performed by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under Sir Neville Marriner, or below by the Concentus Musicus Wien under Nikolaus Harnoncourt
(cover image by Simon Matzinger)
This is the one, already more than halfway through Mozart’s numbered symphonies, and is the first, I think, that many people recognize or count as one of his first great achievements. It’s one of two G minor symphonies the composer wrote, the other being no. 40, so this one sometimes gets the title of ‘the little Gm symphony’ even though ever since the movie came out, it could probably be called the ‘Amadeus symphony,’ even if only the first movement was used.
The work dates from October 1773, according to some sources (apparently unsubstantiated) only mere days after the 24th was finished. The work, excitingly for the time, has pairs of oboes and bassoons, four horns, and strings. The work is in four movements, as follows, with a duration of around 20 minutes:
- Allegro con brio
- Menuetto and trio
Because so many people (maybe?) are familiar with this first movement from the movie, I’ll focus in this article primarily on the first movement. Hopefully those of you who’ve committed it to memory but haven’t given its actual structure much thought will be interested to open the hood and take a little look around.
I’ll spare you my regular lecture on why tension and release are so important in a piece of music, but it’s common that a first movement be presented in sonata form, where the exposition, or first section of a piece is made up of two contrasting themes, like the main characters of the movement. This section is usually played twice before we get to the development, where these two ideas battle it out, are broken down, de- and reconstructed, and come back together, in the same form or a new one, for their reappearance in the closing of the movement. That’s the basic idea. You can do more reading on sonata form elsewhere.
There are a few things that make this first movement so exciting, and give it the sort of propulsive energy that we associate with the opening of the film, and they’re actually qualities that were common to the ‘Sturm und Drang’ (Storm and Drive) phase of music, which is marked by overt drama and theatrics, extremes of contrast and a general move toward what the Romantic era would become.
First, there’s syncopation from the beginning violin line, where the accent is on the offbeats of the first four measures. It sounds aggressive, angular, even to modern ears. The next thing is that there are large leaps next to small intervals, which is another form of contrast. The pitches of the second and third bars are a half step apart (D to E flat), but then from E flat in the third bar, we take a plunge nearly an octave down to F sharp. And this is all before that famous melody begins! Pay attention to the contour, though, of these four pitches that make up the opening, but not the rhythm. We’ll listen for an oboe shortly.
Well, I guess we can listen for an oboe now. The strings echo, in a quieter, inside voice, the same four-bar syncopated line from the opening, and the oboe traces out the same four pitches, but in whole notes, first over the strings, and then again by itself. This is an example of a ‘theme,’ an idea that can change a bit, but still retains certain qualities.
Once the oboe is done with its little aria, the strings return with what is clearly an entirely different mood. This is the major key! It’s still got a bit of the excitement and drive from the opening, but the clouds have cleared. We dip ever so briefly into the minor key before moving to the second part of this contrasting theme, that is far less explosive, and more lyrical, and there you have it, our two (or three) main sections of the introduction.
Now listen for that opening to reappear, because, like we said, this exposition is almost always repeated. This repetition emphasizes what exactly we’ll be hearing in the development, so we go back to the drama of G minor and start the whole process over again. Thankfully, it’s exciting.
See what you can hear in the development, after we’ve played through these A and B sections the second time, that is familiar. Anything? What you will notice, that does occasionally happen, is that there’s some entirely new material here, later in the development, that wasn’t in the exposition at all, but that’s okay. It’s also good stuff.
Pay more attention, though, to when the original two themes return: the first is unchanged. Below is the return to the first theme, in G minor:
It should be identifiable as the same thing, right? It’s returned, and this section is called the recapitulation. But what’s changed? Well, notably the second theme. Remember how before it was exuberant and bright when it appeared? Now listen to it:
That’s a few seconds before it appears, at the tail end of the same oboe solo we heard in the beginning. What erupts after it is clearly not sunny and exuberant. Why?
It’s the same musical idea, but instead of moving to the relative major key, Mozart decides to stay in G minor, so what was bright and refreshing before is now identifiably similar but dark and stormy. This is also the case with the second part of this section, as follows:
It was rounder and softer before, and it’s both of those things now, but in the minor key, it’s also darker and more tragic, and it’s in this mood that Mozart decides to end the movement. (If you’re really paying attention, you may notice that Harnoncourt’s recording is longer than Marriner and some others, and it’s because he plays this recapitulation section twice, so it’s repeated like the exposition was, but Marriner doesn’t. Instead, he goes through it once and then right to the coda, so it’s a couple minutes shorter.)
Now let’s blaze through the remaining three movements of this work… but don’t you see how effective that structure is, juxtaposition and transformation of ideas? It’s brilliant.
The second movement is much more polite and quiet. Phillip Huscher tells us that it is “the only movement in the symphony that does not begin with jagged octaves.” It’s made up mostly of a call-and-answer starting with muted violins, responses from bassoon. This juxtaposition itself, not within the movement, but with what comes before and after, is also quite strong. Its part in the symphony is more than just listening to the work by itself, if that makes sense. It serves a purpose in the greater whole.
The following minuet is anything but polite, and is the closest thing to an actual scherzo that we’ve heard from Mozart so far. It’s clearly a minuet-ish tempo, but is heavy and dark. The trio features beautiful woodwind writing and at least for that reason, if not others, it feels like it’s a remove from the rest of the movement, if not from the entire symphony. The major key helps, but the minuet theme quickly returns.
The finale reminds us so effectively of the syncopated, angular content from the opening movement. This opening is the first of two subjects in the sonata form movement. Section XI of this document by Cory Howell (an analysis I referenced for preparing to write this article, and one I would recommend if you really want to understand the nitty gritty details of this piece) states that “This movement is the most adventurous in the symphony in how it obscures the ends of periods by avoiding clear cadences.” He gives examples, but this detail well illustrates how you may not notice something until it’s mentioned to you, no matter how well you listen.
In much of Mozart’s music, and of the period in general, music comes in sections, or periods, usually of eight bars, and you can hear this in the phrasing, that it seems like a sentence has ended and another begins, even if it’s still sort of the same thought. Here, though, as you’ll notice, the movement unravels and expands, even in this six-minute movement, so that it feels like it doesn’t have the ‘seams’ you maybe didn’t know were there in many cases. Mozart also handles the development differently, with less direct repeats or quotations than the opening movement, as you may notice.
So this is a much longer article than most of my others on Mozart, but I feel it’s merited if that now-iconic pop culture–esque first movement helps anyone to understand even a little bit of how musical structure generates interest and excitement in a piece of music. That’s more than enough for today, though. Stay tuned for yet another symphony tomorrow, and thanks so much for reading.