i. Adagio – Allegro
In the never-ending search for a steady salary such as Haydn had with Prince Esterhazy Mozart had found himself employed in Salzburg, the town of his birth, by Archbishop Colloredo, with whom he had a very difficult relationship. A free spirit such as Mozart deeply resented being told what, and how, to compose, and although the position had enabled him to write symphonies and concertos as well as the required church music he yearned to spread his wings no matter what the cost to his finances.
In 1781, shortly before his 25th birthday, he was ordered by the Archbishop to fulfil some duties in Vienna; enjoying the freedom, he refused to return to Salzburg at the appointed time, whereupon, to his delight, he was sacked. Except for some European tours he was to remain a resident of Vienna for the remaining ten years of his life, and his maturity led him into composing what remain today as some of the greatest of all operas, concertos and symphonies, not to mention choral, instrumental and chamber music.
As it was for Handel in London, opera was the most lucrative money-maker and Mozart’s Vienna years saw the three classic operas with libretti by Lorenzo Da Ponte, The Marriage of Figaro, K.492, Don Giovanni, K.527, and Casi Fan Tutte, K588, plus virtually his last, The Magic Flute, K620, while piano concertos, instrumental and chamber music kept audiences aware of his performing genius.
It remains, however, something of a mystery as to why he only wrote six symphonies over these last ten years; whilst Haydn would find himself commissioned handsomely to write his last twelve symphonies in two trips to London from 1790 until 1794, Mozart seemed to feel that symphonies were somewhat out of fashion. In 1783 he made a tour through Austria and was actually caught without a symphony when his hosts in Linz asked him to include one in the concerts he was due to give; in response he miraculously wrote his wonderful 35th symphony, now known as the Linz, K.425, in a mere four days.
A Symphony No 37 seems to be lost, while the final three symphonies, including the tragic G minor, No 40, K.550, and the heaven-scaling No 41, K.551, now known as the Jupiter, were all written in a sudden burst of energy in 1788, but it is not known what inspired him, and there is little direct proof that they were ever performed before Mozart’s death in December 1791. That leaves No 38, K.504, the Prague.
The city of Prague seems to have been to Mozart what London was to be to Haydn – a home-from-home where he was completely worshipped. Late in the autumn of 1786 his new opera Figaro, which had been premiered to initially lukewarm acclaim in Vienna, became a huge success in Prague, and in January 1787 he travelled to the city to capitalise on his opera’s success, taking with him the symphony he had completed on 6 December .This 38th symphony had been commissioned for concerts in December ‘in Vienna, but it is thought that its actual premiere took place on this visit to Prague, once again to huge acclaim, on 19 January, hence its nickname.
The symphony finds the same effervescent spirit as Figaro in the body of the first movement and in the last movement – there are even pre-echoes of the Overture to his final major opera, The Magic Flute, which also would be a magnificent success in Prague – whilst the slow movement finds a similar consolatory atmosphere to that of Figaro ‘s final scene. The dark, D minor introduction to the symphony and the somewhat feverish opening to the first movement Allegro foreshadow the supernatural drama of the new Da Ponte opera, Don Giovanni, also commissioned at this time in Prague and, once again, premiered in the city later that year, 1787, on 29 October.
The opening Adagio does indeed begin ominously, and becomes still more so, ending with descending chromat ic scales which chill the atmosphere further. Breathless syncopation accompanies the lower strings’ sinister intonings at the start of the D major Allegro , answered by wind, brass and timpani, the horns and trumpets straight out of Figaro; the energy becomes rather more overt and even flamboyant shortly, before calming into a new, more elegant subject . The development explores the material which had begun the Allegro, leading to a dynamic recap which sweeps us to the end without the customary coda.
The Andante, in G major, brings warmth and humanity, its opening five notes a much gentler variant of one of the pervading motifs in the preceding Allegro. A brief foray into minor-key angst is immediately defused; serenity is the lasting impression of this beautiful movement.
There is no Minuet or Scherzo; it is thought that preferences in Prague at the time were for a three-movement structure.
The final Presto immedi<Jtely signals its Puckish, offbeat humour, and the opening witty theme provides the basis of the development , which for a moment takes us into ‘Storm and Stress’ (Sturm und Orang) territory. Of all Mozart’s later symphonic movements this is surely the one which most finds the genial wit of Mozart’s mentor Haydn. The Prague is a work of pure genius, which surely stands on the same exalted pedestal as the magnificent final three symphonies .