“Prague” Symphony

By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Arranged by 1787

In the 1780’s, Mozart’s fame was, amazingly, already fading in Vienna; but in Prague, then capital of Bohemia, Mozart was celebrated as a rock star would be today. He made a triumphant four-week trip in January of 1787, to be present at, and later conduct, performances of The Marriage of Figaro and also to perform on keyboard and conduct a symphonic concert, as well as generally just to be the toast of Prague.

So popular was Figaro that Mozart remarked in a letter that its melodies were all one heard played, even by the street musicians around Prague. Later that year, Mozart would undertake to write the opera Don Giovanni for production in the city, and his last opera, La Clemenza di Tito, would also be written for Prague.

The Symphony No. 38 has magic in every measure. His ability to retain both an overwhelming expression of his personality, plus classical stylistic grace, within a technique which allowed him to survey and synthesize influences even from different style periods, is nearly incomprehensible. In the Prague symphony, one can hear so many facets of Mozart’s musical expression and genius: total command of the symphonic style, elements of lyric and comic opera and vocally-influenced writing, a complete mastery of counterpoint, and on and on even a foreshadowing of the chromatic evolution of harmony.

The slow introduction of the first movement recalls Haydn-esque majestic treatment, but has also a developmental quality reminiscent of Mozart’s keyboard fantasias. The string color of the allegro reminds one of the opening of the beautiful symphony no. 29, but is suddenly interrupted by a spirited outdoor wind band playing a little fanfare reminiscent of “non piu andrai” from Figaro. The beautiful second movement has been said by one writer to have inspired the slow movement of Schubert’s first symphony, performed by the Broadway Bach Ensemble last year.

Unlike the late Haydn symphonies, Mozart’s Symphony No. 38 is only in three movements, as was early practice for Mozart and apparently still fashionable in Prague. Mozart’s last five symphonies are often grouped together and lauded as achieving new depth and accomplishment in the symphonic form. The wind instrument playing in Vienna at the time was said to be particularly advanced, and one can hear this in demanding passages and in the complex scoring of the symphony.

Zaslaw claims that symphonies had taken on a more serious role, that they were “expected to exhibit artistic depth rather than serving merely as elaborate fanfares to open and close concerts.” What reaches us so powerfully in the music of Mozart is perhaps his direct and disarming humanity: like many of the great ones, he had to deal with making money and relatives and on and on.

Nonetheless, his great accomplishments and proclivities in symphonic writing didn’t save him from some blunt fatherly advice. Leopold warned Wolfgang about writing at too difficult a level for orchestras. The “Father Knows Best” of his time told the composer that bad performances might result. “…for I know your style of composition — it requires unusually close attention from the players of every type of instrument; and to keep the whole orchestra at such a pitch of industry and alertness for three hours is no joke.” Well, dads will be dads, and what concerned Leopold just happens to be our delight.