The Redemption of Success

 In Program Notes

After settling in Vienna in 1781, Mozart set about establishing himself as an accomplished musical figure in the Austrian capital. Opportunities there would far surpass the limited world of Salzburg and, contrary to the popular mythology of Mozart’s image as a struggling and underappreciated artist, he found success composing, teaching, and performing in Vienna. By 1788, however, things seem to have taken a turn for the worse financially for him. His new opera, Don Giovanni, met with only modest initial acclaim, and other factors, some of his own creation and some beyond his control, led to Mozart’s first plea for financial assistance from one of his close friends and Masonic brethren, Michael Puchberg. There appears to have been some hope of a concert series that summer that would have brought the composer some much needed income, but the concerts never materialized. Regardless, it is possible, even likely, that the creation of Mozart’s last three symphonies, Nos. 39, 40, and 41, was for such an event, given that Mozart would never have taken the time to compose such major, large-scale works, without the hope of either performances or financial reward. Even artists with gifts as sublime as Wolfgang Mozart saw their art as a means to practical ends. Like so much of Mozart’s life that has been appropriated for the stuff of romanticized myth, the truth of the reality is often much more banal and undramatic. None of this is intended to suggest that the music is anything less than exceptionally brilliant, which only serves to enhance the mystique of how great art is produced in the context of personal and material difficulty. By all accounts, the period of deficient income didn’t last long for Mozart, and, 1791, what turned out to be his final year, was perhaps the most financially successful of his life.

Of Mozart’s great trilogy of symphonies composed in the summer 1788, it is the Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major, K. 543, that has surprisingly received the least attention.  It is also distinguished from its siblings by its use of a slow introduction, the absence of oboes in its orchestration, and a Haydnesque monothematic finale – in which one idea pervades the entire movement.  It is, nonetheless, a sublime musical creation.  The solemn introduction, flavored with aching dissonances, is relieved by a breathtakingly serene theme in the strings.  Momentum builds as new, energetic and contrasting themes are added to the process.  A sense of profound simplicity is evoked in the expressive Andante that follows, but the calm mood is briefly disrupted by the more agitated middle section.  The return of the opening theme quiets the uneasiness and closes the movement.  The robust mood of the Minuet is owed to Mozart’s use of the Austrian folk dance known as the Ländler, which is characteristically led by a pair of clarinets in the Trio section.  Constant activity in the perpetual motion Finale gives the Symphony No. 39 a rousingly exciting character that is distinct from the other late symphonies in its joviality and deceptively unassuming simplicity.

Don’t miss our performance of Mozart’s majestic “Symphony No. 39” with Classics V: Mozart and Grieg!


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