There are more questions surrounding Mozart’s final three symphonies (nos. 39, 40, and 41 or “Jupiter”) than answers. What we do know of the works is scant: that Mozart appears to have composed them in a six- to eight-week period in the summer of 1788, entering them in his catalog on July 25. We also know that he first scored no. 40 for only flute, oboes, and bassoons, then revised the score to give portions of the oboe parts to two clarinets, leading scholars to assume that he made the alteration with a real performance in mind.
But beyond that, we have only speculation. Mozart may have composed all three symphonies for a series of summer concerts that may never have taken place. Or he may have led one or more of the symphonies during a tour of Germany in 1789. Or the concerts led by Antonio Salieri in Vienna on April 16 and 17, 1791, may have featured symphony no. 40. The fact that Salieri’s orchestra on that occasion included clarinetist Anton Stadler, a friend of Mozart’s for whom the composer had written several pieces, is seen as evidence that the rescoring of the symphony was meant for this occasion.
However, all of this is mere historical guesswork. Speculation of a different sort surrounds the thematic interpretations of the 40th symphony. Mozart’s circumstances when he wrote the piece were increasingly grim—his growing poverty, fading popularity with the Viennese public, and increasing marital strains all coalesce in a letter begging for a loan from friend Michael Puchberg. “Black thoughts … often come to me,” Mozart wrote, “thoughts that I push away with a tremendous effort.” Some critics have seen Mozart’s ‘black thoughts’ expressed within this symphony, one of only two that the composer set in a minor key. (Symphonies no. 40 and 25 are set in G-minor, with the 40th sometimes referred to as the “Great G-minor.”) Alfred Einstein called the first and last movements “plunges into the abyss of the soul,” while Charles Rosen calls the work one of Mozart’s “supreme expressions of suffering and terror.” Yet Mozart was firmly rooted in the classical tradition, and he never intended his compositions to express his personal emotions. Composer Robert Schumann found only “weightless, Hellenic grace” in this symphony, while critic Donald Tovey points out its pulsing rhythms, akin to those of opera buffa, and scolds, “it is not only difficult to see the depths of agony in the rhythms and idioms of comedy, but it is not very intelligent to attempt to see them.”
Such disagreements may stem simply from the fact that symphony no. 40 displays such innovation in its unusual harmonic tension, presaging 20th century musical exploration by three centuries, and in its concentration of means, abbreviating introductory or expository material. The first movement, Molto allegro, begins not with a great declarative statement but with quiet, pulsing violas, followed by violins sounding a nervous, urgent theme. The effect is as if we had dropped into a work already in progress. A contrasting B-flat major theme is all grace, yet woodwinds continue to sound fragments of the opening in the background, and we are deposited quite briskly back into the recapitulation of the main theme, where a series of further modulations carry us to even darker expressions of urgency.
The athletic chromaticism of the first movement is mirrored in a more subtle way in the Andante. Its stately opening appears to return us to more familiar ground, but soon features short two-note figures, called Seufzer (sighs) in Mozart’s day. The violins add a countermelody that rises in unexpected directions as the movement explores various chromatic relationships against an insistent, albeit reserved, ostinato background. The forceful Menuetto (Allegretto) then returns us to a sense of urgency. Though it follows the form and rhythm of the courtly dance, its impression is anything but decorous, leading critics to uniformly describe its powerful polyphony as “fierce,” “stern,” or “rugged.” Only the mild G-major trio offers a brief respite from this movement’s grim dance.
The Finale (Allegro assai) begins with a brief, rising two-bar gesture that quickly becomes the thematic material, the developing consisting almost entirely of variations on this theme. The finale also includes the most harmonically challenging music Mozart wrote, a near twelve-tone row in “rude octaves and frozen silences” (critic Michael Steinberg) that appears half-way into the movement, after the double-bar in the Allegro assai section. This step toward Schoenberg’s idiom comes as an almost otherworldly gesture, made more so because the only two tones that Mozart omits are the tonic (G) and fifth (D) of the symphony’s key. Yet the context surrounding this interruption is a movement whose forward motion, free of the questioning figures that appear throughout the previous movements, still brings us decisively home to G-minor. Mozart has taken us on an unusual voyage, but in the end his musical language still achieves a balance, order, and resolution.