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Understanding Music

MUS 100

Work Report

by: Vladislav Exxx

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550

Instructor: Dr. Timothy M. Crain

DePaul University

11 November 2002

I. Work Analysis

Being an admirer of the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, I chose to
analyze Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor. An early analyst and
critic of Mozart’s music, Otto Jahn called the Symphony No. 40 “a
symphony of pain and lamentation.” Another critic said it was “nothing
but joy and animation” (Kramer 480). While these two remarks may be used
as extreme ways to interpret the symphony, its character and mood are
captivating and touching.

The standard instrumentation for this piece includes woodwinds (flutes,
oboes, clarinets, and bassoons), strings (violins, violas, cellos, and
basses), and brass (horns), The instrumentation does not include any
percussion or heavy brass. The horns are used sparingly, only to add
density to the tone or emphasize the crescendos and sforzandos.

The symphony itself is comprised of four movements:

Movement One – Molto allegro

Movement Two – Andante

Movement Three – Allegretto

Movement Four – Allegro assai

The first movement of the symphony opens in a minor key with a piano but
agitated principal theme that repeats itself throughout the movement.
Such an opening is not a usual one; a listener may have expected some
sort of an introduction to precede such a theme, but Mozart decides to
omit any prelude, thereby establishing a certain feeling of restlessness
or anxiety. The first movement exhibits frequent interchanges between
piano and forte. Of all the sections of the first movement, only the
development is played in a major key with disjunct motion. This,
combined with other expressive elements, further contributes to the
movement’s general uneasy mood. The meter here is duple simple, and it
remains constant throughout the movement. The first movement is
presented in the Sonata-allegro form, with a motivic structure quality
in the principal theme, and a homophonic texture.

Obediently following the sonata plan, Mozart slows down his second
movement to andante. Violas play the principal theme and are later
joined by the first and second violins, imitating one another. The
dominating strings maintain dynamics within range of piano, but
sforzandos are contributed by the basses. The meter in this movement is
duple compound, and like in the first movement, this one is composed in
sonata-allegro form. Homophonic accompaniment in an E-flat tonality
supports a wide-range, but conjunct-motion melody that is characterized
by regular periodic structures.

The third movement is in triple simple meter with the orchestra once
again dominated by the strings. The minuet and trio form naturally
divides the movement into three sections with different keys, dynamics,
and a da capo. The minuet section and its a da capo are played forte and
in a minor key, while the trio is piano and in a major key. The tempo
remains allegretto throughout the entire movement. Unlike the second

emains allegretto throughout the entire movement. Unlike the second
movement, the motion of the melody is disjunct and wide-range,
structured in regular periods. The movement begins in a G minor tonality
and then changes to G major. The texture remains homophonic throughout
the entire movement.

The final movement of the symphony is again dominated by the strings.
The tempo of this movement is allegro assai, which combined with
disjunct melodic motion in the portions played forte, maintains the
stressful, nervous mood of the symphony. These sections are interchanged
by ones played piano and adagio, with a narrow melodic range and
conjunct motion. This movement is composed in sonata-allegro form with a
duple simple meter. The motion is mostly conjunct, except for sections
played presto, where the motion is disjunct and the range is wide. The
tonality of this movement is G minor, and the texture is homophonic.

II. Composer background.

At the time of this symphony’s composition, in the first half of 1788
when Mozart’s creative powers were at their peak, his everyday life
suddenly began to deteriorate. Although he had recently been appointed a
composer to the Court of Emperor Joseph II, the salary was meager and
the duties were light. Two or three years previously Mozart’s concert
schedule was busy and an abundance of students provided him with an
adequate income. He had triumphed in Prague with The Marriage of Figaro
in 1786 and Don Giovanni in 1787. Now his fortunes went into a slump.
When Don Giovanni was performed for the first time in Vienna, on the 7th
of May, 1788, it aroused mixed reactions. Although it was given fifteen
times that year, it does not seem to have been regarded as a success in
Vienna. In the spring of 1788 Mozart could not obtain enough subscribers
to a set of three string quintets, and the projected publication was
postponed and then abandoned. In June Mozart planned a series of public
concerts, but these apparently did not occur. After 1788, Mozart would
never again perform a public concert in Vienna, and his desperate
financial situation made him write letters to relatives and friends,
asking for money (Broder vii).

Nevertheless, Mozart continued to compose with his characteristic and
inspiration. The failures of his performances and the consequent
financial hardships took a heavy toll on Mozart’s already fragile
health. The lack of commission or public recognition, however, did not
stop Mozart from writing. Mozart composed his last three symphonies
(Nos. 39, 40, and 41) in only two months, without commission or payment.
Furthermore, at least two of these symphonies were never performed
during his lifetime. As to why they were not performed, some people
believe that Mozart had such an intense inner need to express himself
that he could not wait for a patron from whom to charge commission.
Perhaps these were the circumstances that inspired such a feeling of
insecurity, anxiety, and urgency in Symphony No. 40. The composer needed

success, recognition, and simply money.

IV. Personal Reaction.

On a personal level, I was also inspired with the same unexplained
feeling of urgency and anxiety while listening to this symphony. The
first movement creates this mood with its very first motive. However, it
seemed hard for me to follow through the entire piece without having
lost some of this impression to the more subdued second and third
movements. Perhaps Mozart’s emotions at the time were too complex for me
to understand at this point; after all, these two movements were not
composed just to fill the void between the first and the last movements.
But maybe Mozart knew that the listeners would be exhausted if the same
mood prevailed throughout the entire symphony.

Either way, my personal preference remains with the more sonically and
emotionally powerful productions of such composers such as Chaikovsky,
Prokofiev, Grieg, and Wagner who managed to deliver similarly strong
emotions through shorter, more concise pieces of music. For example,
Chaikovsky’s famous ballet The Nutcracker is comprised of several short
suites, each one with its own feeling, mood, and character The entire
work feels like a wonderful theme park, rather than a long, consuming
labyrinth that comes to mind with Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. Edward Grieg
in his In der Halle des Bergkцnigs and Richard Wagner’s The Ride of the
Valkyries fascinate and inspire me to a much greater extent, despite
their much smaller duration. Of course, it should not be forgotten that
the pieces I listed are all operas and ballets and have very little to
do with the symphony in general, but they are still the music I prefer
thanks to their equally high power and better understandability.


Broder, Nathan, ed. Mozart: Symphony in G minor, K. 550. New York: W.W.
Norton & Company, 1967.

Kramer, Jonathan D. Listen to the Music: A Self-Guided Tour Through the
Orchestral Repertoire. New York: Schirmer Books, 1988.

Steinberg, Michael. The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide. New York: Oxford
UP, 1995.

Unger-Hamilton, Clive, ed. The Great Symphonies. New York: Facts on
File, Inc., 1983.

Zaslaw, Neal. Mozart’s Symphonies: Context, Performance Practice,
Reception. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

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