Symphony No. 39 in E flat K.543 (1788)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
- Adagio – Allegro
- Andante con moto
- Menuetto – Trio – Menuetto (Allegretto)
- Allegro assai
Mystery shrouds the creation of Mozart’s last three symphonies. Written in only 7 weeks, they were not the results of a commission, nor did Mozart receive payment for them. It is also possible that he did not hear them performed in the remaining three years of his life. They may have been written for a planned trip to London that never eventuated.
The first and least well-known of these three is No. 39. Composed just after the death of Mozart’s infant daughter and in the midst of financial troubles, its outward joie de vivre masks a more ominous undercurrent, as occasional thunderclouds loom, evident in the slow opening. The symphony’s instrumentation is unusual, oboes and one flute being replaced by a pair of the then new clarinets, which add a characteristic tonality throughout the work. Mozart also uses the horns extensively, requiring in the last movement the use of the recently developed technique of hand stopping, in which the hand is used to lower the pitch. It is unlikely that members of the orchestras of London, Paris or Rome could have played these notes let alone the parts for clarinets, which had yet to extend beyond Vienna and Central Europe.
The grand opening prominently features the timpani and sustained woodwind, its prominent dotted rhythms reminiscent of a French overture. Leading seamlessly into the graceful Allegro, the timpani and horns propel the strings into frenetic activity. The serenely dancing opening of the calm and poetic slow movement gives way to a more dramatic section followed by graceful string melodies alternating with contrapuntal woodwind passages.
The Menuetto features the clarinet, particularly in the Trio section in which the first clarinet plays the lyrical ländler melody over an ostinato bass played by the second clarinet. This passage reminds us why Haydn remarked that “Mozart taught us how to write for clarinet.”
The exuberant and energetic Finale, reminiscent of Haydn, is based on a single theme richly developed with lovely interplay amongst the woodwind. The coda features the same instrumentation as the symphony’s introduction.