Top 50 Favorite/Best Classical – #5 – Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550

Coming in at #5 on my Top 50 Favorite/Best Classical is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with his sublime masterpiece, his Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550. Mozart composed this symphony along with #39 and #41 in the summer of 1788 in an astoundingly productive period. Mozart catalogued his compositions by this point in his life, and he finished #39 on June 26. He completed #40 on July 25, and then #41 on August 10th. 

Mozart begins the symphony with an accompaniment pickup rather than the typical classical style of introducing either with some kind of prelude or right straight to the main theme. It adds to the sturm und drang he is emoting with this symphony. The first theme even starts on a flat 6th dropping a half step to the fifth, creating a motif that Mozart would use throughout, similarly to what Beethoven does later with Symphony No. 5 and the “fate” motif. The half note flutter flutters about the whole movement from the flutes to the clarinets to the strings. The movement is a typical sonata form, but the development section is truly where Mozart likes to push boundaries and step into the sturm und drang as it starts on an F# minor and flying about before getting back to the G minor in the recapitulation. It is a lean, fast paced exploration of the simplest of motifs, the half note flutter. And much like the first movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, this movement keeps our attention throughout because it is constantly in motion, but never too long, too overwhelming or losing any of the momentum from the first notes to the last. 

The second movement is most fascinating. It is over thirteen minutes long, depending on who is conducting, and very slow paced, yet completely entrancing. There is a pulse kept, that dances about between instruments like a fugue. Contrapuntal voices abound keeping the tension clear throughout so the attention is constantly on the motion of the melody. The harmony stays interesting and sharp throughout. Two main motifs keep the movement alive, the heartbeat pulse and the fluttering almost-accidentals in the strings that also dance around between the instruments. This movement is also a sonata-form, and the main reason for its 13+ minutes of music is that both the exposition and the development/recapitulation are repeated, which is more of a Baroque era style. The music is so good, though, that you feel, as you’re listening to it, that even at 13 minutes, it is maybe not enough. 

The third movement is a minuet continuing in the intensity of the sturm und drang of the whole by having the melody in an aggressive 2 against 3 hemiola. The melodic line starts with a two beat V-I motion above a harmonic motion in 3 beats, keeping the feeling off track and intense. The trio  in the middle is probably the only spot in the whole symphony that fits more within the classical, or earlier Mozart bright music, but it lasts for only about two minutes before the intense minuet returns. 

The finale is not quite as grand or impressive as what he did for the 41st symphony with its five theme fugue, but it maintains the propulsive dark energy of the sturm und drang of G minor. The melody is a call and answer, with the strings rising up in an almost questioning melodic motion only to be retorted by the orchestra, “no, no, no, no, no, no!” The fascinating part about this movement is that by the end, it doesn’t feel like the question posed by the strings ever gets answered. And that brings up what is probably the point of this symphony:

Part of a trilogy

Mozart composed these three symphonies all at the same time, one right after the other. #39 has an introduction and #41 has a grand finale. Both #39 and #41 are in major keys while the 40th is in a minor, particularly G minor which was associated with lamentation and suffering. It feels like what Mozart was doing with the G minor symphony was expressing that lamentation but as part of a larger story to tell, expressed in all three symphonies. Of course, thematic material is not spread through each symphony; he keeps melodic ideas strictly within the bounds of each symphony. 

In Conclusion

I really wish we had more music from Mozart because he was just getting really great in his early 30s, starting to shed some of that childish quality for very mature works. I am extremely happy for what we do have. These works are fantastic and worth your time. There are literally hundreds of recordings of this symphony and any of them will be good. Here is Pablo Heras-Casado conducting the Karajan-Academy of the Berliner Philharmoniker. Enjoy!

#05 – Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550

#06 – Dvorak Symphony No. 9 in E minor, Op. 95

#07 – Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64

#08 – Ellington Afro-Eurasian Eclipse

#09 – Rimsky-Korsakov Sheherazade, Op. 35

#10 – Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet Overture

#11 – Dvorak Serenade for Strings in E major, Op. 22

#12 – Stravinsky Le Sacre du Printemps

#13 – Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue

#14 – Mozart Symphony No. 41 in C major, K. 551

#15 – Coltrane My Favorite Things

#16 – Dvorak Symphony No. 7 in D minor, Op. 70

#17 – Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor, Op. 30

#18 – Mozart Don Giovanni, K. 527

#19 – Liszt Les Preludes, S. 97

#20 – Mozart Le Nozze di Figaro, K. 492

#21 – Tchaikovsky Swan Lake, Op. 20 

#22 – Mahler Symphony No. 2 in C minor

#23 – Tchaikovsky String Quartet No. 1 in D major, Op. 11

#24 – Williams Empire Strikes Back

#25 – Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 in Eb major, Op. 73

#26 – Bernstein West Side Story

#27 – Enescu – Octet for Strings in C major, Op. 7

#28 – Shostakovich String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110

#29 – Mussorgsky Night on Bald Mountain

#30 – Webber Phantom of the Opera

#31 – Prokofiev Alexander Nevsky

#32 – Chopin Nocturne in Bb minor, Op. 9, No. 1

#33 – Debussy Images, Book 1, L110

#34 – Debussy Pour Le Piano, L. 95

#35 – Chaminade Guitare, Op. 32

#36 – Chopin Berceuse in Db major, Op. 57

#37 – Boulanger Nocturne pour violon et piano

#38 – Schönberg Les Miserables

#39 – Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor, Op. 18

#40 – Miranda Hamilton

#41 – Strauss Salomé

#42 – Britten Peter Grimes

#43 – Loewe My Fair Lady

#44 – Liszt Mephisto Waltzes

#45 – Webber Evita

#46 – Poledouris Conan The Barbarian

#47 – Bernstein Trouble in Tahiti

#48 – Beethoven Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67

#49 – Chaminade La Lisonjera, Op. 50

#50 – Beethoven Coriolan Overture, Op. 62

Honorable Mention

Wolfe Fire in my Mouth

Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition

Glass Anthem, Pt. 2

Weber Der Freischütz

Coleman Lonely Woman

Beethoven Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125

Tchaikovsky Nutcracker

Jobim Girl From Ipanema

Shostakovich Suite for Variety Orchestra

Schubert Symphony No. 9 in C major, D 944

Saariaho L’Amour de Loin

Schubert String Quartet No. 14 “Death and the Maiden”

Desmond Take Five

Wagner Die Walküre 

Puccini Tosca

Davis So What

Stravinsky Petroushka 

Wagner Tristan Und Isolde

Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings

Williams Raiders of the Lost Ark

Verdi Aïda

Schoenberg Verklärte Nacht

Grisey Les espaces acoustiques

Gade – Octet for 4 violins, 2 violas, 2 violoncellos in F major, Op. 17

Schubert – Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759

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