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Mozart: Symphonies Nos. 36, 'Linz' and 38, 'Prague'

‘A necessary evil (you’ve got to start with something) and during which one chats’ was one listener’s withering description of the symphony in mid-eighteenth-century Vienna. Inspired by Haydn’s already imposing body of work, it was Mozart who turned the form on its head with his last symphonies, raising it from functional, ceremonial curtain-raiser to the prestige genre of instrumental music. His D major Prague symphony, more than any other, is the piece that typifies this vastly widened scope and expressive range.


The city of Prague could not get enough of Mozart at a time when Vienna seemed to grow indifferent to his entrepreneurial ventures. Prague was the city that fell in love with The Marriage of Figaro, and the spirit of the opera’s original title in Beaumarchais’s source play, La folle journée (the day of madness) pervades the symphony – especially the last movement, which resembles a madcap opera buffa finale. But the really groundbreaking movement is the first: after a slow introduction that (like the ensuing allegro) grows organically out of a provisional, abstract opening, the body of the movement takes it as its mission to integrate elevated-style counterpoint into a symphonic sonata structure. It begins by calmly laying out its material, which is subject to ever more outrageous recombination and manipulation. But this music always retains architecture and balance, with a galant second theme as an urbane foil to the contrapuntal madness of the surrounding areas. This revolutionary and expansive movement resembles the fugal finale of Mozart’s last symphony (No. 41), reaching for the sublime in its vistas of counterpoint that seem to invite a cognitive exhaustion.


The second movement begins with a tranquil pastoral scene, with the beautifully linear, vocal wind writing Mozart had learned in Vienna heightening the lush atmosphere. But the music undergoes twists and turns that seem to bring it closer to a fantasia: just as in Beethoven’s last works a few decades later, Mozart makes the music seem to lose confidence in itself, questioning its own formal foundations and inviting conflicting readings. Like so much of his great G minor symphony (No. 40), it is a window into the irrational and the subjective, a musical analogue of Rousseau and the sentimental authors rather than Voltaire’s rational, baroque honnête homme.


The Mozartean quality of effortless grace finds classic expression in his Linz symphony of more than a decade later. Its refinement completely belies the circumstances of its creation: it was written (if we can trust Mozart’s letter to his father) in just three or four days for an impromptu performance in the provincial Austrian town of Linz during a stopover there as he and his wife Constanze returned to Vienna from Salzburg. In many respects this is the most Haydnesque of Mozart’s mature symphonies, full of games with the listener’s expectations. It unites a sophisticated sense of storytelling with quintessentially Mozartian qualities: the perfection of counterpoint and line, as natural in its course as gravity itself.


Long thought of as the ne plus ultra of abstract, ineffable art, recent work has located Mozart’s music more firmly in its time and place, revealing a seething mimetic surface to the music, and it is interesting to consider the Linz symphony from this perspective. The principal topics of symphonic first movements, the martial and the lyrical, are explained by the symphony’s origin as overtures to opera seria, whose stories principally concerned love versus honour. Slower second movements were often pastoral, and in the Linz the opening is based on a rocking siciliana dance (from Sicily, the Italian Arcadia) beset by odd silences and uncanny rhetorical repetitions. The third movement, as is customary, has outer sections that remind us of the nobility and power of those who danced the minuet, and a central Trio that evokes the grace of the dance itself. The finale is an exhilarating parade of commedia dell’arte characters, from the humble comic opening to passages with a liturgical quality, all mixing together in one great imbroglio. According to Neal Zaslaw, ‘taken together, the heroic, the amorous, the pastoral, the courtly, the antic, and the rustic or popular, represent the themes most often found in eighteenth-century prose, poetry, plays and paintings’. The symphony was thus ‘a stylised conspectus of the eighteenth century’s favourite subject matter’ – suggesting that these pieces are perhaps better understood in dialogue with each other than each on its own terms.


Rewarding as it is to consider these pieces against the backdrop of their age, though, Mozart’s unmistakable voice never fails to shine through. One vital concern of his music is how it seems to touch simultaneously on ultimate profundity and ultimate banality, well encapsulated by Artur Schnabel’s comment that Mozart is too difficult for adults to understand, but too easy for children. The image of the composer as an otherworldly man-child survived through the nineteenth century; Constanze later remembered his constant practical joking and love of games, which can be seen as an extension of the same impulse as that which fuelled his composition. The quality of ‘play’ in these works, though, is not just a window into the composer’s psyche, but the democratic impulse of the Enlightenment engraved on the very fabric of the music. From the exalted, learned counterpoint of Prague to the doodling, popular finale of Linz, this is music that holds up a mirror to the world and social order around it.

© Joel Sandelson 2023

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