Saturday, February 2, 2013

Mozart: Symphony No. 40 in G minor

I was stuck for something to write about but then I read in the Guardian that the Proms have been avoiding Mozart symphonies for years (until Simon Rattle just did the last three). I also notice that my post on Mozart's Requiem keeps getting a lot of hits every day.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791) is a unique figure in music history. Like so many great musicians he came from a musical family: his father Leopold was an accomplished violinist and minor composer and his older sister Nannerl was a fine pianist with whom the young Mozart toured Europe. Mozart was the very archetype of child prodigies. He composed music from the age of five and at age six embarked on a three and a half year tour of Europe with Nannerl (accompanied by their father, of course). The tour included visits to courts of Munich, Mannheim, Paris, London, The Hague, again to Paris, and back home via Zurich, Donaueschingen, and Munich.

Mozart wrote his first successful opera at age fourteen, which led to further commissions. Just think about that for a minute! No-one is capable of writing a full-length opera at fourteen. Except Mozart. He also had the most amazing ear and musical memory: on the same trip to Italy when he wrote that opera he attended two performances of the jealously-guarded Miserere by Gregorio Allegri in the Sistine Chapel and wrote the whole piece out from memory.

Mozart is usually credited with having written forty-one symphonies but the traditional numbering includes some symphonies actually by other composers such as Michael Haydn, Leopold Mozart, Ignace Pleyel and others. There are also a number of symphonies that have probably been lost or of which we possess only a portion. So we have no idea how many symphonies Mozart actually wrote. We do know that in a few remarkably productive weeks from June to August 1788 Mozart wrote his three greatest symphonies known as Nos. 39, 40 and 41.

Every one of Mozart's symphonies is in a major key except two, both in G minor. One is a fairly early work and the other is No. 40 that we will talk about today. To Classical era composers the minor mode was perhaps too fraught for ordinary use. They focused much more on major mode compositions. It wasn't until Beethoven that the minor mode became more popular--and even more so with the Romantic composers. Minor mode compositions have more chromaticism as in order to create a cadence the leading tone has to be raised. Often the sixth degree is raised as well. The so-called "melodic minor" scale shows that these notes are raised going up and lowered going down:
So even without going outside the normal notes in the key of G minor, a composer has more to work with than in a major key. Here is the first theme in the violins from the first movement:
That seems fairly conventional: eight measures with a pick-up in the tonic G minor. There is emphasis on the flat submediant, E flat and then the leap of a minor 6th, both of which are very expressive within the harmonic vocabulary of the period. There is a second theme, that introduces the second harmonic region, B flat, the relative major, and the most likely place a piece in G minor is going to modulate to:
Again, fairly conventional in that it is another eight measure theme. What makes it a bit distinctive is the chromaticism again: the descent in semi-tones from the sub-mediant, G, all the way to the tonic, B flat (with a little diversion at the end) is not typical for a theme in B flat. But it does fit with the overall tonality of G minor.

So, two themes, each nice enough in their way, but is this enough to build a whole movement nearly eight minutes long with? Sure, if you are Mozart. But when we listen to the symphony what we notice is that Mozart, while using both these themes and some other minor material, actually focusses on a tiny motif from the first theme. It is really this that he builds this whole movement on--three notes and their inversion:
It is Mozart's mastery of harmony that allows him to construct such a perfect symphonic movement based on so little. I won't do an analysis of the harmony, which would be long and much too technical. But if you listen to the first movement carefully, following the journey of that tiny motif, I think you will hear the marvelous harmonies. Now let's listen. (The whole symphony in the same performance is also on YouTube and I recommend listening to it all.) Here is just the first movement of Mozart's 40th Symphony in a performance conducted by Nicholas Harnoncourt. 

Mozart is a different kind of master than the ones we have been used to for the last hundred years or so. At some point in the 19th century a new ideology of composition was developed that believed that it was progressivism that was important: a composer was supposed to invent something new. "New musical languages" were the goal of every composer. Schoenberg, when he developed the 12-tone system was following this ideology and so were most composers ever since. John Cage, Pierre Boulez, Elliot Carter and a host of others were each doing this in their own way.

But Mozart was not.

He was inventing or developing nothing new. Every device he used had been used before by many, many composers. What Mozart did was simply use them better, more perfectly, with a higher degree of mastery. Before the 19th century this was actually the norm. Yes, there were composers who came up with entirely new ways of writing music, like Caccini and Monteverdi did at the birth of the Baroque, but these were in the minority and usually were not the most highly-regarded. Because they were experimental, they could not achieve the highest degree of perfection. It was given to later masters to perfect the new ways of writing. In the Baroque, it was Bach. In the Classical period, it was Mozart.

But for the last hundred years or so, we have had almost no masters, mostly experimenters. How odd!


Anonymous said...

Great point. I really don't like to much "out of the norm" stuff. I think too much of modern art in general, not just music, is almost TOO creative. Mathematics are large tool in paintings, music, ballet, and other types of art yet it feels like they are being used less and less. I don't want to see a huge wall of a single color as much as I want to see a beautiful painting that using certain techniques and formulas to create something beautiful.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks! The great English musicologist Donald Francis Tovey stressed that what Beethoven was striving for was "normality" that is, a musical expression that was based on the most fundamental musical principles.

As far as those very striking modern paintings go, they hit you on first viewing, but often they are very boring the tenth time you see them.