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Mozart’s last three symphonies / Vienna

May 21 @ 18:30 - 20:00
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Hofburgkapelle – Vienna

Mozart’s last three symphonies


Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major (KV 543)

Adagio – Allegro
2. Andante con moto
3. Menuetto e Trio
4. Allegro

Symphony No. 40 in G Minor (KV 550)

Molto allegro
2. Andante
3. Menuetto
4. Allegro assai


Symphony No. 41 in C Major (KV 551)

Allegro vivace
2. Andante cantabile
3. Menuetto: Allegretto
4. Molto allegro


Period Instrument Orchestra of the Warszawska Opera Kameralna
Musicae Antiquae Collegium Varsoviense

Adam Banaszak

In the summer of 1788, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is 32 years old. In three and a half years he will no longer be alive. If we exclude conspiracy theories that he will be murdered by Antonio Salieri, jealous of his talent, or that he will be the victim of a conspiracy by his fellow Masonic lodge members, at this point in the timeline Mozart does not even sense that he is writing his last three symphonies.

The habit of writing them accompanied him throughout his life. He composed his first one at the age of eight. Clearly, he was brilliantly talented, and the scale of his talent is hard to overestimate. However, he also grew up in the tradition of the so-called partimento, a school of improvisation and harmony, that provided so much from the beginning that the life of a wonder child was much simpler, and writing symphonies was not reserved exclusively for the inspired.

However, the last three symphonies are something else. Is it a coincidence that these became the last ones? Extremely tempting is the idea of Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the founding father of the historical performance movement, suggesting their interpretation as a single whole. A number of arguments support this. The Symphony in E-flat major begins with a slow introduction, which the next two symphonies do not have. Its finale is magnificent, but not as bravura as the elaborate and brilliant finale of the last Symphony in C major. The middle section of this triptych is the G minor symphony, contrasting in mood and character.

The tones speak in their own code. Understanding its meaning and symbolism is a key to interpreting the music of the entire eighteenth (and not only the eighteenth!) century. E-flat major is a key reserved for divine matters, its three flats symbolize the Holy Trinity, the perfection. G minor is sorrow, lament, loss. C major is pure light, natural joy, simple happiness.

The introduction to the Symphony in E-flat major is the creation of the world! The Magic Flute, created three years later, is essentially maintained in this tonality. However, here the three flats refer to the mystical number three for Freemasons. Pamina in The Magic Flute sings her poignant lament in G minor. If indeed we want to consider these three symphonies as a cycle, new clues also appear at the non-obvious borders between light and darkness, joy and despair, hope and longing. The discussed works were created within a few weeks, between June and August 1788, and – interestingly – Mozart was not obliged by any commission to create them. Why did he create “for the drawer”? For future contracts, or perhaps personally, intimately and “for himself”? Did he then think of creating a cycle consisting of twelve elements? Or perhaps the idea of such a triptych is far-fetched? Just as easily, one could argue that we have three independent masterpieces. In Mozart’s oeuvre, we have another example of such a debatable trilogy. I am talking about Così fan tutte, The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. These works are linked by the librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte. They are often referred to as the Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy. Although each opera addresses different issues, in a way, the energies of these works overlap, leading to a kind of musical dialogue. According to the boldest interpretations, the Count from The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Don Alfonso from Così are the same character. Regardless of these possible meanings, each of tonight’s heroines constitutes an independent and complete whole. Johannes Brahms – the greatest symphonist of the next century – saw in them a perfection and vision that far surpassed Beethoven’s First Symphony. After all, the Symphony in G minor opens the door to a new emotional era, the era of musical Romanticism!

The famous fugue, analysed a thousand times, sublimates thematic material into a unified whole, crowning the Symphony in C major in an astonishing manner. At its opposite pole lies Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16, also in the key of C major, written at the same time. Its nickname is the sonata facile, and indeed, today it is played by students in elementary music schools. Are they really opposite poles? Perhaps they are part of the same archipelago… In the case of the symphony, the subtitle “Jupiter” does not come from Mozart but from an impresario, it’s a marketing ploy. The coda with its five contrapuntally elaborated themes might lead us astray. What if instead of Jupiter, the god of the heavens and thunder, we were to use the same facile subtitle as in the piano sonata?

How often performing Mozart’s music reminds us that beauty lies close to simplicity! That within the constraints of style, tonality, form, one can still find unlimited spaces of creative freedom. There are few works in the history of music that set the bar for performers so high. Tonight is a test of our artistry but also of our skills, knowledge, imagination, finesse, and… good taste.

Olga Tokarczuk, in her captivating Nobel lecture, said: “I dream of high viewing points and wide perspectives, where the context goes far beyond what we might have expected. I dream of a language that is capable of expressing the vaguest intuition, I dream of a metaphor that surpasses cultural differences, and finally of a genre that is capacious and transgressive, but that at the same time the readers will love. I also dream of a new kind of narrator―a “fourth-person” one, who is not merely a grammatical construct of course, but who manages to encompass the perspective of each of the characters, as well as having the capacity to step beyond the horizon of each of them, who sees more and has a wider view, and who is able to ignore time”.

Date May 21
Time 18:30 - 20:00
Categorieskoncert, Repertoire
Address: Hofburg - Schweizerhof
1010 Wien, Austria

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