Spring Symphonies: 2/60 Mozart Symphony No 38 'Prague'

Spring Symphonies: 2/30 Mozart - Symphony No 38

This music was composed 228 years ago - just ponder that for a minute - what else from that time is still part of our lives?

Mozart's late symphonies are dazzling and so many of them contain music that immediately connects with the listener. Remarkable really. Whatever we claim to know about neurochemistry and physiology of our responses to music is not really relevant here: Mozart just knew!

The symphony begins with a slow introductory section which was not unique except in its complexity and refinement. We might not it's darkening tones every now and then and the way strings and winds exchange phrases and part-phrases. The darkening was going to appear later that year in the home city of this work Prague - in an opera which would change all opera Don Giovanni. The music stomps about in the minor key and then transforms in a move about as tangible as the weather to a bright, lighter place. And then stops.

The allegro motors off like a Lamborghini - strings move the music forward, with woodwind carving out an arch giving it form. There are, according to some, six tunes here for Mozart to play with later - I think the bigger point this is fantastically concentrated musical invention and none of these tunes seems out of place.  The symphony was composed in late 1786 and premiered on 19 January 1787 - he didn't take long to think about it either. 

The place midway through this Allegro section, where the tunes start tumbling over themselves is a deep joy for someone like me who likes tunes played over tunes called counterpoint, or contra punctus for those trying to find a Latin tag for our wild love of such musical complexity. Solo woodwinds punctuate the string sound - but hear how Mozart draws such sweet lines. The close of this movement is not a miracle he merely seems to write for his own immense satisfaction and it so happens to be ours too.

The slow movement, marked Andante (meaning going but allowing some latitude about how fast!) is of different colour. The tonality is G major and it's not sad so much as intimate. Delicate textural writing is balm on the ear but one imagines heard to bring off with sufficient buoyancy, transparency and distinctly personal relevance. The tone turns more anxious midway through - a change of key, and orchestral colour and the two sections winds and strings tiff like an old couple but soon reconcile. Show over!

The lively final movement (this is a three movement symphony unlike its immediate siblings) begins with conventional but brisk rhetorical devices almost like a question and answer. But speed is jaunty enough never to let the ear rest and as more musical devices are used it all starts to get exhilarating. There's some much energy here yet on the page the material looks so slight. Mozart's music dances in brightly jewelled shoes - nowhere showing them off more effectively in this champagne like music. 

And the final bars are just right, placed as it were immaculately with a dramatic genius to shut things down just as our excitement is peeking with the orchestral cat and mouse. He draws the line leaving us hungry for more. If the conductor chooses to include repeats in the outer movements we may get more but Mozart still wins however many times we repeat.

In many ways we might say this is slight fare:

Only three movements
No brash brass
No thumping timpani

but you don't miss a thing - because it's just about perfect
But it is invigorating and enjoyable and admirably full of feeling. One only needs to ask one question - why is it played so rarely in concert?

Here's Otto Klemperer making it live:


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