|Estates Theatre, Prague, where Mozart conducted Figaro in 1787 (Wikimedia Commons)
Much has been written about Leopold Mozart’s anxiety about his family’s financial security – and his own, as he aged. Leopold was unrelenting in his pressure on Wolfgang to find a permanent position. This, as much as anything else, may have precipitated Mozart’s split with home and hearth. In 1781, he cast off Archbishop Colloredo’s hated livery and shook Salzburg’s dust from his boots. Mozart would make his fortune as a freelance musician in Vienna, or so he believed.
There, at first, Mozart had all the concert and lesson business anyone could want. Five years on, though, Vienna’s appetite for Mozart’s keyboard virtuosity had already begun to wane. Increasingly, he saw opera as his future; but even there, the response was cooler than he had hoped. The Vienna premiere of Le nozze di Figaro in May of 1786 went well. However, after only nine performances that year, Figaro faded from the repertory.
In December of 1786 Figaro opened in Prague – and there it did not fade. Quite to the contrary.
In spite of his wide travels, Mozart had never visited Prague; there were more musical and financial attractions in other cities. But his music had led the way four years before, when a traveling company had first introduced the Prague public to Die Entführung aus dem Serail.
The Figaro premiere literally ignited a new musical sprit in the city. A month later, Mozart was invited to Prague to conduct a performance of the opera at the Nostic Theatre (now the Estates Theatre).
Given Vienna’s growing indifference, the adulation Mozart encountered in Prague must have been deeply satisfying. In a letter to his student Baron Gottfried von Jacquin, Mozart marveled, "Here they speak of nothing but Figaro. Nothing is played, sung, or whistled but Figaro. Nothing draws like Figaro."
Figaro was to be the main course for Prague, but Mozart also planned dessert – a symphony. Symphonies had been among his concert staples in earlier years, but since then Mozart’s symphonic output had fallen drastically (in 1773 alone he had turned out a half-dozen – as many as he composed in his entire ten Vienna years from 1781). In fact, there’s evidence that he initially planned to simply recycle the Paris Symphony (K300a) for Prague. He even composed a new finale for it. But for some reason he set that work aside, and made a fresh start. Mozart wrote the date on his newly-finished Prague symphony: 6 December 1786.
This was a somewhat uncharacteristically punctual finish for Mozart – he wasn’t due to leave for Prague until the 8th of January. Thus, some historians speculate that Mozart didn’t really compose K504 for Prague, but rather meant it for a Vienna premiere which never took place. Others argue against this, pointing out that the Viennese expected their symphonies to have four movements, and K504 has only three.
The missing minuet gives K504 its other (seldom used) nickname – "Ohne Menuett." And of course it provides yet another source of speculation for the music historians.
Some of them characterize the Prague Symphony as a throwback to Mozart’s earlier Italian-style 3-movement symphonies. This is a little tough to swallow, though, when hardly anything else about this symphony suggests those earlier works.
Mozart expert Alfred Einstein declared in the 1940s that K504 is "a full scale Viennese symphony which happens to lack a minuet simply because it says everything it has to say in 3 movements." Maybe so, but this strikes me as somehow more in line with Schumann’s ethos, or even Beethoven’s, than with Mozart’s.
One recent writer has even declared that by dispensing with the "aristocratic" minuet, Mozart was indulging his pro-Enlightenment persuasions. This isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem on first glance. Prague wasn’t too keen on Vienna’s political machinations, and one reason for their enthusiasm about Figaro was the opera’s rather daring political tone.
Or perhaps the experts are all thinking too hard. Seven years before, in his K338 symphony, Mozart had swapped the andante and minuet for no apparent reason. So maybe it’s just as valid to suggest that Mozart dumped the minuet in K504 because he felt sure that Prague’s musically canny audiences would let him get away with a bit of creative tinkering.
Nor was this the only example. Mozart began with a slow introduction, only the second time he had done so in a symphony (though Joseph Haydn had shown the way fully 25 years before). After the first 36 bars, Mozart dispelled the dark clouds with an energetic theme. He developed this theme in ways that no doubt raised a few eyebrows among his more knowledgable listeners.
A pastoral andante leads to the fleet-footed finale. Here Mozart gave Prague concertgoers a treat by including one of those Figaro themes that they were all playing, singing, and whistling.
Both the Figaro performance and the symphony were rousing successes for Mozart. Twenty-one years later, Mozart’s biographer Franz Xaver Niemetschek was able to report that this and the K543 symphonies "are still favorites of the Prague public, although they have been played at least a hundred times."