During the summer of 1788, in a matter of weeks, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) wrote his three last and greatest symphonies (Nos. 39, 40, and 41), as well as several chamber works and sonatas. It was one of the most fruitful seasons in the history of human creativity. Symphonies 40 and 41, particularly, tower over the symphonies of the classic period at a peak of perfection. They conceal a flawlessly sophisticated technical artistry beneath a surface that is exciting, moving, and unfailingly pleasing to the ear. These works are straightforwardly truthful and yet inexhaustibly complex. One can listen to them countless times and always find something new in them; and yet they are also popular favorites that speak directly to minds of every generation.
And, clearly, they are open to a wide variety of interpretations. Before I refreshed my ear-memory of Mozart's 40th Symphony in G minor, I read a little about how different generations of music lovers received it. I was intrigued to find out that the earliest fans of Mozart's 40th thought it was a brilliant, light piece in the spirit of comic opera. Later critics lauded it as a profoundly dramatic, if not tragic, work. Frankly, I feel both these parties are way off the mark. I think Mozart's 40th is, above all, a demonstration of peerless craftsmanship. In it, I feel the composer alloyed together his own pessimism, melancholy, and nervous agitation, forged them into an assured shape, and polished it to a satiny sheen of cultured refinement.
After a moment of throbbing accompaniment, the symphony opens with a theme as graceful as it is urgent, conjuring the image of a beautiful thoroughbred horse in full gallop. (One might hear a note of complaint in this theme.) This leads to a strong, dynamic transition passage in which a subtle change of tempo could make a huge difference in how one interprets the whole movement, the difference between "emphatic seriousness" and "explosive anger." This, however, subsides into a sighing secondary theme, followed in turn by a codetta in which the first theme moves between different registers of the orchestra in a slightly mysterious manner. It doesn't get really disturbing until the development section, when Mozart steers his themes through some exquisitely unusual harmonic maneuvers.
Movement II has often been a hard movement for me to listen to. I originally put it down to my own constitution, which is apparently designed to agree more with Haydn than Mozart, especially where slow movements are concerned. Lately, however, I realized Mozart may have deliberately written this long, slow sonata so as to make us squirm. Except for a few brief moments of respite (owing to another sighing, secondary theme), the whole movement is driven by the same throbbing pulse and an at-first-cheerful skipping rhythm that eventually resembles an obsessive thought plaguing a fevered mind. Even though this is the only major-key movement in the symphony, it is the one I find most disturbing.
Movement III is supposedly a minuet and trio, but it would be the devil to dance. A rhythmic feature called hemiola (alternating rhythmic groupings of 2 and 3) creates a sense of being off-balance, while the atmosphere of nervous tension builds to an almost frantic climax - yet at the same time, as the first and second violins play leap-frog with overlapping fragments of the minuet theme, one is somehow equally impressed by the formal sophistication of what sounds, at least momentarily, like a fugal stretto. The minuet then subsides to a quiet close. The central trio is much gentler and even, perhaps, a bit humorous in its dialogue between the strings and woodwinds.
Movement IV is a breathlessly energetic sonata whose primary theme consists of a broken triad rocketing upward through nearly two octaves, alternating with an extremely emphatic cadence. The graceful second theme bravely attempts to inject a hint of cheerfulness in the exposition section, only to reappear in the recap in minor-key garb. The development section begins with a shattering passage of rhythmic and tonal uncertainty, like a projectile knocked off course, or a runner who stumbles; this leads to another passage of strange adventures in which the music struggles to find its way back home - most unusually - to the original minor key that started the whole symphony (as opposed to the parallel major).
Audiences flock to Mozart's 40th because it is full of incredibly beautiful music. Serious music lovers keep coming back to it because the mystery of what Mozart meant by it only seems to deepen with each new hearing. That he tossed it off in a matter of weeks, along with two equally impressive symphonies and a number of other works, makes it even more interesting - and so does the fact that Mozart may never have heard this work performed, though the existence of a revised version suggests either that a performance was planned...or, at least, that he cared about this particular symphony very much.
IMAGES: Portrait of W. A. Mozart by Barbara Krafft; Mozart's living room in Vienna; and a page from the autograph score of one of Mozart's horn concertos. EDIT: I was going to post this video of Leonard Bernstein analyzing Mozart's 40th, but I found his apparent urge to pick his nose too distracting. So, instead, here is a video of a Japanese amateur orchestra with the unfortunate name "Musik Siesta," performing the first movement: