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Symphony No 38 Prague K. 504

Composed by

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

1756-1791

Orchestration

2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, violins, violas, cellos, basses


notes by Anthony Suter

I. Adagio – Allegro
II. Andante
III. Finale (Presto)

Composed 1786.
First performance: January 19, 1787, Prague.

It has been traditionally held that Mozart was fond of the city and people of Prague and considered them to be an erudite and musically-savvy audience, though much of that fondness was probably predicated on the fact that the people of Prague were, generally speaking, on “Team Mozart” (the composer had a well-documented dislike for the French and was often annoyed at the fickleness of the Viennese, where his popularity went up and down regularly). Regardless, the so-called "Prague Symphony" (No. 38) was premiered in the eponymous city in 1787. It remains one of his most interesting and popular symphonies, owing to its richness of contrapuntal and harmonic exploration. The symphony is structured in only three movements, a departure from the more traditional four-movement form most common in the 18th century. In this work, the substantial and expertly-wrought first movement balances out the other two; the balance would likely have been thrown out of proportion with the inclusion of the usual Minuet.

The first movement begins with a slow introduction, with stately and powerful iterations of the tonic chord— a kind of 18th century version of “power chords”. This regal D major soon wanes, however; Mozart pulls this introductory section to the minor side, shading the music in a much darker hue. This is to become a very important aspect of the first movement, and by the time we reach the final cadence of the opening, our ears are resigned to this minor-mode world. Of course, Mozart begins the immediate Allegro in D major, and the piece begins to unfold with a syncopated theme in the low strings. This symphony, and this movement especially, contains a great deal of expertly-crafted counterpoint (the adjective “contrapuntal” can be loosely defined as describing music in which many different, independent melodic lines happen simultaneously, and any composer worth her or his salt has generally been expected to master this complicated kind of writing). Mozart deftly shows his expertise in counterpoint, guiding multiple lines into complex yet clear contrapuntal textures. Of course, the introduction's turn to the minor is called forth once again; the Allegro often slips into the minor mode, particularly with the second major theme. This major-to-minor (and back again) motion plays out over and over in the piece, even articulating itself in the recapitulation before the inevitable D major cadence at the end.

The Andante is a lilting, slower affair that offers a brief respite from the faster, fairly boisterous first movement. Though a contrast in tempo and mood, the movement is not any less harmonically adventurous. Mozart carefully constructs the movement around several interesting and colorful harmonic explorations, giving a sense of a beautifully-crafted freedom throughout the movement. The amount of chromaticism in this G major movement is notable and very audible— perhaps even predicated somewhat by the melodic chromaticism at the very beginning in the violins.

The finale is a short but rollicking Presto cast in a traditional sonata form, and at many points is a showcase for the wind section in the orchestra, especially the flute. The texture shifts often, from full orchestra to just strings to just the choir of winds, adding a colorful contrast to the work as it moves forward. As if hearkening back to the major-minor polarity set up at the very beginning of the symphony, we once again hear Mozart letting the music slip fluidly between the two, though the changes have a much shorter shelf life in this movement. These quick changes of mode, combined with the many changes in texture, help propel the piece forward to its eventual and expected “last hurrah” (or, perhaps more fittingly, whatever the Czech equivalent would be [“poslední počin” – Ed.]).

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