Mend VC S40

February 15 – Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
February 16 – Friday at 11:00 a.m.*
February 16 – Friday at 8:00 p.m.
February 17 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m.


Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K550

Wolfgang Amadè1 Mozart   (1756-1791)
composed summer 1788

At a Glance
Mozart entered this Symphony in G minor into the catalog of his works on July 25, 1788. It is one of three symphonies he wrote that summer. There is no record of performance during Mozart’s lifetime. What is today known as the Symphony No. 40 (Mozart’s symphonies and concertos weren’t numbered until the middle of the 19th century, when Ludwig Ritter von Köchel worked to catalog all the composer’s music in chronological order) is sometimes called the “Great” G-minor symphony to distinguish it from Mozart’s earlier symphony in the same key: No. 25, K183, also known as the “Little” G-minor.

The date of the symphony’s first performance is unknown. The fact that Mozart revised the scoring to include clarinets (adjusting the oboe lines at the same time) is a strong indication that he had heard the work performed and wanted to make it better, or that he added the clarinets for a specific performance opportunity. A number of concert dates have been identified as possible or probable to this storyline, including printed advertisements for concerts in 1789 and 1790, and one in 1791 in which well-known clarinetists were involved.

This symphony runs about 35 minutes in performance. Mozart’s original scoring calls for flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings (with divided violas). This weekend’s performances are using the score’s later edition, in which Mozart added clarinets and made changes to the oboe parts.

The Cleveland Orchestra first performed Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in its second season, in November 1919, under Nikolai Sokoloff’s direction.

About the Music
When Mozart took up
residence in Vienna in the first half of the 1780s, the amount of music making — and the accompanying professional opportunities present there for someone of his all-encompassing talents — seemed almost infinite. He quickly found in the salons of the nobility the practical advantage of connections and patronage (if not the mutual respect and comradery) that he had long been seeking. In addition, his interest and participation in Free Masonry also benefited him in his quest for monetary support. The Masonic lodge was a kind of salon in which, as a Mason, he could mix as a “brother” with both the established nobility and newly-ennobled bourgeois in the pursuit of sponsorships.

By mid-decade, however, support for Mozart from the noble class began to wane — even as collective efforts among the aristocracy and bourgeoisie allowed him to continue to finance and produce subscription concerts that helped fill recurring gaps in his finances. But as the decade progressed further, two major factors contributed to an almost complete decline of support, placing Mozart in desperate financial straits. First, war between Austria-Hungary and Turkey drained the Viennese economy. Second, and perhaps even worse, an unfortunate drop in Mozart’s popularity thinned his income further. And, in spite of financial assistance from the Emperor and from his friend Baron van Swieten — in both instances to help cover specific projects — by 1788 Mozart’s concert career lay in shambles and his finances in ruin. Rarely flush with money even in good times, his household’s ledger was now plunging deeper and deeper into debt. The future did not present a pretty picture.

Forced into action in June 1788, Mozart moved his family from the center of Vienna to a “cheaper” apartment further out. It did, however, include a calming garden, as a kind of consolation from his troubles. At the end of a letter to his Masonic “brother” the merchant Michael Puchberg, dated June 27 in which he begs financial assistance, Mozart clearly and desperately stated his situation: “If you, my most worthy Brother, will not help me in my predicament, I shall lose honor and credit, which of all things I dearly wish to preserve. . . . If my wish is fulfilled I can breathe freely again, for I shall then be able to get my affairs in order and keep them so. Do come see me! I am always at home. I have done more work in ten days since I came to these rooms than in two months at any other lodgings, and were I not visited so frequently by black thoughts (which I must forcibly banish), I should do still better, for I live here pleasantly, comfortably, and — cheaply. I will not detain you longer with chatter of my affairs, but will hold my tongue — and hope!” The narration is bleak, but still, there was some hope, for the “ten days” of working was on the great triptych of symphonies he composed that summer in less than three months. Later known as Symphonies Nos. 39, 40, and 41, it is the second of these, in G minor, that we are hearing on this weekend’s concerts.

