Spring Symphonies: 45/60 - Mozart: Symphony No 40

There’s something other-worldly about this symphony - as there is about much of Mozart’s work.  It exists in a pantheon of symphonies which move through moods ranging from delightful to sublime.  It’s successor is a pinnacle of classical élan and it’s predecessor a witty expression of Austro-Hungarian style.  This symphony in G Minor (K550, written in 1788) is one of a few symphonic works in a minor key that Mozart wrote.  It sits with Don Giovanni (1787) and the D Minor Piano Concerto of 1785 (No 20 for those who haven’t learned their Köchel numbers and K466 if you have) as a clear indication that Mozart could paint a cloudy day as well as a sunny one in his music.  Indeed it might even be seen as a stormy one

The first movement starts with no introduction: no help for the listener, no palate cleanser and no real tunes either.  This is a work about instability I suspect.  There’s wide dynamic contrast in the movement - sighing winds and vehement strings and virtually all the time a rhythmical cat-and-mouse game with the listener. I used to think this great fun - as I hear it more I think that there are more merciless messages here than in much of Mahler.  The counterpoint in the development is a prelude to a section of Don Giovanni - like vehemence - but it goes nowhere.  Suddenly we are back to the beginning with a moaning bassoon and plangent woodwinds over our firmer territory.  When this movement kicks out it does so with an exciting feeling of multiplicity: I wonder how many moving parts we can bear to give our attention? It's overwhelming at first and then with study, or familiarity, disconcerting in it's in-your-face complexity. When things slow down again I'm still left reeling. There’s an explosive urgency in the coda but always swiftly damped down with the retrospective and strangely melancholic insertions.  It is as though on one hand Mozart is trying to say “pull yourself together” but is interrupted by memory of something sad and sensitive.  The assertive gets the upper hand...just and only for now.

The Andante is simplicity itself.  The singing melody is graceful and dance-like.  It swoons and sways and builds to a sweet contrasting section of delicate downward inflections.  The whole is finished off under some dark chords - deep waters on which these filigrees skate. The repeat is perhaps more precarious in the light of this ending - but it’s simplicity is more impressive second time through.  There is something amiss here though.  Mozart does all this great work floating above a surface on which he never touches down in my view.  The Minuet has something different about it - there’s a strictness about the melody, an intensity to the counterpoint.  The accenting can make it as stern or relaxed as the conductor likes.  The Trio is rhetorical - a musical question and answer session - sweet and simple.  The return of the Minuet has the same strictures and again the repeat increases a sense of unease.  Essentially this Minuet and Trio never reaches home.  Again we find the music shifting around over an uncertain home - as though going through the motions or somewhat lost.  It's all done with great skill - there's something intentionally missing here, and by this stage it is obvious. I feel there's an emptiness in this great and enduring work, it's a reversal of form and a contrast to it's companions.

The finale nails this feeling down .  The melody is hurried as though legions of feet were scurrying through the street, the second subject is a climbing, yearning tune interrupted by the scurrying figure.  The whole is then repeated.  The second half is more vehement with a fugatto passage led by strings with horn hovering above - like a dozen conversations all at once. The music is much less easy in itself now and the frenetic pace has a sense of desperation about.  The second subject has so many dark inflections that it seems to have sunk beneath the waves.

The final bars strike me not so much as rays of hope but a hand raised as it sinks below the surface.  Don Giovanni’s descent may be a musical relative but the good and evil argument in that opera is not the same one being played out here.  This is much more personal and an much more contemporary battle between good and nothing.  The key feature for all this lovely music is that it never - despite its standard symphonic form - gives me a sense of a foothold, a sense of security or a sense of home.

Mozart’s last years were productive but plagued by money worries and ill-health and his last days have been documented and dramatised to the point where his desperation and theatricality have become a bit mixed up.  The last three symphonies are masterpieces and stand analysis every which way.  They are not emotionally one dimensional or framed by stacks of authorial intent in letters or communications.

At one level this wonderful symphony will entertain audiences until the end of time with it’s easy grace and charm and technical facility.  There is so much in there and these few words could never do it justice from that point of view.  For me it becomes more fascinating the deeper I peer into it.  The little destabilising moments, the uncertainty, the dark chords, the piling of detail to mislead or distract, these are all part of the underlying feeling in Mozart’s pen as he wrote.  Some will scream that I’m daring to presume I know what the composer intended.  I’m not, what I am doing here is saying what I take from it.  Mozart could have been the happiest man alive when writing it - but we suspect he wasn’t.

I think it’s useful now and again to listen to the last three symphonies back to back and the contrast between them starts to weave it’s own magic as a set (surely Mozart didn’t conceive them to be play that way).  But even on it’s own terms the 40th symphony leaves some much hinted at, we will hear different things in it’s whispers and growls each time we approach it.  It demands attention, a rewards it a thousandfold.

Here’s Nicholas Harnencourt and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe - full of vim and vigour.



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