Last night we heard the last three symphonies Mozart composed before his death. Jane Glover conducted the Music of the Baroque Orchestra at the Harris Theater. The orchestra was composed of less than 40 musicians which was the size of orchestras during Mozart’s time. (The romantics of the 19th century brought in the huge orchestras.) It was divine (close to the rapture originally planned for last Saturday): the perfect antidote to the end of year stress of school.
He wrote these three symphonies in six weeks. No one knows why he wrote them. Apparently, composers did not randomly compose music (for its own sake) until the 19th century. In the 18th century composers composed music for patrons and special events. In 1788, when these three symphonies were composed, Mozart was at his lowest. He was no longer the celebrity he was just a short time before. He had no work and was deeply in debt. His infant daughter had just died and he and his wife were devastated. He was writing letters to friends literally begging for money. Then these three symphonies. He died three years later, buried in a pauper’s grave.
Some scholars believe he may have had plans for a new subscription series which would feature these three symphonies. This subscription series never materialized. In fact, there is evidence that Mozart may never have heard any of these symphonies performed, except perhaps for one. Some scholars believe it was just a burst of creativity, an opportunity for him to enter the only world where he felt some security and solace.
I have always loved Mozart. His vitality, joy, cleverness, and unmitigated exuberance attract and hold me. In fact, I have found myself trying to impart this love for Mozart to my students who often raise their eyebrows and look blankly at me when I share some of his music with them. One of my favorite compositions is his Symphony #40 in Gm.
The first movement of this symphony is based on Sonata form: exposition, development, recapitulation. In an effort to make essay writing feel a bit more organic for my students, I have introduced this formal writing process using this music. A sonata is a kind of musical argument. The first section, the exposition, introduces a theme (or two), usually repeated twice so the themes are firmly planted in the listeners ears. The development explores all the possible harmonic and textural possibilities of the themes introduced in the exposition. Finally, the recapitulation repeats the exposition but alters it, resolving the themes usually in the tonic key.
Comparing this to an essay— the exposition equals the introduction; the development equals the various points explored connecting to the theme/thesis; the recapitulation equals the conclusion. Do I think the students grasp this? Probably not. Is it worth the challenge and stretch? Absolutely.
There’s always an excuse for Mozart.
If you would like to explore this musical essay yourself, the introduction is from 0:24 to 2:26, which is repeated 2:26 to 4:29. The development is from 4:30 to 5:50. The recapitulation is from 5:50 to the end.