Mozart’s last three symphonies come from the extraordinarily creative summer of 1788. In the space of slightly over six weeks, he composed the Symphony in E-flat, K. 543; the Symphony in G minor, K. 550; and the Symphony in C major, K. 551. The entries in Mozart’s catalog are dated, respectively, June 26, July 25, and August 10. During the 19th century, it was popularly believed that Mozart wrote the works with no specific performance in mind. Furthermore, he supposedly created them out of an inner desire to provide a symphonic last will and testament. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In 1788, he had no reason to assume that these would be his last symphonic works. Had he been able to follow Haydn to London in 1792, as had been planned, he would have most certainly composed at least six more. As for composing them without having a performance in mind, this is also fiction. Mozart simply didn’t work that way. Even a single symphony was too big a work to undertake without the promise of some type of financial gain.
Of the three 1788 symphonies, the Symphony in G minor, K. 550 (popularly referred to as No. 40, but probably No. 53), is the most original and has had the greatest influence on future composers. Few works from then 18th century are as intense, chromatic, and unconventional. The choice of key is, in itself, a measure of the work’s profundity. Mozart wrote only three substantial mature works in G minor, a key commonly associated (according to 18th century aesthetic principles) with “lamentation” and “suffering.” There are no traditional opening chords at the beginning of the first movement, only a quiet accompaniment figure in the violas waiting for a melody to appear. What does appear is a simple repetition of notes a half-step apart followed by descending passages that stop just short of outlining what would be a comforting octave. The contrasting second theme, divided between the strings and woodwinds, is almost purely chromatic. The intense development section begins in the unexpected key of F-sharp. As the symphony plays itself out, there are surprises at every turn. What should be a calming slow movement is agitating. The traditional sunny minuet is again in a heavily chromatic G minor. Only the trio offers respite. The finale carries the intense chromaticism of the first movement to new heights. The famous passage at the beginning of the development section briefly destroys both the rhythm and the tonality. Few classical works more clearly point the way toward 19th century romanticism.
Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor is one of his most frequently performed works and yet, despite the consensus as to its appeal, there is no agreement to be had in terms of interpretation. As summarized by A. Peter Brown, the work’s reception is a series of diametric opposites. The symphony either looks forward to Romanticism, or backward to the Baroque. It is either a revelation of Mozart’s mood swings, or absolutely unrelated to personal emotion. Its character is operatic in scope, or else, as Einstein put it, “a fatalistic piece of chamber music.”
Einstein might have been closest to the mark in assessing the symphony’s character. The orchestra was the smallest Mozart had used after leaving Salzburg, and the outer movements in particular are nearly transparent in texture. The hesitant opening, without either a slow introduction or a bold first theme, is also more typical of chamber music. However, Mozart’s manipulation of form is symphonic in scope. Almost all of the material developed in the sonata form of the first movement derives from the opening half-step sigh in the violins. This degree of motivic planning and integration is found only in the later symphonies of Mozart and Haydn, or else in the works of Beethoven.
In another of Mozart’s mold-breaking decisions, the Andante is also a fully-worked-out sonata form. Not only is the degree of motivic development as extensive as the first movement, but there is an even greater degree of harmonic tension, as the slow movement is full of chromatic shadings and creeping bass lines. Similar to the first movement, the whole of the Andante is unified by two gestures from the opening: the repeated notes that build throughout the string section and the “snap” figure introduced by the violins.
Continuing in the same vein, the Menuetto maintains the intensity of the first two movements. The complexities of counterpoint and meter bely its more straightforward minuet and trio form. Audiences could be forgiven for thinking this minuet was a march, given the aggressive 2-against-3 hemiola—something that would be typical of Beethoven and Brahms. Although simpler in texture, the trio is striking as the only extended passage in the whole work that is in the major mode—it is the “bright spot” in the harmonic gloom of the rest of the symphony.
As he had done in the Piano Concerto No. 12, Mozart casts the last movement of the symphony in a sonata form. In its character and construction, the Allegro assai is rather more serious than any of Mozart’s other finales. Stanly Sadie called it “the most fiery symphonic movement Mozart composed.” Indeed, for all its swiftness, this finale manages to be intense rather than celebratory. And this is not all down to the minor mode, but also the attitude of the themes: the first a rising figure that continually turns back on itself, the second sweeter but still searching because of its chromatic twists and turns. On one thing we as an audience can agree: Mozart brings the movement, the symphony as a whole, and this concert to an exciting and emphatic end.