1786: Mozart: Symphony No. 38 (PRAGUE) in D major

FRIDAY, November 13, 2020 – 5:33 AM

Symphony No. 38 (PRAGUE) in D major, age 30

Instrumentation:

  • 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons
  • 2 trumpets, 2 horns
  • timpani
  • strings

Manfred Honeck

My friend Louie introduced me to this marvelous hall in Prague with Honeck conducting, and I became an instant fan of the venue and the conductor

1st movement

The first movement begins with a slow introduction as with No. 36 (Linz) and No. 39, which has no nickname. I have to invent a nickname for No. 39, which is one of the finest symphonies ever written. The introduction is long and complicated, and I’m always trying to figure out who influenced whom. Slow intros became an integral part of the typical Haydn. Mozart seemed to have somehow made it more dramatic, and more personal, something Beethoven would continue. It’s very hard to tell the difference between personal expression and a safe formula that works, but Mozart and Beethoven to my ear personalized everything. Form to them was far more than form but rather something they used to express themselves more effectively, always in very individual ways. The intro is three minutes long, as long as most modern pop songs.

In fact, the whole first movement is exceptionally long for Mozart, longer than several of his symphonies. It’s important to me that he used the same instrumentation as that of Haydn’s 88th symphony, written the same year in the same key which you can here HERE. At times what these two men did was almost like a very friendly competition, as each tried to outdo the other. You have to believe both were huge fans of the work other, and it shows. Neither would have reach the same heights without that friendly competition. By this time it was pretty much Mozart and Haydn vying for 1st place, with just about everyone else coming in at about 100th place.

2nd movement

The second movement is again quite long and varied, and there are contrasts between major and minor. With each movement of each symphony I try to figure out what is unique, or at least special. My impression at this time is that Haydn’s average quality for his symphonies was higher. Even if he phoned it in sometimes, his craft and work ethic was so high that his “phoning in” was of a remarkable quality, while Mozart quite obviously composed sometimes nearly on autopilot, and the results were far below his best. Haydn to me had a better average. But the best of the best? I just have to give the edge to Mozart most of the time because of his inexpiable genius which raised him to such incredible heights when he was fully engaged. This movement is one of those times when his writing seems to have such effortless grace that you just sort of get lost in the music and wonder how he did it – which is a question millions of people ask themselves every day.

3rd movement

the flute is very important here, especially in the development section. This is one of the times Mozart gets closest to Beethoven’s style, which of course means that Beethoven channeled Mozart. Now, where is the minuet? Or the movement that is supposed to be here and that connects the slow movement with the last movement? Why did he omit it? A three movement symphony was actually more common earlier, but by this time a minuet was almost expected, so omitting one was at least unusual. Otherwise how does this compare with Haydn? Haydn was great at writing fast, toe-tapping final movements, and this sounds a lot like Haydn, but with Mozart’s typical musical laughter. One other curious thought. At times Mozart reminds me of Rossini, someone I want to continue to investigate, but this of course suggests that Rossini studied and loved the music of Mozart since he was born a year after Mozart died.

Why the “Prague” symphony?

It was  performed early in January of 1787 during Mozart’s first visit to Prague, thus the name. Mozart’s autograph states December 6, 1786, as the date of completion, which would mean that he wrote this about the time Haydn wrote his Paris Symphonies, but just a bit later. Two of those Paris Symphonies use the same orchestration.

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