Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony, no. 40 in G minor

A BBC program about this symphony can be found here.


A recording of the symphony can be found on Columbia's Online reserves here.
The Sonata
Like Platonic forms, musical forms are idealized visions. Sometimes these idealized representations become the norm; both sonata form and depictions of rhinoceroses succumbed to this force. Because of its codification in the nineteenth century - primarily through the writings of the 19th century music theorist A.B. Marx - sonata form became the predominant organizational principle of music in the common practice period. Like theme-and-variations, or rondo, or even ritornello form, sonata form presents a series of procedures for structuring a piece of music; in practice, composers choose exactly how they will interact with these norms. In the Classical and Romantic symphony, you can expect the first movement to be in Sonata Form.
At its most basic level, sonata form enacts a conflict between two key areas and themes stated in each of these areas. Sonatas are in three parts: an exposition, development, and recapitulation. While there are exceptions, a standard Major key sonata will pit the tonic against the dominant.
A sonata opens with an exposition in which a first main theme(s) is presented in the tonic key. After a transition, a second theme or theme group appears. The second theme tends to be in a different key area and often has a different character. (Many times the exposition is preceded by a slow introduction which serves to quiet the listener for the disquisition that will follow.) After a repeat of the exposition, the thematic and tonal conflict is worked out in the development: a section in which fragments of themes are presented in a variety of keys and musical-tonal tension is brought to a high point. Finally the conflict is resolved, with the first theme invariably the winner, in the recapitulation. The material from the exposition is presented again, however the second theme is now presented in the key of the first theme. Often the recapitulation is followed by a short coda, or tail. Generally, the coda should provide an emphatic endorsement of the tonic key and a sturdy cadence.

This is the basic framework. One of the things that makes a composition in sonata form interesting is the ways that composers deal with the restraints presented by this form. It is important to note that sonata form was codified long after the works that were said to be written in sonata form. It is difficult to find compositions that stick strictly to this form.

Mozart's symphonic output was a bit less prolific than that of his teacher Haydn, who gave the world over 100 symphonies. But given Mozart's short life (35 years) and the uniformly high quality of his compositions, 41 numbered symphonies is nothing to scoff at. (The actual total is anywhere between 55 or 71 depending on how broad one's definition of "Symphony" is.) Symphony 40, written toward the end of his life, depicts a different perspective from his earlier works, for instance, Symphony Number 9.
Beyond the maturity that comes from experience, one primary difference between the two symphonies is their tonality: Symphony 40 is one of only two of Mozart's numbered symphonies written in a minor key. Commentators tend to dwell on the pathos inherent in this key (G minor) and see this Symphony as a bellwether of Romanticism. In the context of Romanticsim, we often view the troubles within a piece of music as reflexive of some inner struggle of the "artist." Following through on their argument, the sadness of the minor key must reflect upon some aspect of Mozart's character. Such dated and simplistic discourses belie their origins - the 19th century - a time when scholars were apt to lionize the classical triumvirate of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven and when ideas of music as a gateway to an artist's soul were the norm.
However one may interpret the work, it is hard to fault the designation of Mozart's fortieth symphony as a Masterpiece.


Mozart's Signature
Things to Note
The first movement of Mozart's Symphony no. 40, like most classical symphonies, uses in sonata form. Unlike most Classical Era first movement sonatas, Mozart begins in media res dropping the listener into the quick motion of the lower strings and a turbid melody in violin octaves. The second theme of the first movement is a contrast, a chromatic descent that begins in the strings, changes color quickly in the winds and then returns to the strings. The development section is full of modulations and presents fragments of the first theme in a variety of key areas, often almost fooling the listener into thinking they are hearing or will hear the recapitulation. When the recapitulation does come, the violins turn the tables on the lower strings, surprising them by entering alone.
Note the great shift in character between the two themes of the first movement. The first has a strongly agitated character reminiscent of an aria agitata, while the second is more plaintive and chromatic. This duality between emotion and control is at the heart of this symphony.
The other movements of this symphony are well worth a listen. The second movment is in a more free rounded binary, or ABA, form with each of its halves repeated (AABABA). Its hesitant string gestures and subtle use of chromaticism lend it a certain grace and sensitivity.
The third movement is a clasic minuet and trio. A sinister minor-mode minuet full of polyphonic imitation is contrasted with a pastoral trio that puts the horns to good use. As always in a minuet and trio, the minuet returns at the end. This minuet is a far cry from the calm gentle minuet of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. A listening chart is not provided for this movement.
The fourth movement, is not as one might expect - a movement in rondo form. Instead, perhaps to express the seriousness of the symphony, it is cast in a modified sonata form. Instead of a traditional sonata of exposition, development and recapitulation, Mozart combines sonata form with a rounded binary (ABA') form. As such we hear the entire exposition and its repeat as we would in sonata form, followed by the development and recapitulation and then a repeat of the development and recapitulation. While the first movement presents a sense of unease, the fourth movement expresses a far more violent nature and through its mixed form a more profound unease. Try to listen for the entrances of the two themes and the recapitulation and note them down for yourself.

Listening Chart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony, no. 40 in G minor, mvt 1 (1788)

0:00 Exposition: Presentation of theme 1: an agitated theme in G minor.
0:29 Exposition (cont.): A transition to theme 2, known as the bridge
0:44 Exposition (cont.): Presentation of the second theme, much more plaintive and in E-flat Major.
1:08 Exposition (cont.): A closing theme.
1:44 A repeat of the entire exposition.
3.26 Development: Themes and fragments of themes are presented in a variety of key areas; the pace becomes more urgent until the
4:33 Recapitulation: A second and sneaky entrance of theme 1.
5:00 Recapitulation (cont.): The bridge theme is expanded and developed and treated in an exciting fugal manner.
5:36 Recapitulation (cont.): The return of theme 2, however now it is in a minor key, this is developed somewhat and leads into the closing theme and
6:33 Recapitulation (cont.): Coda, closing gestures.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony, no. 40 in G minor, mvt 2 (1788)

0:00 A: Presentation of a lovely melody filled with repeating notes in the strings.
1:37 A (cont.): A varied presentation of the repeated note melody, overlayed with hesitant, descending scalar motives.
2:54 A repeat of the A section.
5:47 B: A contrasting section that seems to dwell on the descending figure, now modified to cover a larger range. This sounds developmental in some way.
6:56 A': A return to the A melody, slightly varied.
9:36 A repeat of the entire BA' section.

Bernstein Conducts the First Movement of Mozart Symphony 40.

All text © Todd Tarantino 2002-2012.
Not to be reprinted without permission.