Saturday, April 19, 2008

Reading Mozart's 38th

W. A. Mozart wrote his Symphony No. 38 in D major in Vienna in 1786, where it was first performed in December of that year. But its second performance, early the following year in Prague, was more successful. Thus it has come to be called the "Prague Symphony." The Czechs were loyally warm toward Mozart, though his popularity rose and fell more dramatically elsewhere. Mozart held a similar affection for the Czech public. It was also for Prague that Mozart wrote his opera Don Giovanni (Don Juan).

This is an unusual symphony in several ways. To start with, it wasn't really Mozart's 38th symphony, since Mozart's 37th was actually Michael Haydn's 25th. If you take away at least two other numbered symphonies that don't belong to Mozart, this one would be more like his 35th symphony - but it's too late to change the numbering now, so never mind.

Another oddity is that Mozart left clarinets out of the work, though they were among his favorite instruments. The symphony's slow introduction is also a bit unusual, since Mozart only pulled that trick two other times. But the most eyebrow-raising feature of the Prague Symphony is its three-movement structure, omitting the Minuet that had been customary for some time.

In an earlier period, when three-movement symphonies were the norm (before Haydn innovated the inclusion of a Minuet and Trio), symphonies were light, frivolous little things - basically, overtures in search of an opera. But this three-movement symphony is certainly not a throwback to that era; it is a prime fruit of the form and of the composer when both were in their full maturity. Nor is this symphony weighed down by seriousness - all business, no play - as one might expect from the above combination of oddities. We will never know exactly what Mozart was getting at when he wrote this decidedly unique symphony; but it remains one of his most highly valued works.

Movement I begins, as I have said, with a slow intro. The first thing you hear is a dramatic unison passage, which reminds me of what it's like to pull-start a lawn mower. A sensitive theme unfolds, followed by a passage of Mozartean "vamping" (thinly decorated chord progressions, concluding with an all-but-endlessly extended cadence). The Allegro begins softly, but soon bursts out in an exuberant wealth of tunes. The wealth of harmonic and instrumental colors is such that, frankly, you won't miss the clarinets! My favorite riff is when the bassoons come in on the second theme. The development section is brief but densely contrapuntal. The concluding recap of the exposition section adds a few striking touches of its own.

Movement II is "Andante" - i.e., not particularly slow. It presents a succession of thoughtful and attractive themes in contrasting moods, beginning with a deeply affecting, chromatic melody in G major. Some of the chord progressions and key changes are most striking, and in the development section (for yes, this is another sonata) the music explores darker, minor-key tonal areas that have been barely hinted at until now. It is only as the movement wraps up that you realize how disturbingly unsettled the tonality is, particularly in the bass line just before the codetta, which (together with a brief, charming coda) only just puts the lid back on the suppressed neurosis that lies deep within this movement.

Movement III is "Presto" - i.e. "lickety-split," with a touch of syncopation in the opening theme. Very little of the expo section (yes, this is the third sonata in a row) is based on anything but this opening theme, though there is indeed a second theme. If you miss it the first time, listen for it on the repeat: two jaunty little string-dominated phrases, each balanced by a flute-bassoon phrase that reminds me, somehow, of a wooden cuckoo popping out of the front of a clock. Everything else seems to be pulled out of the first theme. A little hair-raising drama gets stirred into the development, which is mostly in a minor mode. Mozart starts the recap with the second theme, possibly to save time for a few extra bars of finishing-up music.

The overall effect, in the end, is a great deal of fun, combined with enough seriousness to give it depth and realism, and a sense of having heard a non-stop series of perfect themes treated with the utmost sophistication.

IMAGES: The Estates Theatre in Prague, site of the premiere of Don Giovanni, inside and out; and, duh, a cuckoo clock. EDIT: And here is Karl Bohm conducting the Vienna Philharmonic in the second movement of this symphony:

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