Symphony No. 38

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Symphony No. 38 in D major

K504 • “Prague Symphony”

About this work

On May 1, 1786, Mozart's new opera Le nozze di Figaro received its first performance at the Burgtheater in Vienna. Enthusiastically received by connoisseurs, the long and complex opera puzzled many of the general public and it received only eight performances. Early in December, Figaro was staged at the National Theater (today known as the Tyl Theater) in Prague, where it became such a triumphant success that Mozart was induced to visit the Bohemian capital to see the production for himself. When he and his wife Constanze arrived on January 11, 1787, he had with him a new symphony which had been completed early in December (it was entered in Mozart's thematic catalog on December 6). The symphony was included in the concert Mozart gave eight days later, resulting in the first performance of a work which would subsequently become irrevocably associated with the city in which the composer witnessed his greatest triumph in later years. A decade after the concert, the Prague schoolmaster Franz Niemetschek (who educated Mozart's son Carl after the composer's death in 1791) testified to the symphony's enduring popularity: "The symphonies he composed for this occasion are real masterpieces of instrumental composition....This applied particularly to the grand Symphony in D, which is always a favorite in Prague, although it has no doubt been heard a hundred times."

Such connections have led to the general assumption by Mozart's biographers that the "Prague" symphony was composed for his visit there, but this cannot be the case -- Mozart composed the work before he received the invitation to visit the city. Indeed, a letter of his father's (November 17, 1786) clearly shows that at the time of composition Mozart was planning a visit to England, a visit which never took place becase Leopold refused to look after the composer's two young children. It therefore seems perfectly reasonable to suggest that the work was composed with Mozart's projected London visit in mind -- what we know as the "Prague" symphony might have become Mozart's "London" symphony had his plans come to fruition. An unusual feature of the symphony is that it is in only three movements; it is the only major symphonic work from the Classical period to lack the usual minuet and trio or scherzo movement. But there is nothing small-scale about the work; it amply justifies Niemetschek's epithet "grand." The opening movement, a broad, imposing Adagio introduction followed by a hugely powerful Allegro, is one of the most impressive of all Classical symphonic movements, with dramatic qualities that foreshadow Don Giovanni and a mastery of counterpoint hitherto restricted to Mozart's chamber works. The central Andante utterly transcends the easygoing implication of such a heading; it is a movement of profound, songful depth and contrapuntal skill. The final Presto also shares some of the demonic power of Don Giovanni, the opera Mozart would shortly compose for Prague, while at the same time inhabiting a world in which, for all the bright major-mode music, tragedy never seems too far away.