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Conducting Mozart: Symphony n.40 K550 – 1st movement

Last updated May 13, 2021 | Published on Jul 27, 2020

Winner of a fellowship at the Bayreuther Festspiele, Mr. Griglio’s conducting has been praised for his “energy” and “fine details”. Mr. Griglio took part in the first world recording of music by composer Irwin Bazelon and conducted several world premieres like "The song of Eddie", by Harold Farberman, a candidate for the Pulitzer Prize. Principal Conductor of International Opera Theater Philadelphia for four years, Mr.Griglio is also active as a composer. His first opera, Camille Claudel, debuted in 2013 to a great success of audience and critics. Mr. Griglio is presently working on an opera on Caravaggio and Music Director of Opera Odyssey.
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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.

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Cover image by Lucas Craig from Pexels

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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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