Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Symphony No. 25 in g minor, K. 183
Mozart composed this symphony in 1773; it was first performed on October 5 of that year in Salzburg. The score calls for two oboes, two bassoons, four horns, and strings. Performance time is approximately twenty minutes.
This is the earliest work by Mozart to have secured a place in the modern orchestral repertory. It is sometimes known as Mozart's "little" G minor symphony, in deference to the sublime later symphony in the same key, no. 40. In the nineteenth century it was little known and rarely performed. That changed in the following century, and, with the popularity of the movie Amadeus, which uses its dramatic first movement in ways that would surely surprise the composer, this symphony has achieved a familiarity nearly equal to that of its more famous counterpart.
The majority of symphonies written in the eighteenth century are in major keys, calling particular attention to those in the minor. Several of Haydn's, for example, are well known, including the Mourning and Farewell symphonies. This work was Mozart's first symphony in a minor key, and he would only write one other. G minor is a key that inspired some of Mozart's most moving music, including Pamina's poignant "Ach ich fühls" from The Magic Flute and a deeply expressive string quintet that is one of the landmarks of chamber music. Its choice for this symphony may well have been suggested by Haydn's thirty-ninth symphony, in G minor, with which it shares a number of other similarities, including the unusual scoring for four horns.
Mozart, who was not yet eighteen, wrote this symphony near the end of a busy year. He and his father had spent part of the summer of 1773 in Vienna, where Mozart dashed off many pages of relatively unimportant music and heard a number of Haydn's works. After he returned to Salzburg in September, Mozart began this G minor symphony and his first efforts in two forms which he would ultimately make entirely his own, the string quintet and the piano concerto. With this symphony in particular, Mozart made the first decisive step from wunderkind to great composer, from entertainer to artist.
Romantic myth always gets attached to works in minor keys, and much has been read into this symphony. Yet there is nothing in Mozart's life at the time to justify the exceptional nature of this music— other than his readiness to probe deeper into the human heart. With this piece, we can begin to chart the ways Mozart will move away from the strictly defined parameters of Haydn's art, even though these two great composers would continue to learn from each other and to influence the path the other would follow.
The opening of this symphony is probably the earliest music that sounds wholly Mozartean to our ears— not the charming, finely crafted, yet slightly anonymous music of the period, but something utterly individual, music that leaps from the page and lodges in our memories. The essence of the first measures—as in the later G minor symphony—is rhythm: urgent, repeated, syncopated notes. It is instantly effective, establishing both mood and momentum. A second theme, in B-flat major, provides contrast and a glimpse of the generic musical world Mozart was quickly leaving behind.
The Andante is the only movement in the symphony that does not begin with jagged octaves. Here we have a gracious dialogue between muted violins and bassoons. Mozart paints a picture of eighteenth century gentility, yet there is boldness in the details. The stern and sober minuet which follows is decidedly not for dancing. Its mid-section trio, however, is friendly, out-of-doors music for winds alone— the sort Mozart often wrote for social functions. The finale restores the tension and turbulence of the first movement (the use of four horns also lends a special sound to this music) and stays in the minor mode to the bitter end.
- Phillip Huscher, Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Ludwig van Beethoven Symphony #1 in C Major, op. 21
The eighteenth century was nearly halfway through its final decade when a 23-year-old musician named Ludwig van Beethoven left his birthplace of Bonn to live permanently in Vienna. Thickset and swarthy, his face pock-marked and his features coarse and heavy, and rather lacking in manners and social graces, he was hardly a prepossessing figure. Yet, virtually unheralded, he strode boldly into the fashionable drawing rooms of Vienna’s aristocracy and demanded not only to be listened to, but also treated as an equal. And, surprisingly, despite the enormous social gulf that separated him from them, he was, almost from his very arrival in the Austrian capital, accorded that unprecedented consideration.
His coarseness and demeanor notwithstanding, this young Beethoven was quite a musician. He played the piano brilliantly and, when he improvised at the keyboard, which he could do for hours, his listeners sat transfixed as he carried them to levels of emotion never before experienced. He was a composer, too, and the music he wrote was strong and bold and quite unlike anything else. Before long, Beethoven was literally living with his aristocratic patrons—and not as a liveried servant like Haydn and Mozart, but as a guest and friend. Indeed, one of his earliest patrons, Prince Carl Lichnowsky, instructed his servants that, if his and Beethoven’s bells ring at the same time, they should attend to Beethoven first.
Knowing that he undoubtedly would have to face comparison with Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven wisely waited some seven years and consolidated his position in Vienna before introducing his first symphony to the public. Although sketches for the finale date back as early as 1795, Beethoven appears to have composed the major portion of the work during 1799. The first performance took place at an incredibly lengthy concert in the Hofburg Theater in Vienna on April 2, 1800. Critical opinion was generally favorable. One correspondent for the Allgemeine Misikalische Zeitung found the new symphony “abundant in ideas and originally conceived”; however, he took Beethoven to task for his emphasis on wind instruments in the scoring. “The music is more for a band than an orchestra,” he claimed.
Beethoven’s First Symphony is the work of a man who not only studied carefully the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn, but learned from them as well, and his debt to these two masters is clearly reflected in this score. This symphony, though understandably of lesser importance than Beethoven’s later endeavors in this genre, it is strikingly original and bears the unmistakable stamp of his genius. With this bold and confident work, Beethoven bade farewell both to his youth and to the eighteenth century, proclaiming with self-assurance and pride that a new master of symphonic form had arrived.
The symphony opens with an Adagio molto introduction that begins with a dominant-seventh discord in the key of F major and modulates to several other keys before arriving at the home key of C Major. The first movement proper, a bracing Allegro con brio, convincingly attests to Beethoven’s early mastery of sonata form. The second movement, Andante cantabile con moto, is also in sonata form. The development section is unusually expansive. Though labeled in the score as a minuet, the third movement is marked Allegro molto e vivace, a tempo designation that makes it quite undanceable. With its quick, one-beat-to-a-measure pace, it is really a scherzo in everything but name. A brief Adagio introduction prefaces the concluding movement, a jolly romp in sonata-rondo form that is also marked Allegro molto e vivace. Its infectious wit and good-natured high spirits recall the exhilarating finales of many of the symphonies of Haydn, that supreme master of musical humor.
-Kenneth C. Viant