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
The music that Mozart wrote for his friend Anton Stadler, a clarinetist and fellow freemason, was instrumental in establishing the clarinet as an equal to its older cousins in the woodwind family. Mozart’s first composition for Stadler was the “Kegelstatt” Trio from 1786, scored for clarinet, viola and piano. (Mozart played the viola part himself.) Next came a quintet for clarinet, two violins, viola and cello, completed in 1789. This work required a basset clarinet in the key of A, an instrument with a low-range extension designed by Stadler. Mozart went on to write Stadler a concerto featuring the same instrument, completed two months before the composer’s untimely death.
The solo part in the opening movement demonstrates Mozart’s keen understanding of the clarinet’s range and agility, especially when rendered on a basset clarinet, as in this performance. (To play the concerto on a modern clarinet, the player must transpose certain passages into higher octaves.) The tonal quality of the clarinet changes through its range, from the deep resonance of the extended bass notes, through the warm and hollow midrange of the chalumeau register, and up into the brilliant clarity of the highest octaves. At times, the soloist acts like several opera characters engaged in dialogue, leaping from range to range; other times, a single scale or arpeggio journeys across all four octaves of the instrument’s compass.
A critic, in 1785, wrote of Anton Stadler, “One would never have thought that a clarinet could imitate the human voice to such perfection.” Judging by the slow movement he penned for Stadler, Mozart surely agreed!
The finale has a bit of Haydn’s sense of humor in it, as in the playful held notes that draw out unresolved tension. With dramatic interjections and minor-key pathos, this rondo once again shows off Mozart’s operatic tendencies.
Aaron Grad ©2015