Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550

Composed by

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

1756-1791

Orchestration

flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, strings


notes by James Keays

I. Molto allegro
II. Andante
III. Menuetto. Allegretto
IV. Finale. Allegro assai

Composed 1788.

Mozart’s last three symphonies come from the extraordinarily creative summer of 1788. In the space of slightly over six weeks, he composed the Symphony in E-flat, K. 543; the Symphony in G minor, K. 550; and the Symphony in C major, K. 551. The entries in Mozart’s catalog are dated, respectively, June 26, July 25, and August 10. During the 19th century, it was popularly believed that Mozart wrote the works with no specific performance in mind. Furthermore, he supposedly created them out of an inner desire to provide a symphonic last will and testament. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In 1788, he had no reason to assume that these would be his last symphonic works. Had he been able to follow Haydn to London in 1792, as had been planned, he would have most certainly composed at least six more. As for composing them without having a performance in mind, this is also fiction. Mozart simply didn’t work that way. Even a single symphony was too big a work to undertake without the promise of some type of financial gain.

Of the three 1788 symphonies, the Symphony in G minor, K. 550 (popularly referred to as No. 40, but probably No. 53), is the most original and has had the greatest influence on future composers. Few works from then 18th century are as intense, chromatic, and unconventional. The choice of key is, in itself, a measure of the work’s profundity. Mozart wrote only three substantial mature works in G minor, a key commonly associated (according to 18th century aesthetic principles) with “lamentation” and “suffering.” There are no traditional opening chords at the beginning of the first movement, only a quiet accompaniment figure in the violas waiting for a melody to appear. What does appear is a simple repetition of notes a half-step apart followed by descending passages that stop just short of outlining what would be a comforting octave. The contrasting second theme, divided between the strings and woodwinds, is almost purely chromatic. The intense development section begins in the unexpected key of F-sharp. As the symphony plays itself out, there are surprises at every turn. What should be a calming slow movement is agitating. The traditional sunny minuet is again in a heavily chromatic G minor. Only the trio offers respite. The finale carries the intense chromaticism of the first movement to new heights. The famous passage at the beginning of the development section briefly destroys both the rhythm and the tonality. Few classical works more clearly point the way toward 19th century romanticism.

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