Mozart Symphony no. 26 in E flat, K. 184

performed by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under Sir Neville Marriner, or below by The Academy of Ancient Music under Christopher Hogwood

(cover image by Neven Krcmarek)

We’re already at symphony no. 26, and have another nine to discuss before we’re even caught up with the 11th piano concerto we discussed earlier this year. That’s a lot of symphonies.

I’m not entirely sure why this piece gets the catalogue number of 184 if it was completed in March of 1773, earlier than the previous few symphonies, but they’re all really from the same year. My suspicion is that maybe there was some revising done, or something similar, but no. 27 (which we’ll get too much sooner than later) dates from April of ’73. We’ll stick to the catalogue ordering, I guess.

Like most of the symphonies of this time, with the obvious exception of the 25th, this work is in three movements, and has a duration of around eight minutes:

  1. Molto presto
  2. Andante
  3. Allegro

One thing that does stand out in this work is that it’s scored for a larger orchestra than the others, with pairs of flutes, oboes bassoons, horns, and trumpets, in addition to strings. That may not seem terribly extravagant now, but it’s around double the wind forces of some of the previous symphonies, which may have only had oboes (doubling flutes), and horns.

So it turns out the 23rd symphony wasn’t the only one to get the stick-’em-together treatment. This symphony appears on at least one album as a single track instead of three separate movements.

It’s punchy and crisp from the beginning, lean and energetic, with a second subject that features first violins with the main idea while the seconds sort of flutter in the background. Don’t blink or you’ll miss the development, but with a symphony that’s done and dusted in just barely over 8 minutes, we can’t expect much, can we? Just to have these two pleasant musical ideas, as refreshing and simple as they are, is more than enough.

There’s no gap between movements, remember, but we move to C minor by way of a quick little change of direction, and we’re in the central andante. You may expect a piano to enter and serenade us with a melancholy tune, but there’s no time for that. Also this is a symphony, not a piano concerto, but this gets at that iconic, poetic almost spiritual Mozart magic. Pay attention… well, back in the first movement, but also here, how Mozart makes use of the winds. It’s nothing extravagant, of course, but they give some additional color in effective and sometimes very subtle ways. The climax of the movement, before we return to opening material, is especially poignant.

But that climax doesn’t lead us out of this minor-key despair, and as brief as this symphony is, and knowing that it doesn’t end with a full cadence and the flipping of pages for the finale, you may begin to wonder how on earth Mozart is going to get us from C minor to E flat major in such a…

… and suddenly we’re there. This is the musical equivalent of a jump cut, and the exhilarating opening theme of this very brief finale is like diving into a chilly, refreshing pool on a hot day. It’s playful, but also dramatic, serious, until the contrasting themes of this ‘tripartite’ movement appear. I am again greatly impressed with what we’re able to see packed into such small quarters; you can’t come in expecting anything grandiose or of any kind of breadth, but it is exciting beauty in a very small little package.

I just love that finale. The first movement is great, but we really feel something in the second movement, and the outburst of the finale, as silly as it may seem to compare this to something of such grandness, reminds me of just the slimmest inkling of the triumphant joy we get when we finally reach the finale of Beethoven’s fifth. Same feeling, different scale.

If you thought we were done with Mozart at this point, think again. We’ve got another month of Mozart (which could really be a thing every December for at least the next few years, I bet, especially if we threw in all the unnumbered symphonies and the juvenile violin/keyboard sonatas) on the way, but it’s just such good music, no matter how it pales in comparison with what he did even just a few years later. Stay tuned for all of that and thank you so much for reading.

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