Mozart was fond of Prague and Prague was fond of Mozart – that is a fact. The composer celebrated some of his earliest and biggest successes in Prague, like the lasting triumph of his operas “The Marriage of Figaro” and “Don Giovanni”, which endeared the city to a man looking for flattery. And of course the visit of such a distinguished guest as Mozart allowed the city to capture some of the glory that usually was reserved to Vienna, the capital city of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.
The ingredients of “Don Giovanni”
On December 6, 1786 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart finished the score of his Symphony No. 38 in D major, K. 504, a work that may be considered as a first culminating point of his symphonic oeuvre. The piece blends perkiness and sublimity and anticipates the two poles between which “Don Giovanni” (see an earlier post) would oscillate. The two extremes are bound together by musical passion, the powerful wish to cast a spell on the audience. In a nutshell a masterwork, first performed on January 19, 1787 in Prague and thus nicknamed “Prague Symphony”.
The symphony is written in three movements; a lengthy first and second movement and a shorter finale. Mozart omitted the Minuet*, which is unusual for a symphony composed after 1750. The piece nevertheless lasts almost 40 minutes, the typical length for such a work. The first movement immediately sets the mood, or rather the tension between the two extremes and mirrors one of the challenges of the time: the individual striving for success, man in his fight for the right of free expression, the unleashed force of creativity on the one side, mighty or even oppressive powers and the vagaries of life on the other side.
Orchestral colours galore
Mozart saw irony and charm as man’s weapon to fight for his ideals as he demonstrates in “Don Giovanni”, and his Symphony No. 38 is in a way a prototype for the musical language he would use later. The first movement has elements that the composer would use later in the overture of “Don Giovanni”. He lavishly uses the whole range of colours available to the orchestra with a prominent part for the winds and timpani and occasionally solo instruments like the oboe. Lead and support roles often switch between instrumental groups as do main and auxiliary themes.
The more I listen to this symphony the better I like it. So emotional, so beautiful, so captivating! Indulge in that experience with the London Symphony Orchestra in its legendary 1959 recording under the Swiss conductor Peter Maag.
© Charles Thibo