Symphony No. 39 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

by Andrew Filmer

Program Notes

Juxtaposition, the connection of contrasts, has always been poetic, the great bard William Shakespeare using it to great effect. A century later it is the musical genius of Mozart that blends seemingly disparate elements into a cohesive whole – quite literally actually, if one considers the elements of different instruments bound into that which we call the orchestra.

This symphony is the first in the last set of Mozart’s three symphonies, written in the summer of 1788. They are occasionally referred to as his “London” symphonies, as it was presumed that the composer, like Haydn before him, had them written for a planned tour to that city. However, historically it is unknown for what purpose this set was written, and it seems that Mozart, who departed only three years after the symphonies’ creation, did not have the chance to hear them in performance.

Of the three last symphonies, No. 41, nicknamed “Jupiter”, has seen much attention on the concert stage. No. 40 on the other hand has gain much notoriety as the most popular classical ring-tone on some mobile phones. In comparison to these two, the selection of No. 39 has been less familiar, and quite underestimated. This symphony is, however, a prime example of the composer’s genius that he is not only able to conjure up melodies, but weave them with apparent contradictions that seem to connect with impossible ease. As Elizabeth Schwarm Glesner wrote, “Taken in its entirety, the Symphony No. 39 is refreshing to the ear, its pleasures only intensified by the fact that it is not much performed. Here is a work of inspiration that, due to its rarity, can still surprise and delight.”

The symphony seems uncharacteristic in many our understandings of what Mozart is supposed to sound like – large sustained forte chords, no possibility of double-dotting what is single-dotted, and even splitting a melodic phrase from one instrument to another. And yet it is within a significant surprise for Mozart’s audiences – that is, introducing the clarinet – that world-recognized grace is clear, of that musician iconic of the 18th Century, whose music lived on past his millennium.

There are other writers who note Mozart’s bright tone in his last symphonies, claiming that this simply represents the strength of his ability to have his music unaffected by worldly troubles. Troubles there certainly were – the then recent death of his infant daughter, and financial problems to boot. But the portrayal of other previous tragedies in his music – notably, his father’s ghost in Don Giovanni, and his mother’s death in the slow movement of the Sinfonia Concertante – make fearless optimism or the kind of disconnect with reality interpreted in the movie Amadeus, seem unlikely. Instead, it is perhaps the chordal moments of dark unrest often heard in Symphony No. 39, countered and juxtaposed with the bright rallies the eventually emerge, that show his passion and energy of triumph over challenges he meets head-on.

Listeners’ Guide

The opening of the symphony sets the tone of the evening. Powerful and strident, the winds and percussion are foremost in the opening, so much more sustained than the opening of the “Prague” Symphony written only a year before, and perhaps more reminiscent of the Sanctus-Benedictus of his “Coronation” Mass. The violins are uncharacteristically hidden in a lower part their range, before blossoming entirely on their own in downward scales, heralding the next round of confident chords. Soon this opening melts into the main Allegro so neatly that one may be surprised that this might be a second theme of a traditionally single-motif based introduction. Only a few bars later does the Allegro burst into dynamic action with the horns in high gear and the violins allowed their moments high on the E string. Later, a surprising use of pizzicato brings out a magical moment, almost in the form of chamber music that one later hears in Beethoven’s Septet.

The second movement seems all about being a musical poetic bridge: a calm after the first movement, while still heralding the bright third movement. This is not to underestimate the musical value of the movement itself but to note its additional value in its place in the symphony as a whole. While some have noted the different dance style of the upcoming Minuet, it is the opening theme of this movement which seems to be a purely musical dance, at once flowing and stately, and needing no implication of choreographed footsteps to make it complete.

The Minuet is one of the most stately movements of Mozart, with the timpani in a more supporting role than in the grander outer movements. The melodic phrase seems to carry from one long resonating bow of the strings to the almost perky winds. In the accompanying trio, the clarinets are given a large place in the sun, and the flute, so melodic prominent in the most previous symphony, graciously takes up the role of an echo.

The final movement starts with more light steps from the violins, followed by a bright tutti. But soon it is the winds that have little conversations to the backdrop of smooth syncopation. The finale, like the Andante con moto two movements ago has a great sense of purpose in position. It balances off the crescendos of the first movement with a dash of decrescendos, and finishes off with a tutti but with prominence on the same instruments similarly strong at the very beginning of the symphony – the horns, violins and timpani.

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