Symphony guide: Mozart’s 38th – ‘Prague’

In the third in his symphony series, Tom Service goes back to 1786 Prague and Mozart’s 38th symphony, in which you can hear the composer straining at the limits of what his orchestra, and the form, can do.

The 30-year-old Mozart hadn’t written a symphony for three years when he started composing a new piece for Prague at the end of 1786, the Bohemian city where The Marriage of Figaro was going down much more of a storm than it had in Vienna.

Since the Linz Symphony of 1783, Mozart had pushed himself as a composer and musician in all possible directions: he had incarnated pretty well his own genre of the piano concerto and had already brought it to astonishing heights; as an opera composer, he was embarked on those epoch-making collaborations with Lorenzo da Ponte, starting with Figaro; and in the six string quartets he dedicated to Haydn, published the year before, he challenged himself – and his listeners and performers – to attain a new kind of chamber-music consciousness. All that, and he had begun seriously to investigate earlier Baroque repertoires.

In the Prague, you hear the effect of all these expanding musical horizons on Mozart’s idea of what a symphony could be. This is really the first of Mozart’s symphonies – and he had written at least 36 before (no. 37 is a misnomer) – in which Mozart transforms the social and entertainment functions of a piece of grand orchestral music into signifiers of a different kind of discourse. In virtually every bar of this piece, you hear him straining at the limits of what his invention, his orchestra, and the symphony can do.

Some crazy facts before we get down to the counterpoint. The Prague has three movements rather than the by then conventional four; Mozart does without the minuet because of the scale of this symphony’s first movement and the andante; the tune at the start of the finale is a quote from The Marriage of Figaro, exploding the little duet between Susanna and Cherubino in Act II into a dazzling presto that’s by turns coquettish and muscularly dissonant; the slow movement is the most operatically lyrical and emotionally varied he had yet composed in a symphony; and the first movement starts with the most expressively extreme slow introduction to a symphony in the history of the genre.

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