Baffling Brilliance

We take a look at how Mozart’s Symphony No. 40, also known as the G minor Symphony—which offers the listener moments of jubilation and darkness, enigma and eloquence—has been interpreted over the years.

Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, one of his most critically acclaimed works, ranks among the greatest symphonies of all time. This magnificent creation has been a perennial favourite with listeners, its popularity being rivalled only by his two-other works, namely Eine kleine Nachtmusik and the overture to his opera The Marriage of Figaro. In my opinion, Mozart’s 40th is his greatest symphonic work.

A unique piece of music

Incredibly original, the G minor Symphony is a strangely beautiful piece of music, the strangeness of its beauty arising from some of its paradoxical traits, and a certain mystique that has always surrounded it ever since its birth in 1788. Strictly Classical in form, the symphony carries with it seeds of Romanticism. An out-and-out piece of absolute music (a term that Wagner coined to describe instrumental, non-representational music), the symphony has a certain enigmatic quality to it. These two elements, taken together, have also made it Mozart’s most heavily interpreted work.

The great bulk of Western classical music, predominantly instrumental in character, has largely been absolute music. But this has never deterred composers, performers and music pundits from interpreting it in their own subjective, and in some cases, most idiosyncratic ways. And in doing so, these worthies have read into these works all kinds of extra-musical meanings which often went far beyond its printed score. In fact, some intellectually gifted composers and performers of the Romantic period—notably Schumann, Wagner, Bülow and Joachim—seem to have revelled in this literary enterprise. The G minor is built around a cluster of totally abstract musical ideas and has no obvious or implied extra musical subject. But the enigma that has surrounded its profoundly affective music has occasioned reams of thematic interpretative speculation. And interestingly, these interpretations, as we will observe now, have varied widely—and wildly. 

Interpretations galore

The thematic interpretations of the G minor Symphony abound, and they have ranged from the over the top to the wildly subjective to the inane. The result: music critics, scholars and PhD aspirants alike have had a field day with this most celebrated of the Mozart symphonies. I will, however, restrict myself to only a few from among these interpretations which I consider fairly representative. It is doubtful how far, if at all, they will enhance the reader’s appreciation of the actual symphony. However, the idea of sharing them is to demonstrate how different individuals—which in this case include some high-profile composers and music commentators—can find in the same piece of abstract music starkly different attributes.

Wagner, who admired Mozart’s music only selectively, found the G minor Symphony “exuberant with rapture”. Schumann found in it “Hellenic hovering grace”, and Berlioz admired it for its “grace, delicacy, melodic charm and fineness of workmanship”. Among the critics, Alfred Einstein, the renowned Mozart scholar (no relation of Albert Einstein, the revealer of the theory of relativity), described it as “fatalistic” and thought the first and last movements of the symphony “plunge into the abyss of the soul”. Robert Dearling has described the work as a “uniquely moving expression of grief”. Charles Rosen, in his book The Classical Style, called it “a work of passion, violence and grief” and Pitts Sanborn, one-time music critic of The New York Globe, thought it full of “ineffable sadness”. But perhaps the most idiosyncratic comment on this work came from Sir Donald Francis Tovey, the last century’s well-known English pianist, composer and music writer who saw similarity between the pulsing rhythms and idioms of the symphony and those of opera buffa (a comic opera).

It may or may not be any or all of the things its interpreters have thought it to be. But we can most certainly say what it is not. It is not, as H. Hirschbach, one of its critics, has put it: “an ordinary, mild piece of music”. To dismiss this Mozart masterpiece is to dismiss Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet as a typical boy-meets-girl story or Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea as an ordinary tale of a fisherman. 

An unusual analogy

Is the G minor Symphony the ‘Mona Lisa’ of Western classical music? At first glance, this analogy may seem irrelevant, if not absurd, and so, requires some explanation. Historically, both the Mozart classic and the Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece have been known to be enigmatic. Both are staggeringly unconventional creations, both have a certain hard-to-define aura about them, and both require a great deal of conscious effort on the part of the average viewer/listener along with some external guidance (which, thanks to experts, is available almost gratis but may not always help) to appreciate them fully.

The enigma of the ‘Mona Lisa’, as any art buff will tell you, is attributed mostly to the mysterious smile of the Florentine matron and her unconventional beauty. The vague and undefined fantasy landscape, the painting’s other element, only accentuates it. These features, famously, have been the subject of poems, songs, and more importantly, many learned treatises, which have attempted to unravel its mystique.

The wellspring of the G minor’s enigma, it would seem, originates principally from two sources: one, the numerous and often conflicting thematic interpretations of its essentially abstract music by some highly respected interpreters, and two, the work being characteristic neither of its period nor of its composer. Since we have already dealt with the first source, let us now talk about the second.

Uncharacteristic traits

In its form, the G minor does conform to the Classical symphony of its time, but its contents clearly show some of the fundamental traits of 19th-century Romantic music. To quote Neal Zaslaw, Professor of Music at Cornell University, the “intensity, unconventionality, chromaticism, thematic working out, abundance of ideas, and ambiguity of the G minor brought it close to the hearts of early 19th-century musicians and critics, who praised its richness of detail, and called it ‘romantic’ (meaning, apparently, ‘modern’ and ‘good’)”.

Mozart was no Berlioz or Tchaikovsky who invited you to join in on the joys and sorrows they expressed through their music. He rarely gave free expression—not consciously at least—in his music to his private feelings and emotions of the moment. Put another way, his music is least reflective of the state of his mind when he wrote it. But the G minor Symphony, going by all available historical evidence, seems to be at odds with this otherwise generally valid observation.

Mozart completed the G minor Symphony during one of the darkest periods of his life. The great genius, with all the supernatural gifts that were bestowed on him, was not a sthitapradnya yogi. And so, it is inconceivable that he would have remained totally unaffected by the tragic circumstances of his private life when he wrote this work. And one gets a fairly good idea of Mozart’s state of mind from his letter to Michael Puchberg, his friend and fellow Freemason. In this letter, the composer has confessed to ‘black thoughts’ that often came to him, and how he had to shut them out with enormous effort. And it is hard to think that the ‘black thoughts’ so overwhelmingly reflected in the G minor’s dramatically grim music are not Mozart’s own. As Richard Grant White, the 19th-century American critic, observed, the G minor has “an intensity in its pathos and mightiness in the emotions it suggests, which are not usually attributed to Mozart, although he has full claim to them”.

To those who are new to the symphony, there are no guidelines to help the lay listener appreciate this abstract piece of Western classical music. So, all I can do here is to pass on to the listener the G minor specific advice of a 19th-century German music critic who wrote in the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung in 1804: “One must hear Mozart’s deep, artful and emotion-filled G minor Symphony several times to be able to understand it and enjoy it completely.”

By Manohar Parnerkar. This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the March 2022 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.