Monday, January 11, 2016

Mozart in Prague: His Symphony No. 38

This weekend is the first Masterworks Concert of the New Year with a program featuring a salute to friendship (wrapped in an enigma) by the English composer, Sir Edward Elgar, the violin concerto by the Russian composer, Alexander Glazunov, with our soloist, our own concertmaster Peter Sirotin, and the symphony Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart presumably composed for his visit to Prague which is why it's always called... the "Prague" Symphony.

While I'll introduce you to Elgar's “Enigma Variations” and the Glazunov Concerto in later posts, this one is about Mozart's Symphony in D Major, which is numbered 38 out of his 41 symphonies and listed in the botanist-turned-musicologist Ludwig K√∂chel's catalog as K.504.

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Mozart, an idealized portrait
Mozart's Symphony No. 38 (the “Prague”) is in the celebratory key of D Major (most often used because it's a good key for trumpets and drums) but it has only three movements – a grand first movement with an imposing slow introduction (one of Mozart's grandest introductions); a slow movement; and a lively finale – no minuet. This three-movement approach was the standard symphonic form before composers later added a minuet before the finale. And while Mozart usually wrote four-movement symphonies later in his career, for some reason for this one, he did not.

Here's a performance with the Czech Philharmonic conducted by Manfred Honeck in the Estates Theatre of Prague, a building that opened in 1783, four years before Mozart's visit when this symphony was premiered.

One source says the symphony was premiered in the National Theater but the building now known as the National Theater wasn't built until 1844. However, the Estates Theater was later "absorbed" into the National Theater, though it is a separate building. We know Don Giovanni was premiered in this theater so it would be a safe guess this is the very space where, 229 years ago on January 19th, 1787, the world first heard this music.

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While there are a lot of “what if”s in life – “what if I'd taken that job instead?” or “what if I'd married So-and-so?” in a world full of possible parallel universes – classical music lovers often play the game with Mozart: for instance, “what if he hadn't died at the age of 35?”

a more realistic portrait, c.1790
What would classical music be like if Mozart could have been alive when Beethoven died? Beethoven was 56 (young enough) but Mozart would've only been 71 – Haydn, after all, had died when he was 77. If Beethoven had lived to be 77, he would've died in 1847, the year before Wagner began composing Lohengrin... and the game goes on.

So, consider this: first of all, Mozart's “Prague” Symphony wasn't written for Prague. Yes, it was first performed there and the good music lovers of Prague loved it and so it's always been known as “The Prague Symphony.”

Mozart completed his new Symphony in D Major – and duly entered it into his catalogue – on December 6th, 1786. It was premiered in Prague at the National Theater on January 19th, 1787. So the assumption could easily be made it was written in preparation for his visit there. The city was “awash in Figaro Fever” where, as the delighted composer wrote to a friend in Vienna, “Nothing is played, sung, or whistled but Figaro. No opera is drawing [audiences] like Figaro. Nothing, nothing but Figaro. Certainly a great honor for me.”

The Marriage of Figaro had been premiered in Vienna and was successful enough (several encores extended the length of this already long opera to the point the Emperor decreed “no piece for more than a single voice is to be repeated”) but after only 9 or 10 performances, not nearly the financial success Mozart had been hoping for. He earned 450 florins directly from the first production of the opera. How much is that in modern money? I'm not sure how “computable” that is, but read on...

Having spent most of the first half of 1786 – he had just turned 30 – writing Figaro, he now needed to make some money. The previous year he'd earned a total of almost 3,000 florins, half of it from “subscription concerts” and “academies” (in the days before public concerts as we know them, artists gave special single concerts for which tickets were sold or “subscribed;” academies were essentially benefit concerts or “galas” as we might call them today).

According to a letter written on November 17th from Mozart's father Leopold to Mozart's sister Maria Anna (known forever by her family nickname, “Nannerl”), Mozart was trying to make arrangements for a tour of Germany and/or England. But, more critically, Leopold was afraid Mozart and his unwelcome wife would dump their children off with him before leaving and never come back. In fact, Mozart was considering the possibility, if London proved lucrative and since his fame in Vienna was apparently playing itself out, he might indeed stay there (but wouldn't he then send for his children?).

