1788: Mozart: Symphony No. 40 (GREAT G MINOR)

TUESDAY, October 27, 2020 – 2:46 PM

Symphony No. 40 (GREAT G MINOR), famous for 231 years…

This is the 2nd to last symphony that Mozart wrote, and part of a trio of absolutely amazing ones making up the last three. There is at least some evidence that all three of these final symphonies were written as a unit and were expected to be heard that way.


  • flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons
  • 2 horns
  • strings

This is one of the smallest orchestras used in a Mozart symphony.

Andrés Orozco-Estrada

Benjamin Britten

The 1st movement:

It begins with an accompaniment, played by the lower strings with divided violas. This idea was used by Mozart in his last piano concerto and later by other Romantics. Examples include the opening of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and the opening Rachmaninov’s 3rd piano concerto.

The 2nd movement:

The move to Eb major is sweet, and it’s more subtle or more elegant than going to Bb major, the relative major. Its a single morph from G minor.

The 3rd movement:

This is no minuet in terms of being dance-able. It’s too fast by far, and in fact in feel, energy and speed it is close to Beethoven’s scherzos. There is a nice tempo change in the trio, which is slower. The natural horns are spectacular.

The 4th movement:

It opens with a series of rapidly ascending notes outlining the tonic triad illustrating what is commonly referred to as the Mannheim rocket. There is a sudden modulating passage at the beginning of the development section; the single note left out in the whole chromatic scale is G. This one detail alone is totally outrageous and gets my attention every time I hear it. It is pure genius.

“Great G minor” symphony…

It is sometimes referred to as the “Great G minor symphony”, to distinguish it from the “Little G minor” symphony, No. 25. No. 25 was written when he was only 17 years old, in 1773, and these two symphonies are the only ones written by Mozart in minor keys. .Both these “minor key” symphonies are in G minor.

G minor was special to Mozart…

Just why different composers were attached to particular keys is something that has been much debated for a very long time. For instance, it is possible that older composers associated different colors keys with different “feelings” or “colors” because of tuning systems we no longer use.

For instance, a piano or organ tuned in a manner typical of Bach or Mozart sounded very different in different keys. So G minor would sound very different from F# minor or Ab minor.

Perhaps even when writing for full orchestra they retained that link to the sound of those different keys. Or perhaps all the instruments playing together sounded every different to them in each key. Regardless, G minor had emotional significance for Mozart.

Mozart’s 20th century tone row…

The sudden modulating passage at the beginning of the development section is essentially a tone row, something that became important in the 20th century for composers who wanted to destroy tonality. Mozart, in a sudden whim, decided to use every note in a tone row except one, the note that belongs to the actual key. He cheated a bit by using at least one more than once, but for the rest of us mortals it’s just frightening what that mind could do. It took me 10 minutes to write it out, by ear, to see if it really happened, and it did. I always heard something unusual there but thought he just wrote something weird – which amazingly works. I thought it was much more random, but it turns out he knew exactly what he was doing. It’s one thing to write an ugly tone row. It’s another thing to make it function harmonically, so this is just more evidence of his unbelievable genius.

Two different versions…

They differ primarily in that the 2nd includes parts for a pair of clarinets. Mozart rewrote the flutes and oboes to accommodate them. The autograph scores of both versions were acquired in the 1860s by Johannes Brahms, who later donated the manuscripts to the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in Vienna, where they reside today.

What other composers thought…

First of all, it’s fascinating to read how so many different composers reacted to this symphony.


He knew the symphony well and even copied out 29 bars from the score in one of his sketchbooks. The copied bars appear in sketches for Beethoven’s 5th symphony.


Schubert copied down the music of Mozart’s minuet and his 5th symphony uses a very similar idea.


He referred to the 2nd movement of the 40th symphony as a memorial to his long-dead friend in The Seasons in 1801.

1 thought on “1788: Mozart: Symphony No. 40 (GREAT G MINOR)

  1. It is a classic! When I turned 8, my mother gave me a present, an LP disk with the most popular music from Mozart and Beethoven. I heard this song so many times that I lost the count. I still enjoy listening to it.

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