Posted on 05 Nov 2010

Mozart in Manchester

The University of Manchester chamber orchestra is performing Mozart’s first and last symphonies a week tomorrow, and I have written some programme notes, which I thought I’d post up here:

Symphony No. 1 In Eb K. 16

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has come to be seen as perhaps the quintessential child composer in the mind of the public. A ready-made case study for the psychology of child prodigies everywhere, Mozart’s early life (and particularly his relationship with his father) has been picked apart by numerous commentators and analysts. One result of this biographical fascination is that discussion of the early compositions themselves has tended to be brief – either highlighting their exceptional quality for a child so young, or stressing their technical inadequacy as compared to his mature works.

Both viewpoints are of course true. But what is so fascinating about these early works is that through them we see the musical language that Mozart inherited. In the mid-18th century when Mozart was born, the contrapuntal splendour of the late Baroque was being supplanted by a simpler melodic style, with a structural clarity more suited to a culture of rigid hierarchies and Newtonian rationalism. In Mozart’s Symphony No. 1, the first movement showcases the stereotypical unison figures, scalic gestures and alternations of loud and soft that characterises the early classical style, while the admittedly rather undeveloped Andante is such a good demonstration of the increasing importance of tone colour that it manages to do away with a melody altogether (although the horn is given a 4-note motif that would later become extremely important in a certain later work of his). Finishing with a lively jig-like finale, the symphony is typical of the three-movement Italianate symphonies of the time, and demonstrates Mozart’s familiarity with the models of Johann Christian Bach and Carl Friedrich Abel. The fact that this precocious 8-year old here produced an effort that can match Abel and J.C. Bach in quality is notable – his subsequent development was to be extraordinary.

Symphony No. 41 In C ‘Jupiter’ K. 551

If the First Symphony shows the musical language that Mozart inherited, then his 41st Symphony shows the language he bequeathed. It is a language supremely enriched, refined, and capable of the most sublime expression and communication. The structural syntax and drama of the first movement showcases his conception of balance and proportion, while the rich harmonic vocabulary and exquisite wind writing of the Andante were valuable models for 19th-century symphonists.

It is, however, the finale’s famous Coda that steals the show. Mozart combines a double fugue on the first and second themes with every important motif from the movement heard in canon, with the 4-note motif sounded in every bar. When Mozart moved to Vienna in the early 1780s, he was introduced to the works of J.S. Bach by Baron van Swieten, and the contrapuntal complexity of Bach’s work had an immediate and striking effect. This coda shows how masterfully this Baroque influence had been assimilated into Mozart’s style – as sublimely exhilarating as it is frustratingly brief, it is perhaps the most breathtaking demonstration of compositional mastery ever squeezed into a minute of music.

Perhaps the most ludicrous but often-expressed response to the ‘Jupiter’ symphony is that it is some sort of summation of Mozart’s art, a ‘fitting climax’ to his wonderful career. In actual fact, as we can see from his work in other genres – concertos, operas, chamber music and religious works – Mozart was simply getting better and better in every field. The Romantic notion that his last three symphonies form a triptych fit for an epitaph misses the key insight that, however inconceivable it may seem, he would have surpassed these achievements. We must instead consider the symphony simply as a work by a one of the greatest geniuses in music’s history at the height of his powers, a symbol of the tragedy that he died before producing more; and of Western culture’s good fortune that he composed at all.

Should be a good concert – they’re also playing some Richard Strauss wind music. Click here for details and tickets.