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Table of contents

Introduction

Although one of the most recognizable pieces of all classical western music, there is not much that can be really agreed upon when it comes to Mozart’s Symphony n.40. It’s the only other Mozart symphony in G minor, it was written in 1788, and there are 2 versions of it, one with clarinets, one without. That’s pretty much everything that everyone agrees on.

Who was it written for? It is almost inconceivable that this symphony (along with the previous K543 and the following K551, all written in a little over 6 weeks) would have been composed without any prospect of it ever been performed. But we have no proof of it.

Did Mozart write it thinking of a future commission? And did he ever hear it? Perhaps he did, considering that he added two clarinets but the truth is that there is no historical proof of it and we really do not know.

Usually, when I start studying a piece, I read or brush up on historical and biographical facts which makes it easier to put the piece in a certain context. This, in turn, helps in finding a key to interpret the whole piece or looking at certain details in a different light.
But when it comes to the last years of Mozart’s life everything becomes very foggy: apparently, there are more than 100 theories on the cause of his death only, for instance.

Mozart’s 40th symphony was composed 3 years before his death and all we have is a note in his personal register of compositions marking the day in which the symphony was finished: July 25, 1788.

One note on the key of the piece: it is easy to exaggerate the significance of Mozart for the G minor key. And yet, it did seem to have a particular meaning or association for him. Hermann Abert, speaking about Don Giovanni, refers to the G minor as “the key of passionate grief”, which is quite obvious in Mozart’s operas (like Pamina’s aria from Die Zauberflöte). But also his instrumental music shares some of this emotional aspect: from the other G minor symphony (K183) written in 1773 to the piano quartet K478 to the string quintet K516.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

This painting by Barbara Krafft is probably the most famous portrait of Mozart. However, it was painted in 1819, almost 30 years after the death of the composer.

Beethoven: Coriolan autograph

The only (known) picture of Constanze Mozart (far left), Wolfgang’s wife. It was taken in 1840: Constanze, 78 by that time, is sitting next to Max Keller, a Swiss composer and old family friend, surrounded by his daughters and the rest of his family.

The picture was discovered in archives in the southern German town of Altötting: it was taken in Bavaria and it’s one of the earliest examples of photography.

Mozart Symphony n.40: analysis

Exposition

The first movement is, like most music from the classical period, in sonata form: an exposition with a 1st and a 2nd theme, a development, and a recapitulation. Weird enough for the time, there is no slow introduction and, on top of that, the symphony begins in piano dynamic.

We are used today to go to a concert and sit quietly when the lights go down so that the music begins in total silence. But it was not like this back then: lights stayed always on, people were chatting and eating, etc. The introduction or a loud beginning was there to tell the audience that the show had started. Which, in this case, adds even more mystery to this symphony.

Tempo choice

One of the most important choices a conductor makes is tempo. Mozart marked it at first as Allegro assai, which means quite fast but then, very unusually, crossed it and changed it to Allegro molto, which means very fast. That doesn’t necessarily mean that one should go as fast as possible: from a technical point of view, instruments, players, and orchestras were very different machines than the one we are used to today, and, once again, we cannot really know how fast was fast for Mozart.

A decision about the tempo should always be made in relation to the phrasing that one wants: maybe as a conductor you prefer to stress the melancholy of the piece, in which case you would choose a more cantabile tempo; or perhaps you prefer to underline its nervousness by choosing a faster tempo. It’s the beautiful aspect of interpreting a piece: reading it from different angles.

Mozart Symphony n.40 K550 - ex-1

Technical tip

On the first bar, the focus should be on the violas: they are the engine supporting the rest of the orchestra. From the second beat on, make a phrase with the first and second violin and break the pattern. It really makes no sense to do a 2-beat pattern here.

One other fascinating aspect of this beginning is that the music seems to have already started when we hear the first notes: as a matter of fact, it does not start at the beginning of the phrase, at least not in the way we are used to. And the first arrival point of the phrase happens on the third bar.

There is one thing I want to point out about this music cell. Mozart was known for his memory: he could think up a musical idea and then remember it for years without jotting it down, and then use it as it was or rework it as he pleased. Well, the cell of this theme appears in one of his most famous piano concerto: the n.21 K467

Mozart Symphony n.40 K550 - ex-2

Notice how the only moving part in the strings in bar 14-15 is in the violas, who counterpoint the woodwinds adding a dark color to the line.

Moving on, the opening theme is repeated but look at how Mozart uses the bassoons to close the previous phrase and make it clearer that the arrival of the phrase is after 3 bars by closing the harmony and adding, this time, 2 oboes in its support.

