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FastNotes

  • Mozart’s six-month residency in 1778 Paris saw the premiere of his Symphony No. 31, the only major work he composed while there, and the first symphony he composed after a four-year hiatus from the form.
  • Mozart deferred to French tastes by scoring the symphony for one of the largest orchestras he had yet to use, including, for the first time ever in one of his symphonies, clarinets.

  • The instrumental forces employed by Mozart in this work prompted an observer to declare the “Paris” Symphony one of his “noisiest.”

Composed: 1778
Length: c. 16 minutes
Orchestration: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings
First LA Phil performance: January 2, 1920, Walter Henry Rothwell conducting

In 1777, the need to appease Salzburg’s archbishop required Leopold Mozart to remain close to home. He sent his wife, Anna Maria, to accompany their son on an extended tour of Europe. After stopping in Mannheim, they arrived in Paris in 1778. With the nascent United States deep in its revolutionary throes some 3,500 miles away, the royal courts and salons of Europe were teeming with the well-heeled, whose vanity was catered to by a seemingly endless pool of composers eager for their patronage. Mozart was no different, and his six-month residency in Paris saw the premiere of his Symphony No. 31, the only major work he composed while there, and the first symphony he composed after a four-year hiatus from the form.

Mozart’s letters to his father are peppered with uncensored, sometimes quite rude observations about the local music scene and its dramatis personae. His letters written during the creation of the “Paris” Symphony colorfully illustrate Mozart’s bemusement with and disdain for Parisian audiences. About the symphony’s impending premiere, Mozart lamented, “The few intelligent Frenchmen who are there will like it… As for the stupid ones, I can’t see that there is any great misfortune in displeasing them. Still, I have hopes that even the asses may find something in it to give them pleasure.” And though he may have gritted his teeth while doing so, Mozart ultimately complied with his audiences’ expectations and gave them a great deal to like. The Parisians were quite proud of their orchestras’ ability to affect a rather forceful bowing technique known as the premier coup d’archet, or “first strike of the bow.” This device, though wholly puzzling to Mozart, nevertheless made its way into the symphony. “…I was careful not to forget the premier coup d’archet… What a fuss these donkeys here make over it! …It’s ridiculous,” he moans to Leopold. Mozart further deferred to French tastes by scoring the symphony for one of the largest orchestras he had yet to use, including, for the first time ever in one of his symphonies, clarinets. The instrumental forces employed by Mozart in this work prompted an observer to declare the “Paris” Symphony one of his “noisiest.”

Excess of volume and French affectation notwithstanding, the symphony was a definite success, which elicited considerable, though not unmerited, boasting from its composer. “Right in the middle of the first Allegro, there was a place I was sure they would like. All the listeners were electrified and there was tremendous applause. And since I knew when I was writing it what an effect it would make, I repeated the passage toward the end, and they began applauding all over again… They liked the Andante, too, and the final Allegro even more,” Mozart reported in a letter home.  

– J. Anthony McAlister