May 28 & December 31, 2020

Mozart Symphony No. 40

This Omaha Symphony performance was recorded live at the Holland Performing Arts Center on March 2, 2018.

G Minor: A Mood

Think of Mozart, and the opening of this symphony's first movement may be what you hear in your mind. Mozart's final three symphonies, which include this week's Symphony | Anywhere release, are said to have been a set written in only about nine weeks—not that this fact will surprise anyone even a little familiar with Mozart's catalogue or well-documented prolificness.

You can now hear Mozart's Symphony No. 40, often called "The Great G Minor," performed by your Omaha Symphony!

Listen Now

Omaha Symphony · Mozart - Symphony No. 40 in G minor K. 550

Program Notes

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote 41 symphonies during his very short time on Earth, and only two of them were written in minor keys. Coincidentally, both are in g minor – No. 25, “The Little G Minor,” and No. 40, “The Great”. Minor symphonies weren’t especially popular at the time, though the shift from the cool, collected Age of Enlightenment to the sturm und drang (storm and stress) Age of Existential Anxiety (*not the official title) had gained ground during the 15 years that separated “The Little” and “The Great.” Sturm und drang was a way of expressing individual worries, anxieties, and doubts. Mozart had experimented with it, possibly after hearing one of Haydn’s minor symphonies, as an exercise in expression – hence, No. 25. For “The Great,” however, he may have been living it.

It can be hard to tell if a composer is reflecting upon their personal situation while choosing a key. For example, Beethoven was the master of creating joy in the midst of constant personal despair. When Mozart was writing No. 40, however, life was rough. Funds were tight: he’d lost his popularity with Viennese audiences, whose attention – and money – went elsewhere. His family was forced to move to a less expensive dwelling, he had to borrow money from friends and associates… and reconcile with a vicious penchant for spending money before it even got warm in his pocket. The stressed, breathless, heart-fluttering anxiety that fills No. 40 feels fairly indicative of Mozart’s situation.

Here’s the problem, though: 40 was bookended by No. 39 – a monumental treat in E-flat Major – and “Jupiter,” No. 41, a jubilant romp in C Major. And – they were all written between June 28th and August 10th of 1788. So… where did 40 come from?!

Some musicologists believe that 40 is the direction Mozart might have gone in had he lived longer. It has been described as Romantic, a stunning reinvention of Classic and Baroque era music, and a ubiquitous rule-breaker… all at once. Why?

Well, let’s take the introduction. In Mozart’s time, hearing the Symphony perform a symphony was what we call “an experience.” Music was written to accommodate the mood and whims of the crowd, who may or may not have been there to actually listen to the performance. French overtures, for example, gave the French King ample time to mosey on down to his seat after arriving fashionably late without actually letting him miss any of the “good stuff.” A musical introduction on any piece might also have to accomplish the feat of shutting the audience up! It had to be loud enough, and of long enough duration, to make the attendants realize that the performance had begun.

So – what does Mozart do? He begins with a palpitation-infused pulse in the violas, with a whispered melody in the violins overtop. It trampled (very quietly) over everything an introduction “should” be by refusing to be an introduction at all – either you’re listening, or you’re not. If you are, the tension of the first movement is palpable. It’s a breath-taking study in spinning out, in chromatic patterns that cycle through the entire orchestra, driving the low strings out of the depths and the winds and upper strings to wail, yearn, and rage overhead.

Hang in there. The second movement is gorgeous and calm, unfolding steadily (and even written in a major key!) The third movement, however, is a trap. Minuets are traditionally social dances – think very strict rules about who goes where when. Well, Mozart takes those rules and creates a brusque monster of a Minuet. Attacks are frank and pull apart in opposite directions, as if multiple members of the orchestra are having an argument, the solo flute the lone voice of reason at the end.

Finally: the Allegro Assai. The hysterically laughing, humming, sprinting finale to this celebration of tension and stress. Like the first movement, once it gets started… there’s no stopping it. There are brief moments of calm, but they never last long enough to get your heart-rate down. Thank goodness, because you want this incredible energy to stay with you long after the adamant conclusion sounds.

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