There has been much speculation among Mozart scholars as to what purpose these three big and complex symphonies served. For what cause or occasion did the composer spend so much time in their creation? Was it simply an act of pure inspiration, or as Mozart scholar Alfred Einstein poetically muses, “an appeal to eternity”? Or perhaps Mozart hoped to perform them at “academies” during the autumn of 1788 or winter 1789, which could fill his finances through a subscription of patrons?   Scholar Neal Zaslaw rebuts the “appeal to eternity” idea by stating that it “flies in the face of Mozart’s known attitudes to music and life, and the financial straits in which he then found himself. . . . While he may often have found great personal pleasure in composing . . . he composed to pay his rent and to be a useful member of society.”

If Zaslaw is correct, then Mozart must have composed these works with real performance opportunities in mind. Furthermore, the fact that he made two versions of the Symphony in G minor (No. 40) — first without, then with clarinets and an altered oboe part — suggests that both versions were performed. Still, no record of a financial payment has ever been found, and while some surviving playbills (from concerts between 1789 and 1791) suggest a real possibility of performances, the detailing on those documents is not specific enough to know for sure which “grand symphony” was played in each instance. Chances are that we will never know why Mozart created his last three symphonies.

The Music
Mozart’s last three symphonies, created we don’t know why, are often viewed as a great summing up of the composer’s understanding of what a symphony could be. In particular, No. 40, written in the minor, is greatly appealing and a masterful statement of “classical” proportions without some of the length and self-evident artfulness of the “Jupiter” (No. 41) that followed.

Overall, this work had a profound effect upon the ensuing Romantic generation. The symphony’s rhythmic drive, along with its rich chromaticism, thematic working-out, passionate outpouring, and general ambiguity — especially in the last movement — found deep resonance in the composers of the 19th century. Even the understated and expectant accompaniment of the violas in the opening movement seemed to signal that change was afoot.

Right at the start, Mozart sets the Allegro molto first movement in motion through the rhythmic impulse of the first theme-group, stated in the first violins over a driving ostinato figure in the viola accompaniment. This stark forward propulsion is interrupted by the dialogue-like interplay of strings and winds in the second theme-group. This group is undermined near its close by the recurrence of the opening motifs, now fragmented and distributed between strings and winds. The movement’s development section is dominated by the first-theme group and impressive contrapuntal textures. In the recapitulation, the transition between the first and second thematic groups functions as a second development, further adding to the driving intensity (and complexity) of the movement.

The Andante second movement is a hybrid creation, with expressive tension carried over from the Allegro molto mixed with a lyricism of melodic writing of a more settled nature. The expressive tension permeates the movement’s development section via a chromatic ascending bass supporting descending thirds in the winds, violins, and violas.

The pronounced melodic syncopation and imitative counterpoint displayed in the third movement, marked Minuetto, brings a seriousness and gravity to this music, unusual for the period. Even though the movement’s contrasting Trio section is more relaxed, it is hardly a light shepherd’s dance.

Once again, as in the first movement a single minded rhythmic propulsion characterizes the first theme of the Allegro assai fourth movement. The second theme group, separated from the first by a rest, gives some relief to the music’s relentless drive. Still, in the scheme of things, such relaxation is momentary. The development section is completely shaped around the opening ascending “rocket” motif. Symphony No. 40 ends as it began, in the minor mode, the manifest verification of its relentless daemonic drive. —Steve LaCoste © 2018

 1Mozart was baptized as Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. His first two baptismal names, Johannes Chrysostomus, represent his saint’s name, following the custom of the Roman Catholic Church at the time. In practice, his family called him Wolfgang. Theophilus comes from Greek and can be rendered as “lover of God” or “loved by God.” Amadeus is a Latin version of this same name. Mozart most often signed his name as “Wolfgang Amadè Mozart,” saving Amadeus only as an occasional joke. However, after his death,19th-century scholars in all fields of learning were completely enamored of Latin naming and conventions (this is the period of the classification and cataloging of life on earth into kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species, etc.) and successfully “changed” Mozart’s middle name to the proper Latin form Amadeus. Only in recent years have we started remembering the Amadè name he preferred and used.