The nervous energy of the violas accompaniment is propagated to the bassoons, cellos, basses in the forte coming up at bar 27, a transition full of emotional spikes, in the scales, in the sforzando marks that takes us to the second theme.

Second theme

Notice the bar of rest that, while completing the previous phrase structure, adds a moment of total silence before moving on. It’s like we need to take a breath after all this drama before we are able to relax into the second theme.

Mozart Symphony n.40 K550 - ex-3

This second theme is not as contrasting with the first theme as it usually happens: both of them are cantabile and the first theme is not particularly masculine and assertive in nature to begin with (something that can be easily seen in Beethoven’s Coriolan Ouverture for example). The second theme begins with a chromatic passage that, and even though the theme is in a major key, the chromatism holds in itself the uneasiness and restlessness of the first theme.

The theme gets bounced back and forth between strings and woodwinds

Mozart Symphony n.40 K550 - ex-4
Mozart Symphony n.40 K550 - ex-5

We’re taken then through a crescendo to the reintroduction of the first thematic cell. But notice how the chromatism of the second theme is reversed and used here with a propelling force

Mozart Symphony n.40 K550 - ex-6

Technical tip

On bar 68-69 stop the rebound to keep the tightness of the rhythm. On bar 70, use the rebound on the first beat to your advantage to move your hand higher so that you can then register the scale downwards.

Development

The development is usually the place where elements from the first and second theme get reworked and mixed up but this is not quite the case. This development is practically only based on the first thematic cell which is continuously transformed through harmonic alterations, starting with F# minor

Mozart Symphony n.40 K550 - ex-7

and then moving down half a step

Mozart Symphony n.40 K550 - ex-8

Looking closely, the second theme has, in fact, sneaked in with its chromatism, evident in the bass line.

Mozart Symphony n.40 K550 - ex-9

Technical tip

Remain as still as possible, with minimal gestures, all the way to bar 114: this way, you can preserve the surprise of the sudden forte.

A sudden burst of energy deploys all the drama of the movement, and, again, the first theme insists, passing from the violins to the low strings and the bassoons.

Its energy dissolves and the same cell comes back, weeping

Mozart Symphony n.40 K550 - ex-10

But just when we thought we were going back a sudden forte tells us otherwise: only the first 3 notes of that cell are used and they sound like lashes

Mozart Symphony n.40 K550 - ex-11

Finally, through a non-accidental chromatism, Mozart takes us back to the recapitulation.

Recapitulation

A recapitulation that arrives in a very unusual way, coming from far away, with no clear cut: we realize that it has begun only once we are already in it.

The recapitulation proceeds as usual, or at least so it seems until Mozart takes a short detour: 

the forte excerpt begins in Eb major

Mozart Symphony n.40 K550 - ex-12

but then it goes through a few harmonic transformations starting with F minor

Mozart Symphony n.40 K550 - ex-13

until, through a progression, we land on G minor in all its drama

Mozart Symphony n.40 K550 - ex-14

The second theme comes back, this time in the home key, which makes it even more sorrowful

Mozart Symphony n.40 K550 - ex-15

and then its chromatism insists once more

Mozart Symphony n.40 K550 - ex-16

Technical tip

Drive the chromatism with a short rebound, like in the exposition, but end in the higher part of your space: it will make the sudden piano come through in a much clearer way. And if you have the second violin sitting on your right, you can catch the piano of the woodwinds with your left hand, freeing up your right hand to cue the second violins.

its rage leaves room to desperation, and we are completely lost in sadness

Mozart Symphony n.40 K550 - ex-17

before ending with a final outburst where the first theme only remains in its rhythmic element.

In conclusion

Even though it doesn’t seem so difficult to conduct from a technical point of view, Mozart is always full traps. There’s an absolute balance in everything: form, phrasing, color, dynamics. Too big of a gesture and the gentleness is broken. Too timid of another one and the impetus is gone.

For myself, I find that what I need to look out for is control over myself and my own personal impetus. Something that normally gets much better when I just let the orchestra play without interfering too much with what they’re doing.

In doubt about a technical issue? Now you can book an online lesson and get it fixed!

Let me know in the comments your thoughts about the tempo of this piece, and don’t forget to share this post!

Pass the baton

10 chapters, 11 videos, practical exercises, and examples with scores: this video course produced for iClassical-Academy will show you, through a bar-by-bar analysis of excerpts ranging from Mozart to Mahler and Copland, how to build your own technique in the most logical and effective way.

Gianmaria Griglio is an intelligent, exceptional musician. There is no question about his conducting abilities: he has exceptionally clear baton technique that allows him to articulate whatever decisions he has made about the music.

Harold Farberman

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