Mozart: Symphony 40 in G Minor, K.550 Моцарт: Симфония №40 в си-минор, К. 550
by: Vladislav Exxx
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550
Instructor: Dr. Timothy M. Crain
11 November 2002
I. Work Analysis
Being an admirer of the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, I chose to
analyze Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G Minor. An early analyst and critic
of Mozart’s music, Otto Jahn called the Symphony No. 40 “a symphony of pain
and lamentation.” Another critic said it was “nothing but joy and
animation” (Kramer 480). While these two remarks may be used as extreme
ways to interpret the symphony, its character and mood are captivating and
The standard instrumentation for this piece includes woodwinds
(flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons), strings (violins, violas, cellos,
and basses), and brass (horns), The instrumentation does not include any
percussion or heavy brass. The horns are used sparingly, only to add
density to the tone or emphasize the crescendos and sforzandos.
The symphony itself is comprised of four movements:
Movement One – Molto allegro
Movement Two – Andante
Movement Three – Allegretto
Movement Four – Allegro assai
The first movement of the symphony opens in a minor key with a piano
but agitated principal theme that repeats itself throughout the movement.
Such an opening is not a usual one; a listener may have expected some sort
of an introduction to precede such a theme, but Mozart decides to omit any
prelude, thereby establishing a certain feeling of restlessness or anxiety.
The first movement exhibits frequent interchanges between piano and forte.
Of all the sections of the first movement, only the development is played
in a major key with disjunct motion. This, combined with other expressive
elements, further contributes to the movement’s general uneasy mood. The
meter here is duple simple, and it remains constant throughout the
movement. The first movement is presented in the Sonata-allegro form, with
a motivic structure quality in the principal theme, and a homophonic
Obediently following the sonata plan, Mozart slows down his second
movement to andante. Violas play the principal theme and are later joined
by the first and second violins, imitating one another. The dominating
strings maintain dynamics within range of piano, but sforzandos are
contributed by the basses. The meter in this movement is duple compound,
and like in the first movement, this one is composed in sonata-allegro
form. Homophonic accompaniment in an E-flat tonality supports a wide-range,
but conjunct-motion melody that is characterized by regular periodic
The third movement is in triple simple meter with the orchestra once
again dominated by the strings. The minuet and trio form naturally divides
the movement into three sections with different keys, dynamics, and a da
capo. The minuet section and its a da capo are played forte and in a minor
key, while the trio is piano and in a major key. The tempo remains
allegretto throughout the entire movement. Unlike the second movement, the
motion of the melody is disjunct and wide-range, structured in regular
periods. The movement begins in a G minor tonality and then changes to G
major. The texture remains homophonic throughout the entire movement.
The final movement of the symphony is again dominated by the strings.
The tempo of this movement is allegro assai, which combined with disjunct
melodic motion in the portions played forte, maintains the stressful,
nervous mood of the symphony. These sections are interchanged by ones
played piano and adagio, with a narrow melodic range and conjunct motion.
This movement is composed in sonata-allegro form with a duple simple meter.
The motion is mostly conjunct, except for sections played presto, where the
motion is disjunct and the range is wide. The tonality of this movement is
G minor, and the texture is homophonic.
II. Composer background.
At the time of this symphony’s composition, in the first half of 1788
when Mozart’s creative powers were at their peak, his everyday life
suddenly began to deteriorate. Although he had recently been appointed a
composer to the Court of Emperor Joseph II, the salary was meager and the
duties were light. Two or three years previously Mozart’s concert schedule
was busy and an abundance of students provided him with an adequate income.
He had triumphed in Prague with The Marriage of Figaro in 1786 and Don
Giovanni in 1787. Now his fortunes went into a slump. When Don Giovanni was
performed for the first time in Vienna, on the 7th of May, 1788, it aroused
mixed reactions. Although it was given fifteen times that year, it does not
seem to have been regarded as a success in Vienna. In the spring of 1788
Mozart could not obtain enough subscribers to a set of three string
quintets, and the projected publication was postponed and then abandoned.
In June Mozart planned a series of public concerts, but these apparently
did not occur. After 1788, Mozart would never again perform a public
concert in Vienna, and his desperate financial situation made him write
letters to relatives and friends, asking for money (Broder vii).
Nevertheless, Mozart continued to compose with his characteristic and
inspiration. The failures of his performances and the consequent financial
hardships took a heavy toll on Mozart’s already fragile health. The lack of
commission or public recognition, however, did not stop Mozart from
writing. Mozart composed his last three symphonies (Nos. 39, 40, and 41) in
only two months, without commission or payment. Furthermore, at least two
of these symphonies were never performed during his lifetime. As to why
they were not performed, some people believe that Mozart had such an
intense inner need to express himself that he could not wait for a patron
from whom to charge commission. Perhaps these were the circumstances that
inspired such a feeling of insecurity, anxiety, and urgency in Symphony No.
40. The composer needed success, recognition, and simply money.
IV. Personal Reaction.
On a personal level, I was also inspired with the same unexplained
feeling of urgency and anxiety while listening to this symphony. The first
movement creates this mood with its very first motive. However, it seemed
hard for me to follow through the entire piece without having lost some of
this impression to the more subdued second and third movements. Perhaps
Mozart’s emotions at the time were too complex for me to understand at this
point; after all, these two movements were not composed just to fill the
void between the first and the last movements. But maybe Mozart knew that
the listeners would be exhausted if the same mood prevailed throughout the
Either way, my personal preference remains with the more sonically
and emotionally powerful productions of such composers such as Chaikovsky,
Prokofiev, Grieg, and Wagner who managed to deliver similarly strong
emotions through shorter, more concise pieces of music. For example,
Chaikovsky’s famous ballet The Nutcracker is comprised of several short
suites, each one with its own feeling, mood, and character The entire work
feels like a wonderful theme park, rather than a long, consuming labyrinth
that comes to mind with Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. Edward Grieg in his In
der Halle des Bergkцnigs and Richard Wagner’s The Ride of the Valkyries
fascinate and inspire me to a much greater extent, despite their much
smaller duration. Of course, it should not be forgotten that the pieces I
listed are all operas and ballets and have very little to do with the
symphony in general, but they are still the music I prefer thanks to their
equally high power and better understandability.
Broder, Nathan, ed. Mozart: Symphony in G minor, K. 550. New York: W.W.
Norton & Company, 1967.
Kramer, Jonathan D. Listen to the Music: A Self-Guided Tour Through the
Orchestral Repertoire. New York: Schirmer Books, 1988.
Steinberg, Michael. The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide. New York: Oxford UP,
Unger-Hamilton, Clive, ed. The Great Symphonies. New York: Facts on File,
Zaslaw, Neal. Mozart’s Symphonies: Context, Performance Practice,
Reception. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.