Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major, K. 543

Composed by

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart



flute, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings

notes by Chris Myers

I. Adagio – Allegro
II. Andante con moto
III. Menuetto – Trio
IV. Allegro

Composed 1788.

We’re all familiar with the story (thanks, if nothing else, to Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus): Mozart, in the last years of his life, sat alone, unappreciated, and impoverished, persistently creating some of music’s greatest masterpiece while his sickened body slowly succumbed to the final illness which would lead him to a pauper’s grave, leaving his three final symphonies and an unfinished Requiem mass to be discovered after his death. It’s a touching tale filled with pathos and drama, and for many, it lends extra emotional weight to these final pieces.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for Mozart), it’s also largely untrue.

While it is true that Mozart had come upon some financial challenges at this time, these were due primarily to the crash of the Viennese economy following the outbreak of the wildly unpopular Austro-Turkish War in the spring of 1787, not some sudden neglect on the part of audiences. In response to the declaration of war by Joseph II, most of the Viennese nobility chose to take conveniently-timed trips abroad in order to avoid conscription, and attendance at concerts and operas plummeted accordingly.

By the mid-1780s, Mozart and his wife, Constanze, had established a good life for themselves, living comfortably and raising their family on the substantial income from his compositions and performances. When this revenue began to shrink, Mozart chose to treat it as a temporary situation, assuming that if he took out some loans, the situation would improve upon the war’s conclusion. It’s quite likely that Mozart was correct in his assessment. Indeed, his income began to increase again in mid-1791 as hostilities ceased and the Treaty of Sistova brought the war to an end. Unfortunately, he fell ill in September and passed away before the end of the year, leaving Constanze to put his affairs in order and planting the seeds for a legend which would grow across the next centuries.

Certainly, though, the stress of these circumstances seem to have taken their toll on the young composer, as his output slowed significantly during this period. After composing three symphonies (numbers 39, 40, and 41) quickly in July and August of 1788, his only major compositions in the next two years were Così fan tutte and the three Prussian string quartets—brilliant pieces, to be sure, but a rather slim selection when one considers that in late 1791 alone, he composed his Clarinet Concerto, Die Zauberflöte, La clemenza di Tito, and much of his Requiem.

It’s uncertain whether those final three symphonies were performed during Mozart’s lifetime. However, surviving concert programs indicate that he conducted unidentified symphonies in Leipzig and Frankfurt in 1789 and 1790, and Salieri conducted a Mozart symphony in Vienna in 1791. Chances are good that these were his most recently composed works, but there is no way of being certain. Further evidence that the three symphonies were performed (or that performances were planned) can be seen in his accounts, which indicate that he paid for orchestral parts to be copied—an expenditure he was unlikely to make in his current financial condition unless they were needed for a concert.

These final three symphonies are unusual for their time. When we hear the word “symphony”, our mind leaps to the great music dramas of Beethoven, Brahms, and Mahler. But in the 18th century, a symphony was much lighter entertainment, frequently performed with little to no rehearsal. These three symphonies, on the other hand, are the composer’s longest and feature a level of structural complexity and experimentation unusual in contemporary works. Symphony No. 39, for instance, is the only one of Mozart’s mature symphonies not to use oboes. The resulting reliance on the clarinet (a new member of the orchestra at the time) within the winds gives the work a sound distinct from his other symphonies.

Unusually for Mozart, the symphony begins with a slow introduction. Brass fanfares dissolve into uncertainty until a new melody makes a cautious entry and grows into an energetic Allegro. This opening movement is followed by a much more relaxed Andante, in which the orchestra seems content to wander casually through the melodic material. A playful Minuet and Trio follows. The trio is actually a Ländler—an energetic Austrian folk dance. The use of the clarinets in this section is a particularly unusual bit of orchestration for the time: the first clarinet plays a simple yet charming melody over the burbling arpeggio accompaniment of the second. The final movement is an enthusiastic Allegro that explores, dissects, and rebuilds a single thematic idea stated in the opening bars of the movement. The orchestra works to tame this runaway theme and finally seems to have restrained it by the end of the movement, but the melody has the final laugh, escaping from the final chords in one last burst of energy.

Copyright © 2013 Chris Myers. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

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