(Incidentally, this letter of Leopold's was written before he'd receive the news that on the 15th, Mozart's third child, Johann Thomas Leopold, not yet a month old, had died of suffocation in his sleep.)

Plans were beginning to develop for a “Lenten Tour” when news arrived from Prague about the success of Figaro in early December. It was said the production was far superior to the one seen in Vienna and that, directly and indirectly, invitations were being issued to the composer to come see it for himself.

This performance was reviewed on December 12th, 1786, which also included rumors that “Mozart himself might come here in person.”

Six days earlier, Mozart had completed a Symphony in D Major – the one we know as the “Prague” Symphony – so it was hardly likely he would have written a symphony like this, a substantial work, when the likelihood of such a visit was not yet in the planning stages. Besides, he completed it on the 6th of December - we have no idea when he started composing it.

On the other hand, if not for Prague, why had he written it?

Since Vienna was not a city interested in symphonies – “too intellectual” for their tastes, at the time – Mozart wrote only six symphonies between his arrival in the Imperial Capital in 1781 and his death ten years later. Of those, the “Haffner” was written for friends in Salzburg, the “Linz” was written during a visit to that city on his way to visit family in Salzburg, and the last three... well, no one knows why he wrote those last three masterpieces which were apparently composed with no immediate performance in mind, but they remain three of the most perfect works in the 18th Century symphonic repertoire.

That leaves the “Prague” Symphony.

More likely is the chance it was written with the possibility of this English tour he was trying to arrange. After all, earlier in 1786, friends of his – the singer Nancy Storace (the original Susanna in Figaro) and his composition student Thomas Attwood, a protege of the Prince of Wales, the future King George IV – were lobbying to have Mozart invited to London for a series of concerts there. Subsequent visits to Vienna by the impresario Johann Peter Salomon ended up with further discussions being postponed for lack of time (by then, Mozart was busier) and so Salomon “fetched” Haydn instead. The argument has been made that, after all, Mozart was in his mid-30s and Haydn, always seemingly the Grand Old Man of Music, was already in his late-50s.

Now consider – speaking of “what if” – that the “Prague” Symphony might really have been the first of maybe a dozen new symphonies written for London as Haydn would produce for his two visits between 1790 and 1795?

But Mozart died in 1791, when Haydn was in London in the midst of his first triumphant season.


So, on December 6th, 1786, Mozart completes a new symphony. By the 12th, there are rumors he might go to Prague, the capitol of Bohemia and the second largest city in the empire.

Following an invitation duly extended “by the orchestra and a company of distinguished connoisseurs and music-lovers” (note the distinction), Mozart and his entourage – he and his wife Constanze, a servant, his future brother-in-law, a violinist named Franz de Paula Hofer, and a 13-year-old violin prodigy named Marianne Crux – arrive in Prague on January 11th, 1787, and are lodged at the palace of Count Thun who, at 75, happened to be the patriarch of one of the nobler families of the Empire and who, while staying at his palace in Linz had asked Mozart to write him a symphony (not having brought anything with him, he composed his “Linz” Symphony in only a few days). This time, perhaps, Mozart comes prepared with his latest symphony packed in his luggage.

On January 12th, Mozart played one of his piano quartets for Count Thun; on the 17th, he attended a performance of Figaro and on the 19th there was a special “academy” (a benefit concert where he would receive the proceeds from ticket sales) at the National Theater (more likely the “Estates Theater” - see above) where Mozart premiered this new symphony and then, for an additional half-hour, played three improvisations at the keyboard. On the 22nd, then, he conducted a performance of Figaro.

Around February 8th, the Mozart entourage departs Prague for Vienna after it had been reported in the press Mozart “is preparing to travel to London in the coming spring, having the most advantageous offers there.”

But among his Bohemian souvenirs were a commission for a new opera to be premiered in Prague in mid-October – this would become Don Giovanni – and the addition of 1,000 florins to his bank account (or the 18th Century Viennese equivalent of one).

Remember what I'd said earlier about this income from the first production of Figaro bringing in only 450 florins?

According to Maynard Solomon's biography, Mozart was earning about 112 florins for the first quarter of 1781 at the court in Salzburg, the time he was “booted out” of the Archbishop's employ and he moved to Vienna. That would mean his official salary in Salzburg would have been about 450 florins that year. Making 1,000 florins in less than a month might help explain the composer's euphoria during his Prague visit.

