Thursday, April 24, 2008

Reading Mozart's 25th

W. A. Mozart's Symphony No. 25 in G minor, written around 1773, is among the more significant of his early symphonies. It shares its tonic key with the 40th Symphony (1788), besides which Mozart wrote no other minor-key symphonies; so the 25th is sometimes nicknamed the "Little G minor Symphony." While the 40th breathes the sophisticated air of mature classicism, the 25th is a bracing example of the earlier Sturm und Drang movement. This artistic school aimed to create a heightened sense of drama - if not real, emotional agitation. This meant, in musical terms: sudden pauses; changes of speed, loudness, and register; spiky tunes; tortured harmonies; unusual tone colors; and various rhythmic "special effects." Most of this music was in minor keys, and often sounded brusque or even threatening.

"Threatening" certainly applies to the opening of Mozart's 25th. Perhaps this is due to the way this first movement has been remixed by heavy metal bands and coopted by flamboyantly tragic films. Wiki goes into all that. But it's hard not to be intimidated by the opening unison with its harsh intervals and unsettling syncopation. As the theme goes into a repeat, however, Mozart opens up its more lyrical (though perhaps tragic) side. The high drama returns for a bridge to the second theme, a transitional passage that borrows the syncopations from the opening bars and adds a lot of gruff grace-notes and hornblowing. In contrast, the second theme all but skips with good cheer, leading to a bright codetta in E-flat major.

After a repeat of this expo, the development begins with brusque arpeggios, then returns to the lyrical version of the first theme. Within a few bars the recap takes up the argument from the beginning, only now the transition is even darker, being in G minor this time, as is the no-longer sunny second theme. As often happened in early classicism, the whole second part of the movement is then repeated, from the beginning of the development to the end of the recap, where Mozart then adds a coda based on the opening unison passage. The effect of this conclusion is one of unremitting tragedy, with all hope squashed out of the second theme and kept out to the end, while the only thing that remains unchanged is the histrionic horror of the beginning.

Movement II is a not-very-slow movement (Andante), opening with a theme in which the strings and bassoons seem to dialogue together in short, breathless gasps. With its texture so thin, its voice so subdued, and its lines so frequently broken, this music seems to live under some kind of restraint. It never says anything particularly unpleasant; but what makes your heart go out to it is the stammering hesitancy with which it expresses itself, and only occasionally opens up in a brief moment of carefree unself-consciousness.

Movement III is a Minuet from hell, to which one can only imagine dancing under some kind of compulsion, perhaps a demonic one. It opens with another severe unison (again providing a challenge to the horns); the rest of the main minuet does all that it can to increase the tension. The central Trio, however, is a thankful moment of relaxation in which the horns and woodwinds hold the floor - until the grim Minuet returns with its strings, its unisons, and its ascending level of tension.

Movement IV (Allegro) begins, again, in unison, albeit softly. Though it has a lively rhythm, it is a deadly serious theme, and is even repeated with a syncopated accompaniment reminiscent of Movement I. A transitional passage soon brings a lighter mood, crowned by a skipping second theme and, in the codetta, even a major-key version of the first theme. In sonata fashion, this expo section is repeated. Then a brief development spotlights the low strings in a playful, showy mood. The expo's transitional passage is transformed so as to keep the whole recap in the G-minor tonic; and, again, the development/recap portion of the movement is repeated as a counterweight to the repeated exposition, now (as in Movement I) in tints of unrelieved tragedy. Were it not for the relative starkness of the texture, this music would be too murky to "hear through." In his brief coda, Mozart brings back a hint of the first movement's opening theme before lowering the curtain on this, his grimmest symphony.

It isn't Mozart at his cultured best, but the 25th shows a side of his creative character rarely heard in his symphonies - a side that appeals to hammed-up accounts of his supposedly tragic life (see the opening scene of Amadeus, where this music is heard).

IMAGES: Two pictures of Mozart, and one of actor Tom Hulce playing ditto in the above-mentioned movie. It's too bad about Hulce's film career. He is really good, but he keeps getting upstaged by his co-stars or, worse, replaced by a bigger-name actor when his stage roles are adapted for the screen. (Case in point, he created the role Tom Cruise stole in A Few Good Men.)

EDIT: In the video below, Karl Bohm conducts the Vienna Philharmonic in the first movement of this symphony.

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