Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his Symphony No. 40 in G minor, KV. 550, in 1788. It is sometimes referred to as the "Great G minor symphony," to distinguish it from the "Little G minor symphony," No. 25. The two are the only minor key symphonies Mozart wrote.
The 40th Symphony was completed on 25 July 1788. The composition occupied an exceptionally productive period of just a few weeks in 1788, during which time he also completed the 39th and 41st symphonies (26 June and 10 August, respectively).
The question of the Symphony's premiere
There is no completely solid documentary evidence that the premiere of the 40th Symphony took place in Mozart's lifetime. However, as Zaslaw (1983) points out, the circumstantial evidence that it was performed is very strong. On several occasions between the composition of the symphony and the composer's death, symphony concerts were given featuring Mozart's music, including concerts in which the program has survived, including a symphony, unidentified by date or key. These include:
Most important is the fact that Mozart revised his symphony (the manuscripts of both versions still exist). As Zaslaw says, this "demonstrates that [the symphony] was performed, for Mozart would hardly have gone to the trouble of adding the clarinets and rewriting the flutes and oboes to accommodate them, had he not had a specific performance in view." The orchestra for the 1791 Vienna concert included the clarinetist brothers Anton and Johann Stadler; which, as Zaslaw points out, limits the possibilities to just the 39th and 40th symphonies.
Zaslaw adds: "The version without clarinets must also have been performed, for the reorchestrated version of two passages in the slow movement, which exists in Mozart's hand, must have resulted from his having heard the work and discovered an aspect needing improvement."
Concerning the concerts for which the Symphony was originally (1788) intended, Otto Erich Deutsch suggests that Mozart was preparing to hold a series of three "Concerts in the Casino", in a new casino in the Spiegelgasse owned by Philipp Otto. Mozart even sent a pair of tickets for this series to his friend Michael Puchberg. But it seems impossible to determine whether the concert series was held, or was cancelled for lack of interest. Zaslaw suggests that only the first of the three concerts was actually held.
The symphony is scored (in its revised version) for flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings. Notably missing are trumpets and timpani.
The work is in four movements, in the usual arrangement (fast movement, slow movement, minuet, fast movement) for a classical-style symphony:
Molto allegro, 2/2
Menuetto – Trio, 3/4
Allegro assai, 2/2
Every movement but the third is in sonata form; the minuet and trio are in the usual ternary form.
The first movement begins darkly, not with its first theme but with accompaniment, played by the lower strings with divided violas. The technique of beginning a work with an accompaniment figure was later used by Mozart in his final piano concerto (KV. 595) and later became a favorite of the Romantics (examples include the openings of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto).
The first theme is well known:
The second movement is a lyrical work in 6/8 time, in E flat major, the submediant major of the overall G minor key of the symphony.
The minuet begins with an angry, cross-accented hemiola rhythm and a pair of three-bar phrases; various commentators have asserted that while the music is labeled "minuet," it would hardly be suitable for dancing. The contrasting gentle trio section, in G major, alternates the playing of the string section with that of the winds.
The fourth movement is written largely in eight-bar phrases, following the general tendency toward rhythmic squareness in the finales of classical-era symphonies. A remarkable modulating passage, which strongly destabilizes the key, occurs at the beginning of the development section, in which every tone but one in the chromatic scale is played. The single note left out is in fact a g-natural (the tonic).
This work has elicited varying interpretations from critics. Robert Schumann regarded it as possessing “Grecian lightness and grace”. Donald Francis Tovey saw in it the character of opera buffa. Almost certainly, however, the most common perception today is that the symphony is tragic in tone and intensely emotional; for example, Charles Rosen (in The Classical Style) has called the symphony "a work of passion, violence, and grief."
Although interpretations differ, the symphony is unquestionably one of Mozart's most greatly admired works, and it is frequently performed and recorded.
Ludwig van Beethoven knew the symphony well, copying out 29 measures from the score in one of his sketchbooks. It is thought that the opening theme of the last movement may have inspired Beethoven in composing the third movement of his Fifth Symphony.
The following files contain a digital recording of a performance of the 40th Symphony by the Fulda Symphonic Orchestra. The performance took place on March 18, 2001 in the Orangerie in Fulda, Germany.
Deutsch, Otto Erich (1965) Mozart: A Documentary Biography. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Hopkins, Antony (1981) The Nine Symphonies of Beethoven. Heineman.
Schoenberg, Arnold (1954, rvs. 1969) Structural Functions of Harmony (W.W. Norton and Company, 1954, rev. 1969). Analyzes the wide-ranging development sections of both outer movements at some length
Zaslaw, Neal (1983) Introductory notes to a recording of the 31st and 40th Symphonies made by Christopher Hogwood and the Academy of Ancient Music, Oiseau-Lyre 410-197-2.
Versions of the score: