Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Symphony No. 40

Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method

Duration: About 25 Minutes
Genre: Symphony
Time of Creation: July 1788
World Premiere: exact date unknown, but quite certainly during Mozart’s lifetime

Table of Contents

Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in 5 Sentences

Mozart wrote his Symphony No. 40 “in one go” within a few weeks together with his Symphonies No. 39 and 41, thus the Symphonies No. 39 to 41 form the “trilogy” of Mozart’s last symphonies (similar to Beethoven’s “three last piano sonatas”). A performance of Symphony No. 40 is said to have taken place during Mozart’s lifetime, but was so wrecked by the musicians involved that Mozart is said to have preferred to leave the room 😊 Following this catastrophic performance, a second version was written in which Mozart added two clarinets, possibly suggesting a Viennese performance of the work conducted by Antonio Salieri. Mozart’s penultimate symphony remains one of his most frequently performed works to this day and was extremely popular shortly after Mozart’s death, but it is interesting to note that aesthetic judgments varied: While Robert Schumann, for example, spoke of “Greek floating grace,” other people saw similarities to Italian opera buffa (Rossini) or described the work as tragic, sad and plaintive.

Note: This work belongs to the Classical Music Top 100.

4 Highlights from Mozart's Symphony No. 40

Highlight 1: Main theme of the first movement – Mozart speaks

In Mozart’s day, music was much closer to spoken language; by this I mean that there was a certain musical “vocabulary” that made it possible to hear music much like a good conversation.

In the (extremely famous) main theme of his Symphony No. 40, Mozart combines two „words“ from the musical „vocabulary“: The small downward step with which the melody begins is a “sigh.” And the large upward leap at the end of the first phrase stands for great emotional excitement (this also can be heard, for example, in Tamino‘s aria in The Magic Flute):

Highlight 2: the contrast key breaks in

The so-called contrast key comes “too early” in the first movement (in the video at 0:55), it breaks in abruptly and loudly (in forte). It would go too far at this point to explain the complete concept of main and contrast keys (I will do that in a later post). The important thing is that this effect is surprising. By the way, as a conductor you can completely ruin the surprise effect by making a crescendo before the break-in, i.e. by encouraging to play louder (fortunately Orozco-Estrada does not do this in this recording 😉):

Highlight 3: a limping minuet

The third movement is a minuet, but it might be extremely difficult to dance to. This is due to the fact that Mozart uses the usual minuet time signature (3/4), but melodically superimposes another time signature (2/4) “virtually”, so to speak. The tension of the entire movement is formed from this discrepancy between the time signatures:

Highlight 4: Mannheim rocket

The last movement of Mozart’s 40th Symphony begins with a rapid ascending sequence of notes. This is a so-called “Mannheim rocket” 😊 Don’t laugh, it’s really called that!

In the 18th century, the Mannheim court musicians were famous for their great musical quality. Where great musicians work, a unique musical style often develops, and that’s exactly how it was in Mannheim. A famous aspect of the Mannheim style was to begin a musical work with a rapid ascending sequence of notes, which acts as an initial spark and sets the whole event in motion. The Mannheim rocket, in other words. By the way, the funny name goes back to the German music theorist Hugo Riemann (to whom I dedicated a Mini-Experience in the autumn of 2022).

3 Questions and Answers about Mozart's Symphony No. 40

Question 1: Are there any similarities between Mozart's 40th Symphony and other works?

Mozart’s 40th Symphony was among his most performed works shortly after Mozart’s death and was accordingly well known. Perhaps that is why there are several works in which at least the suspicion arises that Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 is being quoted. Such passages exist, for example, in Haydn’s oratorio “The Seasons” as well as in Schubert’s 5th Symphony.

Question 2: Was Mozart's Symphony No. 40 also used in other contexts?

Because Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 is so popular and well-known, it has been taken up in many other contexts. For example, there are numerous arrangements of the work in other musical genres, such as by Waldo de los Rios (whose single even made it into the Top 10 of the German charts) or by the Mozart Heroes. Even a widely used cell phone ringtone was based on Mozart’s Symphony No. 40.

Question 3: How many symphonies are there by Mozart?

In today’s standard concert industry, there are 41 symphonies by Mozart. However, Mozart worked on over 60 symphonies in total, though not all of them were completed.

2 Recommended Recordings of Mozart's Symphony No. 40

Recording 1: hr-Sinfonieorchester, Andrés Orozco-Estrada (live, 2020)

A high quality recording comes from the hr-Sinfonieorchester conducted by Andrés Orozco-Estrada:

Recording 2: NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra, Günter Wand

The way of playing Mozart has been subject to some changes in the past decades. Veeeery briefly summarized, one could say that the desired sound has evolved from “juicy” to “metallic”. If you want to hear the “juicy” Mozart sound, it is best to reach for conductors of the old school – Günter Wand was one such:

1 Quote about Mozart's Symphony No. 40

The concert opened with Mozart's magnificent symphony in G minor, this immortal work of the great composer, which combines the highest sublimity with the greatest beauty, and yet never digresses into the wild. It is a colossal picture, but of the most beautiful proportions; a Jupiter of Phidias, which inspires awe and love at the same time.

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