1778: Mozart: The Symphony No. 31 (Paris) in D major K. 297/300a, age 22
Officially there are 41 symphonies by number, but Mozart did not write that many. There are exactly 10 that he wrote from the age of 22 to his death at only age 35. This is the first of his “adult symphonies”, and there are exactly 10. Mo. 37 was written by Michael Haydn and should never have been numbered.
- I. Allegro assai, D major: it is one of the most spectacular sounds Mozart ever made from an orchestra. He could use clarinets for the first time in a symphony, having heard the new instrument for the first time in Mannheim. He also used timpani. He used all the woodwinds available in that time, so this is far and away the biggest orchestra Mozart had used in a symphony. The opening is huge ascending D najor scale, and the whole movement swaggers.
- II. Andantino, G major: This is just one of the two versions of the slow movement. No one knows which one was written first, and no one knows for sure which one Mozart ultimately preferred.
- III. Allegro, D major: First of all, this starts lightly, in an almost sneaky way, then suddenly it erupts with an explosion of sound. There is fantastic fugue-like part in the central section, and whenever Mozart started writing complicated counterpoint he was getting really serious about pleasing himself. This would have gone over the heads of the “idiots” in his French audience. and would have challenged the players to the max.
This is the alternate 2nd movement that is also played today:
- Alternate II. Andante, G major: I have absolutely no preference at this time. I find both versions equally graceful, though why anyone would have thought either version was too complicated for Parisian audiences of the time is absolutely weird. This version is in 6/8 time.
This symphony is notable for having an unusually large instrumentation for its time, made possible by the large orchestra available to Mozart during his time in Paris.
2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets in A, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.
It was Mozart’s first symphony to use clarinets.
22 string players:
This is not large today, but at that time it was a huge number. At the premiere there were 22 violins, five violas, eight cellos, and five basses.
to judge by the Parisian symphonies he had seen, the French must like noisy symphonies.”
The work was composed in 1778 during Mozart’s unsuccessful job-hunting sojourn in Paris. The composer was then 22 years old.
Paris, spring 1778…
The 22-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was in the city with his mother. The director of the public concerts series Concert Spirituel, Joseph Legros, asked Mozart to write a new symphony. The public did not yet know him as a fully mature musician because it remembered him as an infant prodigy on his family’s lengthy tour of Europe. He and his sister were once displayed in front of Europe’s aristocrats like trained monkeys.
The father, Leopold, wasn’t with his family…
He stayed at home in Salzburg to appease their employer, Count Colloredo, another reminder of the fact that composers were treated as no more than servants. It was a disgusting time to be an artist, and I never stop being amazed at the miraculous music these geniuses created in such horrible circumstances.
Mozart’s mother was very sick…
She died on July 3, 1778, very soon after the premiere of this new s31st symphony. In fact, her “early” sudden death at age 57 means that she lived longer than Beethoven and 22 years longer than her son, who would be dead at age 35.
He did not like the French…
He played through his new symphony in private to two friends before the premiere, and wrote to his father:
“They both liked it very much. I too am very pleased with it. But whether other people will like it I do not know … I can vouch for the few intelligent French people who may be there; as for the stupid ones – I see no great harm if they don’t like it.”
In other words, he thought most of the people were at the least musically stupid, and he was trying to figure out how to please all the ignorant people who attended concerts.
More about “the idiots”…
“But I hope that even these idiots will find something in it to like; and I’ve taken care not to overlook the ‘premier’coup d’archet’ [A fancy term that simply means all the instruments playing together at the start of a symphony, one of the contemporary fashions of the Concert Spirituel.] … What a fuss these boors make of this! What the devil! – I can’t see any difference – they all begin together – just as they do elsewhere. It’s a joke.”
In the first performance on 18 June (after a dress rehearsal that appalled Mozart with the (s)crappiness of the orchestra, he wrote:
“I’ve never heard worse playing in my life!”
He almost decided not to even to turn up for the concert – though it is likely that in subsequent performances the playing improved greatly.
Always keeping his audience in mind…
Mozart knew his audience’s expectations and he paid careful attention to their reactions to achieve the biggest possible effect in Paris. This is important because our view of “classical music” today assumes that all this music was very sophisticated, written for incredibly sophisticated people. In fact, Mozart was doing exactly what pop musicians do today, trying to please himself while also making big hits and making a living.
The symphony was very popular….
There were s several further performances at the Concert Spirituel during 1779, on 18 and 23 March, 23 May, and 3 June; and on 14 May 1780. It was published in Paris by Sieber and announced for sale 20 February 1779. During the years 1782 to 1788, Sieber’s catalog described it as “in the repertoire of the Concert Spirituel”.
The symphony was later performed in the Burgtheater in Vienna on 11 March 1783 during a benefit concert for Mozart’s sister-in-law, the singer Aloysia Weber.
This journey to Paris killed his mother…
In March 1778 Mozart traveled to Paris with his mother to find lucrative employment for himself. This dream was not to come true. His greatest success of this period of time was the Paris Symphony. By the summer his mother was dead, and this period of his life soon became agonizingly painful. Today we do not realize how fast young men had to grow up, and why they matured. We forget how much tragedy was in their lives by age 30, and this does not even get into how many of these young geniuses were dead by age 40.
The Parisian style…
Mozart adhered to the prevalent Parisian style, featuring timpani, trumpets and – a first for Mozart – clarinets. However, do not conclude that Mozart used these instruments only because of where he was. He would use all of them for the rest of his life. They were additional orchestral toys to play with, and composers love musical toys.
Two slow movements…
Legros was very pleased by this Mozart symphony, however, he asked the composer to change the second movement – he thought it was too complicated for the audience. Mozart complied – something very unusual for him – so we might assume that Mozart was very concerned about remaining in Legros’s favor. However, it could very well be that Mozart himself was not totally pleased with his 2nd movement and also saw an advantage in rewriting it.
So – did he just try to please his employer? Or did he please himself? Perhaps both.
The two versions – the original and the altered one – have survived, so the choice of which to perform is always up to the conductor. I like them both and wish there were some way to always include both in performances. Either is fine in its own right, and one of the great tragedies of symphonic writing is that we don’t get to hear single movements very often.