Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony Number 40 in G-Minor

What’s not to like?

Sorry, I don’t mean to be so cavalier, but Mozart’s music sometimes strikes me that way. It lilts along so effortlessly. You can imagine that that’s what’s playing right now on the 24-hour all hits classical music station in heaven. Again, no blasphemy intended there. I think back to the play, Amadeus in which Salieri transcribes Mozart’s Requiem. Salieri describes Mozart as almost channeling the music straight from God.

The Symphony Number 40 was another piece that the M*** family introduced me to in high school, and I became so smitten with it that I had to have a copy of it. They suggested one on the Deutsche Grammophon label, conducted by Karl Böhm. He and Von Karajan were the two heavies on that label during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Usually Karajan got the Beethoven and Böhm did the Mozart.

Mozart wrote this symphony along with the 39th and 41st during the summer of 1788, completing all three in a span of six weeks. The first movement contains a restless melody, which sounds a bit dark, perhaps because of the minor key. A lovely serenade graces the second movement, which retains some of the darkness of the first movement. The third starts out with more of the anguished feelings, but then a nice quiet uplifting melody, punctuated by the flutes and horns, takes over for a while. You think you’re home free for a while, but then the anguish of the beginning returns. The feeling of a storm or some great struggle starts off the finale, which is full of drama. It stops midway through, a little fugue then starts off which recaps the main theme, but then it leads to a full resolution. At the end, you have the feeling that you just went through some great emotional struggle, and though you came out alive, you bear a few scars for it.

Here’s the full thing with Harnancourt conducting, about twice as fast as Bohm.


About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

5 Responses to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony Number 40 in G-Minor

  1. Honestly, I hope there’s more than Mozart playing 24-7 in Heaven. If we all make it there, it would be nice not have just “nice” music around for all of Eternity!


  2. LaDona's Music Studio says:

    I’ve loved this since high school, too – where I was introduced to it by way of playing it in the high school band. I fear I messed up every oboe bit in the piece. The performance was likely a flop, but I trust I’m not the only one who ended up with a lifelong love for the symphony.


  3. G.H.Bone says:

    Thank you for another enjoyable post. I got to know those four late symphonies through the DG LPs conducted by Karl Böhm to which you refer. They are wonderful, though these days I do tend to prefer the more “historically informed” approach. That Harnoncourt performance that you link to is truly excellent. I couldn’t resist, though, sharing the views of Glenn Gould on the 40th Symphony. For me, Gould is one of the great musical figures of the 20th century, but, of course he was nothing if not – ahem – idiosyncratic. Mozart clearly rubbed him up the wrong way. In a conversation with Bruno Monsaingeon which was transcribed and included in the excellent “Glenn Gould Reader” (edited by Tim Page), Gould was asked about his early (childhood) encounters with the G-minor Symphony. Gould says “I’d already heard it and hated it … I certainly had no idea that at that time that it was an object of universal veneration. And the story has stayed with me because the G-minor Symphony best represents those qualities in Mozart that I find inexplicable … The loss is mine, I’m sure of it. But, for me, the G-minor Symphony consists of eight remarkable measures – the series of unaccompanied falling sixths immediately after the double bar in the finale, the spot where Mozart reaches out to greet the spirit of Anton Webern – surrounded by a half-hour of banality”.

    The passage to which Gould refers (i.e. the non-banal bit) can be heard from about 31:44 until about 31:53 in the full performance you link to above. It is extraordinary, and would have sounded even more extraordinary to audiences at the time (as opposed to us post-Webernians). It is probably the most extreme moment in the symphony, but there is no shortage of arresting, dramatic moments throughout the whole work. It astonishes me that Gould felt unable or unwilling to acknowledge that. But he was a true genius, so I’ll have to forgive him.


    • kurtnemes says:

      Thanks for your insights, and for pointing out the passage at 31:44. Here’s the full performance with Harnancourt conducting. I hadn’t paid attention to that little interlude and my gosh, it’s extraordinary. Sent chills down my spine. It’s nice that Gould noticed it and you brought it to my attention. There must be a little genius in you, too? best


      • G.H.Bone says:

        Thank you Mr N for your response. I suppose that it’s ironic that Gould should draw attention to that most extraordinary moment in no 40 (in an 18th century symphony, by all that’s holy!) and highlight for us all what a genius Mozart was, when the main point that he was making was that he considered the work to be “a half hour of banality”!

        By the way, if you’re able to bear it, you might like to listen to Gould’s performance of the Rondo Alla Turca. He manages, miraculously, to make it sound simultaneously bland and grotesque.

        As I said, I revere Gould, but clearly he and Wolfgang did not hit it off!


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