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Composed: 1788
Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: flute, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings 

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: December 3, 1920, with Walter Henry Rothwell conducting

Myth and reality often collide as we look back at the last years of Mozart’s short life. The persistent myth is that an impoverished, forsaken, unappreciated genius composed masterpieces for posterity while hurtling toward an untimely death and a pauper’s grave. Exhibit A supporting this story is the last three symphonies, written, it is said, with no prospect of having them performed, to be discovered only after his death. The story is mostly romantic balderdash, but there is a bit of mystery to Mozart’s last three symphonies all the same.

Mozart was 32 when he wrote them in the summer of 1788, and seven successful years as an independent composer-performer-impresario in Vienna had made him prosperous. But when the Holy Roman Empire, of which Vienna was the capital, declared war on Turkey in February of that year, the Viennese economy fizzled, and Mozart’s career fizzled with it. His livelihood depended on the Viennese moneyed class, which dwindled as upper-class men left the city to serve as military officers, or went to their country estates to avoid questions about why they weren’t serving. Mozart nonetheless planned a concert series for that summer, with an unrequited optimism that continued over the next three years, as he treated the drop in his income as a temporary problem that he could solve by borrowing money rather than cutting his expenses. Doubtless he would have been proved right had he survived a few years longer. But in the short term, he had to cancel his concert series – it isn’t clear whether the first concert took place – but he still finished the new symphonies now commonly, if inaccurately, known as numbers 39, 40, and 41. 

Contrary to myth, the evidence indicates that Mozart heard the three symphonies performed. He had orchestra parts copied, an expense he would not have incurred unless he needed them for a performance. He also went to the trouble of re-orchestrating the G-minor Symphony to add clarinets, an effort that would have made no sense unless the Symphony were going to be played. Mozart included symphonies in concerts he gave in Leipzig in 1789 and Frankfurt in 1790, and a Mozart symphony was performed at a concert led by Antonio Salieri in Vienna in 1791. No specific symphony can be identified for any of these events, but it hardly seems possible that Mozart would have passed up a chance to show off one or another of his new works. The orchestra for the 1791 Vienna concert included the clarinetists Johann and Anton Stadler (Mozart wrote his clarinet quintet and concerto for Anton), which may have supplied the occasion for the second version of the G-minor Symphony.

Myth and reality are on more friendly terms when it comes to the effect Mozart’s later works had on contemporary ears. His music was indeed seen as difficult, for both player and listener. His later symphonies particularly must have departed radically from normalcy in a way modern listeners can scarcely imagine. Our notion of “symphony” starts with Beethoven, and we assume that a symphony will be a major work containing a composer’s most profound utterances. Mozart’s audiences, on the other hand, expected a symphony to be relatively small and light. Only 17 years before Mozart wrote his last symphonies, a prominent German musician, describing the symphony for musical laymen, wrote, “Because it will not be practiced like the sonata but must be sightread, it should contain no difficulties that cannot be met and performed clearly by several players simultaneously.” Great emotional power and extended architecture were the territory of oratorio, serious opera, and liturgical music.

The Symphony in E-flat is unusual in several respects. It is the only symphony from Mozart’s adulthood that does not use oboes, which means that the clarinets are given unusual prominence. It also has a slow introduction, a common feature in symphonies of the day, but rare in Mozart. A slow introduction could be a grand entry, setting the mood for a grand allegro, or a moment of tonal darkness, raising uncertainty to be resolved when the Allegro begins. This slow introduction is both, beginning grandly and assertively, then almost dissipating in a few misty bars before the energetic Allegro makes a deceptively cautious entrance.

Both the ambling Andante con moto and the bounding, energetic Minuet are typical of Mozart’s mature symphonies. The middle section of the Minuet, with one clarinet playing a simple but unforgettable little tune over the other clarinet’s bubbly arpeggios, would be at home in any of the dances that Mozart was writing in his part-time job as Imperial court chamber composer.

The scrambling finale is not at all typical of Mozart. Mozart’s finales are often remarkable for their sheer number of melodic ideas, but the finale of this Symphony relies essentially on a single theme, explored and worked over. Such monothematic construction was a favorite device of Haydn, whose spirit is also heard in the movement’s sense of mischief, never more apparent than at the very end, when the theme gets in the last word, refusing to let the Symphony end with conventional final chords.

— Howard Posner