That, and the fact the “Pragers” understood him better than the Viennese did: Lorenzo da Ponte, his librettist for both operas, had said “the numbers [arias and ensembles] which are least admired in other countries [at this point, essentially Vienna] are by these people considered divine... the great beauties of the music were perfectly understood by the Bohemians at the first hearing.”

Mozart and da Ponte would return in October for the premiere of their latest collaboration, considered one of the greatest operas in the repertoire.

But the symphony named for their fair city in fact preceded his experience there, even before the news Figaro had been the success he had only dreamed of (and failed to realize) in Vienna.

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Do you remember the old joke (or the stupid question) “Who's buried in Grant's Tomb?”

So, the next time you're at some party, ask someone “Who wrote Mozart's Symphony No. 37?” Why, Mozart, of course! Right...?

Actually, there is no Mozart Symphony No. 37.

After Mozart moved to Vienna in 1781 to leave his sleepy provincial hometown of Salzburg behind and pursue his dreams in the Imperial Capital, Mozart had little reason to write symphonies: his six Viennese Symphonies are among the finest in the repertoire and completely overshadow the earlier ones.

There's the Symphony No. 35 in D, the “Haffner,” K.385 of 1782; the Symphony No. 36 in C, the “Linz,” K.425 of 1783; the Symphony No. 38 in D, the “Prague,” K. 504 of 1786; and the last three masterpieces, the Symphony No. 39 in E-flat, K.543, the Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K.550, and the Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K.551, the “Jupiter,” all composed in the summer of 1788.

So what happened to No. 37?

When Mozart was going to visit family in Salzburg, he stopped off for a few days' visit at the palace of Count Thun in the city of Linz. Now, the Count wanted to hear a new symphony by Mozart but the composer wasn't on tour, wasn't planning on any concerts and, so, hadn't brought anything with him. There wasn't time to send back to Vienna (or to his father in Salzburg) to have a score shipped overnight so instead he wrote one on-the-spot. This became No. 36, the “Linz” Symphony.

But Count Thun also had a score in his library by Michael Haydn (younger brother of Franz Josef) which unfortunately didn't include the usual slow introduction which Count Thun thought a considerable detriment. So Mozart obliged his friend by writing his own slow introduction to “complete” Michael Haydn's G Major Symphony.

When scholars found the manuscript, they saw the handwriting, recognized it as Mozart's and published it as Mozart's Symphony No. 37.

When the real identity of the composer of the rest of the symphony was ascertained only in 1907, it was pulled from the catalogue. But for some reason, no one bothered to renumber the next symphony – the “Prague” Symphony – as No. 37, not No. 38.

So you see, the correct answer to “Who wrote Mozart's Symphony No. 37?” is Michael Haydn. Mozart only supplied a brief introduction to please a persnickety music-lover.

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Speaking of persnickety - while I don't consider myself an expert, my training and experience aside, and while most of my research takes me to what would be considered reputable biographies and scholarly sources, I have to admit frustration when dealing with "facts" on the internet.

Wikipedia is often the butt of jokes about misinformation, but this discovery got my academic blood pressure boiling (if such an image is conceivable).

You might expect Wikipedia to be "spurious" and taken with a grain of cross-referenced salt but something called "" should seem more acceptable, even accurate - or at least better researched. But in their page on Mozart's "Prague" Symphony where the banner photo is of the manuscript of the "PARIS" Symphony, they mention this:

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After he had finished this Mozart symphony [sic], he was invited to Prague to perform the premiere there – hence the title. The premiere was on January 9, 1787 – one day after the premiere of “Figaro”.
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Now, in these two brief sentences, there are only three things wrong: (1) Mozart was not invited to Prague to conduct the premiere of this symphony but to attend and possibly conduct a performance of Figaro; (2) the premiere was January 19th, 1787 not January 9th (okay, possibly a typo) - besides, Mozart didn't even arrive until the 11th; (3) and while Figaro was premiered in Vienna in May, 1786, it was first performed in Prague in early-December, 1786, not January 8th, 1787, as this website would have you believe.

I know, in this day of Fox News, these are hardly major concerns to the world-at-large, but Holy Musicology, Batman...

- Dick Strawser

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