Timpani accompanies majestic chords from the full ensemble, festooned with elegantly cascading violins…It’s not long before the orchestra takes off, motoring strings propelling the music forward.
WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756–1791)
SYMPHONY NO. 39 in E-FLAT, K. 543
Adagio – Allegro
Andante con moto
Menuetto and Trio
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart rarely began his symphonies with a slow introduction, but he made an exception for Symphony No. 39, K.543. Timpani accompanies majestic chords from the full ensemble, festooned with elegantly cascading violins, in an Adagio that ramps up the tension as high as it can go, before settling into a gentler three-in-a-bar melody at the beginning of the Allegro. It’s not long before the orchestra takes off, motoring strings propelling the music forward.
The curtain-raising grandeur of this opening is, in retrospect, apt for the first instalment in what would turn out to be Mozart’s final ‘trilogy’ in the symphonic genre. Mozart wrote all three of his final symphonies in a period of about six weeks, finishing No. 39 in Vienna on June 26, 1788, when he was just 32 years old.
By this point Mozart had achieved great success as an opera composer. The second of his collaborations with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, Don Giovanni, had premiered to acclaim in Prague the year before and Così fan tutte was yet to come in 1790.
His financial situation was changing, however. When Christoph Willibald Gluck died in 1787, Emperor Joseph II appointed Mozart to his post as ‘royal chamber composer’, giving him a regular salary – and a reason to stay in Vienna. But the Austro-Turkish war that began in February 1788 soon tanked the economy. It also squashed demand for the kinds of concerts that Mozart had made a fortune presenting earlier in the decade, unveiling new piano concertos to an eager public. While he was hardly living in poverty, he was certainly forced to downsize his lavish living arrangements.
It’s unclear what prompted Mozart to write his final symphonies, nor are we sure when and where they were first performed. But there are several theories. Mozart planned a number of trips during these years for which he may have required new works, while the use of clarinets instead of oboes in Symphony No. 39, for instance, suggests it might have been unveiled at a concert in Vienna in 1791 at which we know the Stadler brothers – Joseph and Anton, for whom Mozart wrote his sublime Clarinet Concerto – were in the orchestra.
Mozart makes a point of showing the clarinets off. Following the warm strings and tranquil winds of the Andante, he gives them their moment in the sun in the Ländler (an Austrian folk dance) of the third movement’s Trio section. The strings drop back to allow the first clarinet to take the melody while the second clarinet provides a cheery accompaniment.
Soft, scurrying strings kick off the Finale before the entire orchestra joins in with a boisterous forte.
It’s an energetic finish to a symphony that’s sometimes overshadowed by the popular Symphony No. 40 and the final ‘Jupiter Symphony’. But this ‘gently good-humoured and mostly cloudless’ work – as Mozart biographer Jan Swafford puts it – marks the beginning of a new, large-scale symphonic sound soon embraced by Joseph Haydn in his ‘London Symphonies’ and Ludwig van Beethoven in his own works, which would blow the genre wide open the following century.
© Angus McPherson, 2022