The 40th Symphony was completed on 25 July 1788. The composition occupied an exceptionally productive period of just a few weeks in 1788, during which time he also completed the 39th and 41st symphonies (26 June and 10 August, respectively).Nikolaus Harnoncourt argues that Mozart composed the three symphonies as a unified work, pointing, among other things, to the fact that the Symphony No. 40, as the middle work, has no introduction (unlike No. 39) and does not have a finale of the scale of No. 41’s.
As Neal Zaslaw has pointed out, writers on Mozart have often suggested – or even asserted – that Mozart never heard his 40th Symphony performed. Some commentators go further, suggesting that Mozart wrote the symphony (and its companions, #39 and #41) without even intending it to be performed, but rather for posterity; as (to use Alfred Einstein‘s words), an “appeal to eternity”.
Modern scholarship suggests that these conjectures are not correct. First, in a recently discovered 10 July 1802 letter by the musician Johann Wenzel (1762-1831) to the publisher Ambrosius Kühnel in Leipzig, Wenzel refers to a performance of the symphony at the home of Baron Gottfried van Swieten with Mozart present, but the execution was so poor that the composer had to leave the room.
There is strong circumstantial evidence for other, probably better, performances. On several occasions between the composition of the symphony and the composer’s death, symphony concerts were given featuring Mozart’s music for which copies of the program have survived, announcing a symphony unidentified by date or key. These include:
Copies survive of a poster for a concert given by the Tonkünstlersocietät (Society of Musicians) 17 April 1791 in the Burgtheater in Vienna, conducted by Mozart’s colleague Antonio Salieri. The first item on the program was billed as “A Grand Symphony composed by Herr Mozart”.
Most important is the fact that Mozart revised his symphony (the manuscripts of both versions still exist). As Zaslaw says, this “demonstrates that [the symphony] was performed, for Mozart would hardly have gone to the trouble of adding the clarinets and rewriting the flutes and oboes to accommodate them, had he not had a specific performance in view.” The orchestra for the 1791 Vienna concert included the clarinetist brothers Anton and Johann Nepomuk Stadler; which, as Zaslaw points out, limits the possibilities to just the 39th and 40th symphonies.
Zaslaw adds: “The version without clarinets must also have been performed, for the reorchestrated version of two passages in the slow movement, which exists in Mozart’s hand, must have resulted from his having heard the work and discovered an aspect needing improvement.”
Regarding the concerts for which the Symphony was originally intended when it was composed in 1788, Otto Erich Deutsch suggests that Mozart was preparing to hold a series of three “Concerts in the Casino”, in a new casino in the Spiegelgasse owned by Philipp Otto. Mozart even sent a pair of tickets for this series to his friend Michael Puchberg. But it seems impossible to determine whether the concert series was held, or was cancelled for lack of interest. Zaslaw suggests that only the first of the three concerts was actually held.
The second movement is a lyrical work in 6/8 time, in E flat major, the submediant major of the overall G minor key of the symphony. The contrapuntal opening bars of this movement appear thus in keyboard reduction:
The minuet begins with an angry, cross-accented hemiola rhythm and a pair of three-bar phrases; various commentators have asserted that while the music is labeled “minuet,” it would hardly be suitable for dancing. The contrasting gentle trio section, in G major, alternates the playing of the string section with that of the winds.
The fourth movement opens with a series of rapidly ascending notes outlining the tonic triad illustrating what is commonly referred to as the Mannheim rocket.
The movement is written largely in eight-bar phrases, following the general tendency toward rhythmic squareness in the finales of classical-era symphonies. A remarkable modulating passage in which every tone in the chromatic scale but one is played, strongly destabilizing the key, occurs at the beginning of the development section. The single note left out is in fact a G (the tonic).
The symphony typically has a duration of about 25 minutes.
This work has elicited varying interpretations from critics. Robert Schumann regarded it as possessing “Grecian lightness and grace”. Donald Francis Tovey saw in it the character of opera buffa. Almost certainly, however, the most common perception today is that the symphony is tragic in tone and intensely emotional; for example, Charles Rosen (in The Classical Style) has called the symphony “a work of passion, violence, and grief.”
Although interpretations differ, the symphony is unquestionably one of Mozart’s most greatly admired works, and it is frequently performed and recorded.
Ludwig van Beethoven knew the symphony well, copying out 29 bars from the score in one of his sketchbooks. As Gustav Nottebohm observed in 1887, the copied bars appear amid the sketches for Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, whose third movement begins with a pitch sequence similar to that of Mozart’s finale (see example above).
In the 1860s, composer Johannes Brahms obtained Mozart’s original score, “the crown of his manuscript collection.”
The following files contain a digital recording of a performance of the 40th Symphony by the Fulda Symphonic Orchestra. The performance took place on March 18, 2001 in the Orangerie in Fulda, Germany.