The Story of Mozart’s Prague Symphony

Steve Holtje

By Steve Holtje

on 07.03.12 in Spotlights

Mozart: Symphony No. 38 in D major "Prague", Symphony in D major

Jiri Belohlavek

In December 1786, when Mozart finished this symphony, it was his first in three years. Since he’d been working as a freelance composer and pianist in Vienna starting in 1781, he’d devoted more time to piano concertos to trade on his reputation as a pianist, and operas, which were what the Viennese most loved (and potentially offered the biggest financial return). In 1782 his opera The Abduction from the Seraglio had been a big hit, but in 1786, The Marriage of Figaro only ran for nine performances inVienna. Demand for his concerto performances was waning as well; his popularity in Vienna had declined.

In Prague, however, Figaro was having a wildly successful run. Mozart had heard that their production featured a better orchestra, particularly its woodwind players, and he planned a trip to Prague to hear it. He brought a new symphony that quoted a Figaro aria, and premiered it there on January 19, 1787; it’s thus known as the “Prague” symphony.

While the Figaro quotation might support the idea that Mozart wrote the symphony specifically for this trip, this notion hasn’t been proven. It is known that he composed the finale first; it’s speculated that he planned to perform his Symphony No. 31 “Paris” on this trip, decided to give it a new finale appropriate to the occasion, and then, having written that, wrote the first two movements, making an entire new symphony. However, its lack of clarinets makes it a poor fit for the “Paris” (which has them) and less targeted to the Bohemians’ woodwind prowess.

Either way, he was working at an exalted level of inspiration, far ahead of his time. Only three of Mozart’s symphonies have slow introductions. Innovatively, this one bounces among five keys; not until Beethoven would another symphony opening be so harmonically ambiguous. The intro suggested tragedy; in contrast, the Allegro’s as chipper a symphony theme as Mozart ever wrote. It’s got an unusually thematically rich exposition, with six motivic cells, followed by a masterful development.

Next comes a meltingly sensuous Andante of greater breadth than the norm for slow movements in 1787. Its emotional profundity is emphasized by excursions into the minor. Then, skipping the usual Minuet (perhaps feeling, after the lengthy Andante, a need to move things along?), Mozart concludes with a boisterous Presto that features the winds. Bohemian/Czech woodwinds have been highly esteemed ever since, and I made a point of choosing a Prague orchestra playing this work.

The Prague Philharmonic was founded by its conductor, Jiří BÄ•lohlávek. He plumbs the emotional depths of the Andante, making its nearly as long as the first movement; it’s Beethoven-like, and while Mozart may not have shaped it like this, it’s quite affecting. Has any other modern-instrument orchestra conductor given us such a dashing Presto? Mozart’s symphonic art became weightier and more elevated with the “Prague,” so it’s wonderful to hear a conductor treat it as such rather than give us the same old charming, lightweight Mozart style.