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Mozart: Symphony 40 in G Minor, K.550 Моцарт: Симфония №40 в си-минор, К. 550

Mozart: Symphony 40 in G Minor, K.550 Моцарт: Симфония №40 в си-минор, К. 550

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


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


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


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 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,


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.