Mozart Symphony no. 23 in D, K. 181

performed by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra under Josef Krips, or below with The Academy of Ancient Music under Christopher Hogwood

(cover image by Lucija Ros)

The 23rd symphony was written only a month or so later than the previous work. It was apparently dated May 19, 1773. The work is sometimes referred to as an ‘overture,’ even though the autograph score uses the term ‘sinfonia.’ This may well be due to the fact that the work, with three distinct sections we would usually call movements, is played entirely without pause, no ‘seams’ between the three sections, which are as follows:

  1. Allegro spiritoso
  2. Andantino grazioso
  3. Presto assai

The middle movement of the previous symphony, K. 162, was also marked andante grazioso. This work, without pauses, comes to right around ten minutes in duration.

As one unbroken piece of music in three sections, it does give a sort of impression of being an overture, but this is emphasized by the energy and drama of this compact, operatic piece, which does really have the spirit and stature of an overture.

It begins ebulliently, full of energy and excitement, immediately presenting the theatrics we may expect from a much larger work. It feels at first like it may not have the clearly delineated two subjects of a first movement, but it does give us some contrasting themes and what seems like maybe a sort of truncated sonata form. Really, though, it’s just vivid, exciting music. This first movement/section takes up solidly half of the work’s playing time, and cools off to bring us to the next section.

The second movement/section, with that familiar ‘grazioso’ marking, is what James Leonard calls a siciliano, and it features an oboe solo, and not a lot else but pretty strings. It’s like a symphonic aria, a brief little quiet corner before we get to the final, fast section.

We have a transition that’s far more abrupt than the cooling down we experienced between the previous two sections. Leonard tells us that this finale is a rondo, and in a very brief couple of minutes, the still-young Mozart is able to pack wildly contrasting, even more operatic passages into a very small little package, rounding out this symphony that really doesn’t differ all that much from its neighbors in the catalogue. I do wonder what the impetus, if any in particular, there was for writing this piece without pauses between movements. I think it’s a fitting approach to the stature of the piece, making it at once more compact but also feel larger than the sum of its three small parts.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that we’re going to be moving on to more Mozart this week, so stay tuned for that, and thanks so much for reading.


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