Mozart’s Symphony No.40: “pivotal to the romantic world”

APO's Francesca McGeorge explores what makes Mozart's Symphony No.40 one of his most dramatic, most recognisable, and most loved symphonies.

Of his 41 symphonies, Mozart wrote only two in a minor key – Nos. 25 and 40 – both in G minor. Symphonies that start in a minor key are rare in general, perhaps due to the harmonic complexities and difficult modulatory challenges involved in fitting them into the prescribed symphonic form. Composers throughout history have resolved this challenge differently, though often those who tackle it have created some of the most potently powerful, admired and popular music we know. Consider for example that of Beethoven’s nine symphonies, it is No.5 and No.9 – his best known – that start in a minor key.

But back to Mozart… His Symphony No.40 was written in the summer of 1788; a period that was personally difficult, but artistically fruitful for the composer. Between 28 June and 10 August, he wrote not one, not two, but three symphonies Nos.39, 40, and 41. Each is very different in character from the other and somehow all brilliant, despite the rapidity with which they were written. No.39 is Viennese and elegant, No.41 ‘Jupiter’ is epic and triumphant, while No.40 seems somehow more personal and revealing of Mozart’s own distress.

The symphony can be characterised by a pervading melancholy restlessness, held in check by the structure and propriety of Classical form. This feeling is evident from the very start of the short first movement, which plunges straight into its iconic, yearning first theme without ceremony. Mozart in fact adapted the starting tempo from the original Allegro assai (in a quick manner) to Molto allegro or very fast, increasing the first movement’s agitation and urgency.

The second movement’s major key provides some temporary, graceful respite, before the spiky and rushed third movement reintroduces a sense of discontent. The famous Finale then hurtles through unsettling harmonic shifts (at one point touching on every note of the chromatic scale except for the home note of G, a radically destabilising move at this point in musical history and evidence of Mozart’s harmonic mastery), often feeling on the cusp of spiraling out of control before somehow being brought safely to a somewhat abrupt close. And yet, Mozart adamantly avoids resolving to a major key, concluding in the same dark, minor mood with which he began.

Something about the evocative unease of this symphony feels distinctly, and unusually for Mozart, emotional and personal. It’s easy to see why Richard Wagner called it “pivotal to the Romantic world.” This is truly one of the greatest symphonies of all time.

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