Sinfonia 40 Mozart 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!

This great symphony is written in the key of G minor and the melancholy feel of this key pervades the first movement, although other movements are lighter in mood. The work comprises the usual four movements, but what is slightly unusual is that Mozart uses sonata form to structure the first, second and fourth movements. The third movement is the usual minuet and trio. This piece was created in the Classical Era.

Each movement is varied in terms of tempo as shown below:
– Movement I – Tempo is molto allegro (very fast).
– Movement II – Tempo is andante (at a moderate walking pace).
– Movement III – Tempo is allegretto (slightly slower than allegro).
– Movement IV – Tempo is allegro assai (very fast indeed).

The Instrumentation
Mozart originally scored the work without the recently invented clarinets, although he later wrote another version which included two clarinets. Another interesting fact is that Mozart is modest in the instrumentation that he uses in his work, which only requires seven woodwind players (one flute, two oboes, two clarinets and two bassoon) and from the brass section, two horns – one in B flat and one in G. This is to give him the notes G-B flat-D (G minor tonic chord) and B flat-D-F (B flat major tonic chord). Of more significant note is the fact that Mozart does not use trumpets or drums! Compare this orchestration to the standard Classical orchestra at the time. This is Mozart’s 550th piece he wrote…Wow!

Analysis of Each Section (in chronological order)
Subject 1 – Bars 1-42

  • As I have already said, this movement is played very fast. 
  • What more the first point to note is that there is no introduction
  • After just three crotchet beats, the first and second violins playing in octaves state the first subject. 
  • As well as being the first movement, this is also the Exposition. 
  • Has a homophonic texture (two or more instruments playing together).
  • There is a bridge at bar 17.
  • Dynamics are quite basic being only quiet, loud or suddenly loud.

Subject 2 – Bars 44- 71

  • Slow tempo – walking pace
  • Starts quite and peaceful, finishes strong and loud.
  • Long slurred notes throughout. 
  • Descending staccato scale from flute, bassoons and violins at the end to move to codetta.

Codetta – Bars 73-100

  • Peaceful and calm tempo.
  • Again, long slurred notes at beginning.
  • Peace is interrupted with forte violin.
  • Use of quavers and crotchets in this section.

Development Section – Bars 101-163

  • The music of the development section is based on subject one.
  • Improvises a lot on subject one.
  • Dynamics similar to subject one being quite, loud and suddenly loud. At the end, uses new dynamics to follow into recapitulation mfp (loud then soft).

Recapitulation – Bars 164-183

  • This features the first subject appearing again.
  • Short so it flows nicely into Bridge.
  • Adopts dynamics of subject one.

Bridge – Bars 184-226

  • Overpowering section with loud dynamics and staccato notes. 
  • Long section: 50 bars long.

Subject 2 Re-appears – Bars 227-259

  • Musical and texture are reduced.
  • This short section is an extension in which the music modulates to E flat major.
  • Hints of the exposition heard, this time in G minor.

Coda – Bars 260-299 (End)

  • This section is a bit longer than the codetta.
  • (Bars 260-276) The three-note motif from the first subject is passed between the clarinet, bassoon and flute, whilst the first violins exchange the first two notes of the motif in augmentation with the violas and cellos. This section is rounded off with a perfect cadence in G minor at bars 275-276.
  • (Bars 276-299) This starts off as a scalic flourish building to the expected final cadence. However this forte passage is suddenly interrupted with some piano woodwind chords at bar 285 during which we hear glimpses of the first subject in the second violins, the first violins at bar 287, cellos at bar 289, the flute, clarinets and bassoons at bar 291.
  • (Bar 293-299 (End)) The final ‘tutti’ homophonic reiteration of a series of chords I and V in G minor ending with four emphatic full stops (G minor chords). The last section of six bars corresponds to the last six bars of the exposition!

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