1st Movement From Symphony No.40 In G Minor Analysis Essay

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!

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Symphony No. 40 In G Minor, K. 550

I. Work Analysis

Being an admirer of the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, I chose to analyze Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G Minor. An early analyst and critic of Mozart's music, Otto Jahn called the Symphony No. 40 "a symphony of pain and lamentation." Another critic said it was "nothing but joy and animation" (Kramer 480). While these two remarks may be used as extreme ways to interpret the symphony, its character and mood are captivating and touching.

The standard instrumentation for this piece includes woodwinds (flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons), strings (violins, violas, cellos, and basses), and brass (horns), The instrumentation does not include any percussion or heavy brass. The horns are used sparingly, only to add density to the tone or emphasize the crescendos and sforzandos.

The symphony itself is comprised of four movements:

Movement One - Molto allegro

Movement Two - Andante

Movement Three - Allegretto

Movement Four - Allegro assai

The first movement of the symphony opens in a minor key with a piano but agitated principal theme that repeats itself throughout the movement. Such an opening is not a usual one; a listener may have expected some sort of an introduction to precede such a theme, but Mozart decides to omit any prelude, thereby establishing a certain feeling of restlessness or anxiety. The first movement exhibits frequent interchanges between piano and forte. Of all the sections of the first movement, only the development is played in a major key with disjunct motion. This, combined with other expressive elements, further contributes to the movement's general uneasy mood. The meter here is duple simple, and it remains constant throughout the movement. The first movement is presented in the Sonata-allegro form, with a motivic structure quality in the principal theme, and a homophonic texture.

Obediently following the sonata plan, Mozart slows down his second movement to andante. Violas play the principal theme and are later joined by the first and second violins, imitating one another. The dominating strings maintain dynamics within range of piano, but sforzandos are contributed by the basses. The meter in this movement is duple compound, and like in the first movement, this one is composed in sonata-allegro form. Homophonic accompaniment in an E-flat tonality supports a wide-range, but conjunct-motion melody that is characterized by regular periodic structures.

The third movement is in triple simple meter with the orchestra once again dominated by the strings. The minuet and trio form naturally divides the movement into...

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