Mozart Symphony no. 29 in A, K. 201

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

(cover image by Dawid Zawila)

Did you expect anything else?

Mozart’s 29th symphony, in contrast with the previously numbered work, does have a date attached to it: April 6, 1774. Brian Robins makes an interesting point about this period, stating that since Mozart stayed in Salzburg for most of the year, there were no family letters documenting things the way they did when on the road.

Mozart at this time was also “now finally salaried as joint concertmaster (with Michael Haydn, brother of the more famous Joseph) at the Salzburg court.”

Notwithstanding its major key, Symphony No. 29 has many of the same serious and intense qualities as its immediate chronological predecessor, the Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K. 183, composed the previous fall.

That reminds us that there is a bit of confusion in the numbering… not confusion so much as mis-ordering. Put these two works (25 and 29) side by side and have a look at the maturing sense of drama and emotion in his writing.

The work is in four movements, as follows, with a duration of around 20ish minutes:

  1. Allegro moderato, 
  2. Andante in D major, 
  3. Menuetto: Allegretto — Trio (in E major),
  4. Allegro con spirito

The opening is a soft one that may strike you as very different indeed from what we’re used to hearing of Mozart. It’s a rare case in which the composer begins a symphony with a quiet opening, and this stylistic choice, as simple as it is, does seem immediately to indicate that something grander and deeper may be afoot. This first theme does grow to become more robust, but the second theme is a contrast only in a slightly more pronounced bounce, everything being mostly subtle and elegantly understated. The exposition is repeated and the development continues with the tremolos that we heard in both themes, but finally adds a splash of drama and excitement that gives this eight-minute first movement a fantastic sense of contrast that makes it seem really… grand. We cover much more territory here, like a major-key counterpart to the 25th. It’s not terribly long, but feels more substantial.

The second movement is described by Robins as having a “dignified eloquence,” with muted strings. I’m not suggesting that Mozart’s previous works were sub-par, but there’s a great sense of depth in this movement, that sense of elegance and majesty that marks, say, Schubert’s symphonies, and this may be one of the earliest Mozart symphonies from which Schubert would draw such a ‘spirituality,’ as Uchida refers to it in Beethoven’s work.

The minuet also features dotted rhythms, which Robins says gives this shortest movement of the work “rare energy,” which I think you’d normally take to mean that it’s exciting or lively, but perhaps only as compared to the previous movement. It’s a little bit more fully symphonic in scale than some of the other, daintier minuets, but it’s not really… exciting in any pulse-quickening sense at all, just a little more heavy-handed and dramatic, but with wonderful restraint.

The finale, though, in 6/8, is indeed pulse-quickening and exhilarating. Robins quotes Mozart biographer Alfred (not Albert) Einstein, who calls this finale “the richest and most dramatic Mozart had written up to this time.” Robins points out that he must have thought highly enough of the work himself to request that his father send it to him in Vienna, and we have documentation of such in January of 1783, nearly a decade after this work was completed, or around the time of symphonies numbered 35 and 36, and I’d say this work is one of the first that stands out as a mature work, or a late work, or whatever semantics you’d like to use.

With a composer who only wrote nine symphonies or something, it’s easy to see them as milestones in their career. We can take Beethoven’s entire oeuvre and use the nine symphonies as reference points; ditto for the case of Mahler, whose career was almost entirely symphonic. But if you had to draw a line in Mozart’s chronology for when he began writing mature symphonies, it would be somewhere around here. 25 was certainly a landmark, but with 28 and 29… we’re seeing not just the first sparks or flickers of greatness, but real flames.

One more symphony from Mozart awaits us, and I’m sure it, too, will be posted a little late, so bear with me, but then we move on to our last few Mozart pieces, in different forms, before rounding out the year with a few other familiar names. Stay tuned for that and thanks so much for reading.

2 thoughts on “Mozart Symphony no. 29 in A, K. 201

  1. What I love about that the first movement, in particular, is the clear delight the 18-year-old demonstrates in flexing his musical muscle: “You liked how easily I turned that innocent little opening theme into a two-part canon? Well, watch me turn it into a four-part canon in the coda!” Obviously, we’re still a long way from the almost casual contrapuntal genius of the Jupiter‘s finale, but the seeds of it are surely there for all to see…

    I’m sure you’ve already read what Tom Service has to say about this symphony, but here it is just in case you haven’t.

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