Saturday, February 13, 2016

Mozart: Symphony No. 38 in D major, K. 504 "Prague"

I've just been listening to the later Mozart symphonies and it has to be admitted that, compared to Haydn, when it came to the symphony Mozart was a bit of an underachiever. He only wrote forty-some while Haydn wrote one hundred and six and where Mozart wrote one symphony nicknamed "Paris", Haydn wrote six. Mozart wrote a symphony for Linz and another for Prague, but when Haydn went to London, he wrote twelve. Also Haydn was remarkably consistent: even from the earliest symphonies he adopted the four-movement form and continued it throughout his output. Quite a few of Mozart's symphonies are in the earlier three-movement Italian sinfonia form that was a slighter variety, suitable as an instrumental interlude in an opera or oratorio. Some of them feel a bit as if he had knocked them off in a day.

But all that being said, Mozart, in a number of late symphonies, achieved heights that Haydn could not quite match and even Beethoven could rarely equal. Among these is the Symphony No. 38, nicknamed the "Prague" symphony as it was first performed there in early 1787. First let's listen to it and then we will dig into it a bit. This is the Vienna Concentus Musicus, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, conductor:

I particularly like Harnoncourt's Mozart (and Schubert and Beethoven) because it is both rhythmically incisive and strongly expressive. He takes about ten minutes longer with this symphony than do most others, thirty-seven minutes as opposed to between twenty-five and twenty-nine minutes, and one of the reasons is that he repeats, not only the exposition of the opening allegro, but also the development and recapitulation, which is not marked to be repeated in the score. But it works, so why not--we can certainly stand to hear it again.

Like many of the later Mozart symphonies, though not the last two, this one begins with a dramatic adagio introduction:

This, while rhythmically energetic, just outlines the tonic. Immediately after, Mozart starts tonicizing some other keys, like B minor:
This is V6 to i in B minor. Then the same in E minor (flutes, oboes and bassoon):

Then V4/2 to I in G major:
Other keys he visits are D minor and B flat major before settling on A major, the dominant of D, which sets us up for the allegro in the tonic. This immediately suggests the subdominant, G:

Every major theme in this allegro makes use of syncopation; here it is quarter, half, quarter and then there is this variation with, again, the offbeats stressed:

A strong, repeated note theme makes an appearance:

And then this contrasting theme, which seems to grow out of the repeated-note one:

There are some slinky chromatic figures and the return of some earlier themes, but that along with some passage and cadential work, takes us to the end of the exposition.

Since this post is already pretty big, with a lot of scary musical examples, I think I will just stop here and let you discover how Mozart develops these themes in the rest of the movement. After he does that, the opening theme returns in the tonic key, which takes us into the recapitulation.

What is marvelous about this, and much Classical period music, is the fluidity, grace and adroit use of different keys to create a spontaneous sounding, but highly organized piece of music.

Let's listen again. This is  RenĂ© Jacobs and the Freiburger Barockorchester with quite a brisk version:

Footnote: Sometimes before doing one of my drive-by analyses of a Classical era piece I have a look at what Charles Rosen has written on it, but other times I prefer to just start from scratch. In this case I had quite forgotten that Rosen did a brilliant analysis of this movement in his Sonata Forms (pp 202 - 220) where he quotes nearly all of the first movement as a musical example. I recommend highly reading it for a detailed look at just how truly magnificent this movement is. Rosen calls it "Mozart's most massive achievement in the symphonic genre--a work which unites grandeur and lyricism as no other..."


Andy Olson said...

Thank you for posting this magnificent performance. I immediately sent it to a friend of mine who's working on a DMA in composition and bafflingly claims to hate Mozart and Haydn.

Bryan Townsend said...

You are very welcome!

In the composition department of a lot of schools it is almost an ideological requirement that you hate Haydn and Mozart (and probably Sibelius and Shostakovich as well).

Anonymous said...

I don't mean to say this to be meaninglessly provocative but I wonder if my feeling is widely shared (I'm guessing it is not). While I fully recognize the near-perfection of Mozart's music (perhaps no other composer ever made it look so easy), I find Mozart has one flaw that keeps him a solid notch below Bach and Beethoven in the great pantheon of Western music. And it is that his music is too easy on the ear. Mozart never challenges the listener: it's always great and pleasant and damn brilliant. At the end of the day, there's a certain frivolity to his music that keeps it from soaring to the very top. My favorite Mozart piece is the requiem, which is also one of the least Mozartian.

Bryan Townsend said...

We kind of like provocative comments here--as long as they relate directly to the post. So, thanks. Yes, I know exactly what you mean and I used to feel like that myself. For a long time Mozart just felt lightweight to me. But the more I listen to him and especially Haydn, I think that music that is full of joy and brilliance is great music. I wrote a whole post about this interesting question:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link, Bryan.

Jeph said...

Ok, I'll take the bait. Mozart, unchallenging? Yes! He does leave me a little cold sometimes because the harmonic palette is sometimes meager, and also due to the relentless symmetry of his music, I can always hear the cadence coming a mile away. That said, of course 38-41 are amazing, but they seem like outliers, imagine where he would have ended up had he lived longer. But for some more harmonic interest, check out Mozart's chamber music, I find the string quartets and quintets are far more harmonically varied and fun, and less predictable than most of his symphonic output.

Bryan Townsend said...

Hi Jeph. Your points are good ones, of course. I'm not sure I would call Mozart's harmonic palette meager exactly, but it is very much the case that he wrote a great deal of music that was intended to be easily enjoyed by the ordinary listener. But, as we learn from the music and from letters he wrote to his father, he also wrote passages in some of these pieces that were specifically for the enjoyment of the learned listener. And there were genres, such as the chamber music you mention, where he largely wrote for the connoisseur.

If you don't know them well, you should listen closely to the piano concertos which contain examples of both kinds of writing.