Of Mozart's three final symphonies (Nos.39-41), all written in the matter of weeks during the summer of 1788, the Symphony No.39 in E flat major, K543 has always had something of a Cinderella status. I've never understood why. I love it.
The moody grandeur of its slow introduction might lead you to expect a solemn work. Stern fanfare-like figures (in block chords), marked by a dotted rhythm which comes to dominate this Adagio section, ring out answered by rapidly-falling scales. Pounding drums add to the powerful effect of this darkly sonorous canvas. High violins respond with a fragile-sounding plea, but the dotted rhythm re-enters as an ostinato as the woodwinds lead the music through various harmonies, soon beating out the rhythm even louder. A sharp dissonance (C against D flat) sounds out at the passage's glowering climax before the introduction enters a mysterious and chromatic phase (cast in canon) - remarkably forward-looking harmonies for their time. What are we hearing here? The Stone Guest summoning Don Giovanni to Hell? The composer summoning us to a symphony of storm and stress? Ah, no. The Allegro section begins. First violins, echoed by horns, announce the main theme. Its first three notes rise through the tonic triad, just as Johann Strauss's Blue Danube does. We can relax. This is going to be a heavenly symphony, not a hellish one. That theme is a first-rate one. Mozart immediately repeats it, with subtle alterations. A strong clarion-like tutti with a virile run-on for the strings begins the transition to the dominant - a transition achieved through the working-out of a sequence. This sequential passage is to be important in the coming development section. Do you recognise its ingredients? They are the dotted rhythm and rapidly-falling scales of the slow introduction. The second subject group begins with a somewhat mysterious floating theme, partly expressed by the strings and partly by the woodwinds, before blossoming lyrically and beautifully. An exciting closing passage leads to the repeat of the exposition and then to the short development section. This, as mentioned earlier, works on the sequential figure of the transition (and the introduction), though it seems most intent on working on material from the second subject group. The recapitulation runs true, so to speak, and there's a short, vibrant coda to finish.
The main theme of the second movement Andante is given to the strings and is a dialogue between two short dotted phrases. Mozart initially presents it simply, almost coyly, but it grows in warmth and subtlety as the movement proceeds, becoming especially beautiful in the second half. Though beginning serenely, it turns to the minor and is disturbed by a passage of storm and stress, heralded by two bars for winds. These two bars also form the basis for the movement's most magical passage as a drone effect is established and the woodwinds develop their little idea into something contrapuntal and very, very special. (You'll recognise the phrase by the repeating notes at its start). The main theme then returns with some lovely new counter-melodies, as if lovely new shoots are emerging from the stem of a flower. There are also some remarkable modulations here, especially when the storm and stress passage re-appears. The very, very special idea is recalled before the movement sings itself to a close with the final return of the main theme on strings. What a movement!
The grandly aristocratic Minuet begins forte with its main theme - a big swinging tune that quickly lodges itself the memory and the affections. The trio section is a rustic ländler with a tune for the clarinet, accompanied by the babbling of another clarinet (playing in its low chalumeau register). Touches of flute and horn sonority add to the genial delightfulness of this irresistible folk-like passage - music which doesn't seem a million miles away from Stravinsky's Shrovetide Fair. The rhythm seems decidedly waltz-like to our ears. As we know, the waltz (in part) grew out of the ländler.
The Finale is a sonata form allegro. The spirit of Haydn seems closest here. Its theme is a cheerful one, introduced by the first violins with only the second violins for accompaniment at the beginning. This theme dominates the movement, which is why is can be called 'monothematic'. An exciting transition hurries us on and drops us at the second subject - a variant of the first, also played by the first violins, though with delightful replies from the woodwind. A lively codetta, ending with more workings on the main theme leads to the exposition repeat and then the development section - a dramatic section notable for some striking modulations and a delicious bassoon-led transition to the recapitulation (to which the bassoon adds counter-melodies). The coda isn't really a coda, merely an extension of the codetta of the exposition, but it brings this great symphony to a vigorous close. You are likely to hear both the development and recapitulation sections repeated, as the composer recommended. A good idea in my books too.
It's astonishing to think that this symphony, along with Symphonies No. 40 an 41 were all written within the space of just seven weeks and three days. Mozart was clearly on fire!