Without any known commission to compose them – although there might have been plans to bring them to London on a tour that never happened – and with their author in humiliating circumstances, Mozart’s last three symphonies were created, miraculously, within a brief period in the summer of 1788. The present work, no hurler of thunderbolts in spite of the nickname – which Mozart had no part in fastening to it – represents a definitive, artful manipulation of congenial but not really striking materials. The composer blazed no new paths in this symphony, and certainly did not give any indication that a symphony number 42 would be more advanced than 41. What he did accomplish with awesome aplomb was to gather his strengths and create a work that, in its fulfillment of the highest ideals of Classical symphonism, stands on the loftiest possible plane.

The first movement begins with a short, ceremonial exclamation in full orchestra, answered, after a respectful silence, by a gentle plea from the violins. A martial rhythm, much used throughout the movement, and an extended series of bravado flourishes leading to an assertive cadence, are followed by the first theme repeated in violins, softly this time, with a countermelody in flute and oboe that is to become an important element. After some working out of these materials, a graceful, serenade-like second theme is introduced. It runs its gentle course, and, after a measure’s pause, a dramatic, full-orchestra outburst in minor makes way for a tune that is as coy as it is courtly. Although this section ends with some of the familiar ceremonial flourishes, it is the courtly tune that is taken up first for development. After it has gone through some dramatic harmonic territory, the main theme and its countermelody reappear, not to signify the beginning of the recapitulation, but rather themselves to be developed. When the recapitulation actually does occur, it is far from regular, containing as it does some delicious harmonic departures from the original statements.

The Andante second movement begins with a properly fastidious, untroubled main theme that gives no hint whatsoever of the tensions and drama that accrue in the secondary theme. Here the suspension-created dissonances and the syncopations tear apart the graceful Mozartean façade to signify, briefly to be sure, a momentous struggle. Although it is this searing material with which the development section begins, the larger remainder of the movement maintains its lyrical poise.

The Minuet establishes and pursues its dance stylization in a manner guaranteed not to ruffle aristocratic sensibilities. The finale, however, might have furrowed a few proper brows with its grand display of contrapuntal athleticism striking a learned, though joyous, note. There are five themes to keep track of, the first a four-note subject – drawn from an old church tune – the others brief and, although unremarkable in themselves, capable of being combined magnificently in the movement’s fugal denouement.

— After many years as Director of Publications and Archives for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Orrin Howard continues to contribute to the program book.