of it—the excitement, the dance, the required virtuosity from all the sections. It’s remarkable.


From the Symphony No. 36 in C Major, K. 425 “Linz” I picked the opening of the second movement Poco Adagio because of the melody and its treatment. The tune feels like it’s from a previous era with all of the ornamentation and has such a dignity about it. The accompaniment is so simple, yet exquisite.


I also chose the slow movement from Symphony No. 38 in D Major, K. 504 “Prague” because of the melody. But this one feels very different. This tune has a soulful quality about it. Part of what I like is the involvement of the other instruments with the harmonization and the way the woodwinds come in and alter the character. I don’t know if music can be winsome, but this seems like it would be.


The third movement of Symphony No. 39 in E-Flat Major, K. 543 is a Menuetto and Trio. The trio section feels like dance music. I love the clarinet solo and the Viennese character of this moment. You wonder if this is how the band sounded at the Royal Ball or a private dinner party in the Court of Vienna.


The last movement of Symphony No. 40 in g minor, K. 550 shows Mozart a master of complicated polyphony. He has a very simple motif that morphs into an intense fugue-like passage for the strings with an alternate line going in the winds before bringing things to a simple but firm cadence.


It’s not all fun and delight with Mozart, though. In the opening movement of Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551 “Jupiter” Mozart shows how he can generate considerable tension using the same elements that a moment ago were light and dance-like.


There are many other moments in these Mozart symphonies worth hearing again and again and are a lot of fun to have in your head, especially the finales of Symphony No. 39 and 41, which are pure joy and which routinely pop into my head.

Here is the opening of the finale from  Symphony No. 39 in E-Flat Major, K. 543. I love the nature of this melody—rising and falling—like a babbling brook, which then is transformed into a rushing stream of counterpoint throughout the orchestra.


Finally, here is the opening of the finale from Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551 “Jupiter”. I love how Mozart begins his tune with four long notes on a rising slope that are followed by a little dance and then a virtuosic slide back down to the starting place. It feels a little like a climb up a mountain and skiing back down again. Mozart then takes the tune and turns it into a fugue. The whole movement is a demonstration of how Mozart can play with a melody.


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[…] Mozart’s late symphonies now newly familiar to me, I thought I would turn to something that was already familiar, Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and his […]

by Symphony Study No. 39 | Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4 « on 13 March 2016 at 2:55 pm. #