Mozart began composing symphonies at the age of eight, and his earliest examples read like postcards from his relentless tours: he penned his first in London, added more in Paris and Vienna, and buckled down on the form while in Rome and Milan. When his itinerant career as a child prodigy came to a halt at the end of 1771, the 15-year-old Mozart, back in his provincial hometown of Salzburg, began composing at a ferocious rate, including eight symphonies in as many months.
While Mozart was developing as a composer, the symphony itself was still in a state of infancy. Growing out of the Italian overture or sinfonia, traditionally in three sections organized fast-slow-fast, the symphony assumed its familiar dimensions with the insertion of a third-movement minuet, a style borrowed from French dance suites. The composer most closely associated with the development of the symphony was Joseph Haydn, and by the early 1770s he was past his fiftieth symphony. Mozart did not have the benefit of direct contact with Haydn until later in Vienna, but he did enjoy close proximity to Joseph’s younger brother Michael Haydn, the Salzburg Konzertmeister and a fine composer of symphonies himself.
The Symphony No. 20 is in the bright key of D major, with a pair of trumpets included to reinforce the brilliant tone. The opening Allegro movement grants the winds unusual prominence, and even the trumpets join in on leaping melodic figures that were compatible with the valveless instruments from Mozart’s time. The Andante, a charming rumination on rising and falling triplet motives, introduces a new tone color in the form of a flute, while the rest of the winds sit out. (The small orchestra in Salzburg would have had oboists who could double on flute when needed.)
The Minuet is a robust example of that French dance style, set in three moderate beats per measure. The contrasting trio section shifts the mood with a key change, pulsing pedal tones, and smooth slurs in the strings. The finale once again entrusts the winds with important thematic material, this time a repeated-note figure that answers the scampering melody brought out by the strings.
Aaron Grad ©
“I'm always fascinated how Schubert lets his charm, wit and sweetness compete with an almost feral, violent quality. In this symphony, Schubert demands the highest degree of empathy and skill from the musicians, an ability to make a compelling arc, and a willingness to be really present and flexible in every moment.” – Steven Copes, SPCO Concertmaster
At 17, Schubert took a full-time job as a teaching assistant at the school where his father worked. The aspiring young composer still attended lessons with Antonio Salieri twice a week, played viola in a student orchestra, and managed to write new music at an astonishing rate that averaged out to at least 65 measures of music every single day.
Among his efforts that winter was the Symphony No. 2, composed between December 1814 and March 1815. Schubert dedicated the score to his school’s headmaster, and presumably the student orchestra read through the work. Neither this symphony nor any of his others received a public performance before Schubert died at the tragically young age of 31.
As a student composer in Vienna, Schubert could not help but be engulfed by the towering achievements of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. In Schubert’s Symphony No. 2, the instrumentation, slow introduction and the use of a minuet third movement instead of a Beethovenian scherzo all point to the influence of Haydn’s London symphonies in particular. In the Allegro vivace body of the first movement, the trick of presenting the main theme in the strings at a pianissimo dynamic and then repeating it fortissimo with the full orchestra channels Haydn’s sense of humor.
The Andante second movement takes the form of a theme and variations. The theme is simple and song-like, but its second half adds a playful extra measure that keeps the phrasing from getting stale. The climactic fourth variation moves to C minor, which returns as the surprising key center for the Menuetto. Before the finale launches, four introductory measures bridge the harmonic distance back to the home key of B-flat major. Then, like horses on the hunt, the orchestra gallops off at a Presto tempo, starting quietly and building suspense until the accumulated tension explodes in a forte declamation.
Aaron Grad ©2016