The Symphony No. 40 in G Minor was only the second such work that Mozart set in a minor key, and it was a world apart from the Symphony No. 25 (the so-called “Little G Minor”) that he wrote as a 17-year-old. Back then, Mozart was living at home in Salzburg and free to experiment with the new styles being advanced by J. C. Bach and Haydn. Once Mozart set out on his own as a freelancer in Vienna, his busy schedule of performing and teaching left little time or need for new symphonies; most were for special events out of town, like the Haffner Symphony for a family friend’s wedding in Salzburg and the Linz and Prague Symphonies for concerts in those cities. But then Vienna lost its interest in Mozart’s concertizing (largely due to a protracted war that distracted the ruling class) and his income from opera productions faltered. There were hungry mouths to feed in Mozart’s growing family, and he was going broke.
If not for those financial troubles, we might have missed out on Mozart’s three final symphonies (Nos. 39–41), composed in the summer of 1788. We don’t know exactly what prompted him to write them—perhaps an opportunity for publication, or a reboot of his subscription concert series in Vienna—but whatever it was, it did not pan out. The fact that Mozart retouched the Symphony No. 40 suggests that at least this one might have reached an audience somewhere; it survives in this original version completed on July 25, 1788, plus a later rewrite that added clarinets to the woodwind section.
The 40th Symphony begins with a peculiar and essential quirk of phrasing that assigns the violas to quiver through one measure of bare accompaniment. When the violins enter a moment later with a theme that sighs three times before leaping up, there is a subtle rub between what our ears hear as the strong beat and the underlying architecture of the phrase. The result is a persistent and restless feeling of propulsion, as if each phrase must scrabble forward to stay ahead of the surge.
The Andante second movement is the only portion of the symphony that moves away from the turbulence of G minor, and even here patterns of hiccupping rhythms and delayed resolutions recall the stormy first movement. The Menuetto is unusually grave for the portion of a symphony that often serves as a palate-cleanser, with respite only coming in the contrasting trio section. The finale, with its heated dialogue of soft and loud phrases, embodies the passion and drama that Mozart honed on the operatic stage, most recently in Don Giovanni.
Aaron Grad ©2017
About This Program
Artistic Partner Pekka Kuusisto and composer Nico Muhly have been close friends and musical soulmates for many years, and this SPCO co-commission grew out of that strong bond. Along with the U.S. Premiere of Muhly’s new violin concerto, Kuusisto brings fresh interpretations of Mozart, both his light and whimsical Country Dances, and the great G Minor Symphony, and introduces SPCO audiences to an important new composer from Sweden, Andrea Tarrodi.