Mozart’s 40th symphony is one of his most emotionally charged (dare I say Romantic?) works. It’s one of only two large-scale symphonies he composed in dark minor keys (the other is #25, also in g minor). And it’s one of three late, lonely symphonies that he actually meant to be played in — of all places — a casino.
The wonder is that he wrote the fortieth at all.
Over a period of 16 years (he started at age 8!) Mozart composed well over 3 dozen symphonies, and several more that were really slightly tweaked opera overtures. But once Archbishop Colloredo’s literal kick in the pants had launched Mozart into his life as a freelance musician in Vienna, he had little further use for symphonies. In the nine years he had left in this world, Mozart created only a half-dozen more.
No wonder. By 1781, when Mozart descended on Vienna, symphonies were falling out of fashion there. What the Viennese clamored for, at least at first, was Mozart at the keyboard. They filled the theatres for his operas, and for a while they even were willing to pay him handsomely – in advance, no discounts or refunds, thank you very much – for music lessons. His purse jingled a happy tune. Symphonies? There was no money to be made from them, so why write them?
He did knock out a few symphonies for specific occasions – in seven years, all of three. But the big symphonic revival came 1788. Mozart composed three more, his last, all in that one year. They’re the ones we call numbers 39, 40, and 41.
Why symphonies? Why then?
Seven years on, Vienna had begun to drift away from Mozart. The needy composer had mined the virtuoso vein voraciously, and it was nearly played out. Then there were matters over which Mozart had no control. The emperor’s reforms – exactly what Mozart admired about him – had taken money out of the pockets of the wealthy, so they were less interested in concerts and commissions. The reforms had benefitted the rising middle class, and they’d filled seats at Mozart’s concerts a few years before. But the Turkish War had sapped everyone’s resources and enthusiasm.
Mozart’s operas were still doing decent box office, but rumors circulated that the Opera would soon be disbanded. It was running a deficit, and the imperial treasury was rapidly draining away into the war. In the end, the Opera survived, but the whispering (and some actual pink slips) drove away some of the best singers – and the audiences.
Mozart’s income was sliding. But Mozart had rubbed elbows with nobility! Surely he deserved to live just as graciously as his musical colleagues – Salieri included – who had steady salaries from their court positions.
So he did. Between his profligate ways and Constanze’s worsening health (no surprise, since he kept her in a nearly constant state of pregnancy), Mozart was spiraling downward into debt. He wrote to his fellow Mason J M Puchberg, “Life becomes impossible when one must bide one’s time between various odd bits of income.”
Mozart was writing to ask Puchberg for – what else? – money. Nor was Puchberg the only one. By 1788 Mozart’s letters to his sister Maria Anna speak ever less of his full datebook, and ever more of his empty pockets.
Finally, desperate for some income, Mozart made plans for an autumn concert series. Phillipp Otto had just opened a new casino in the Spiegelgasse in Vienna. A couple of years before, Mozart had had some success with a "concerts in the casino" series at Trattner’s casino. Maybe Otto’s would work even better.
Initially Mozart sketched out a piano concerto for this series. He gave it up, though, maybe realizing that Mozart at the keyboard wasn’t quite the draw it had been. Instead, perhaps ready to try anything that might attract the jaded and uneasy Viennese, Mozart turned back to the symphonic world he’d mostly neglected.
Mozart had moved yet again, trying to cut his expenses. Although the new digs were cheaper, he now he had an idyllic garden in which to put pen to manuscript paper. There Mozart composed the turbulent 40th, along with its sunnier neighbors the 39th and 41st, during a 2-month period that summer.
Legend has it that Mozart never heard the 40th symphony performed, but that’s very unlikely. It’s tough to be certain, because Mozart’s letters, usually our best map of his musical life, are maddeningly thin on details. However, it appears that he did succeed in mounting at least one of the autumn concerts: Mozart wrote to Puchberg, offering him tickets. Alas, there’s no date on the letter. Although we’re pretty sure that Salieri used it in a benefit for the Tonkünstlersocietät in April of 1791, we may never know for sure whether Mozart’s 40th symphony was actually played where he intended it to be – in the casino in the Spiegelgasse.