The bulk of Mozart’s symphonies date from his childhood and adolescence. He started by mimicking J.C. Bach, whom he met in London, but Mozart’s own refined style emerged by age eighteen in works such as the Symphony No. 29. New symphonies appeared infrequently in later years, especially after his move to Vienna in 1781, and most were for out-of-town events, such as the Linz and Prague Symphonies for concerts in those cities.
The circumstances were different by the time Mozart wrote his three final symphonies in the span of eight weeks during the summer of 1788. The high demand for his concert appearances had faded, and he was reduced to pleading with friends for loans, seeking cheaper housing in the suburbs, and following dead-end leads for his music. Some opportunity must have sparked this symphonic trilogy (a detail historians have not managed to unearth), but most likely nothing came of it. Mozart may not even have heard all three before he died.
Of the three final symphonies, No. 39 in E-flat receives the least attention. One curious aspect is that it is Mozart’s only mature symphony without oboes, instead featuring clarinets. It is also one of his few symphonies to include a slow introduction to the first movement, creating a spacious, Haydn-like entrance. These qualities, plus the mellow key of E-flat and a rolling 3/4 time signature in the Allegro body of the first movement (instead of the customary two or four beats per measure) all contribute to the gentle character of the symphony’s opening statement.
The Andante con moto second movement preserves the docile atmosphere. Strings introduce the theme alone at first, but individual woodwinds later emerge for some of the movement’s most charming passages, the echoing lines interweaving with chamber-music delicacy. The Menuetto is graceful and sturdy, but its dance partner, the Trio, steals the limelight with a whimsical clarinet solo parodying a rustic Ländler, an Austrian folk dance.
In the Finale, the relentless exploration of the opening material foreshadows Beethoven’s symphonic approach, with the theme separating into scale fragments and discrete leaps that churn through myriad permutations and mood changes. This symphony may not be as extroverted as the dramatic 40th or the majestic 41st, but the Symphony No. 39 stands as their equal at the pinnacle of Mozart’s orchestral output, a summation of the past and a model for the future.
Aaron Grad ©2014