Sunday, May 5, 2013

The symphonic Mozart and Beethoven open in minor mode

They look so simple, these eight notes, but they form one of the most striking and readily identifiable motifs in all of music -- the opening of one of Beethoven's two minor-key symphonic first movements.

by Ken

In Friday night's preview we listened to all of the first movements among Mozart's 40 or so symphonies which are in minor keys. That's right, both of them, which happen to be in the same key, G minor.

Partly this was out of abiding affection for the masterpiece among them, the great Symphony No. 40, and partly it was as a springboard to listening to the two first movements among Beethoven's nine symphonies which are in minor keys, Nos. 5 (C minor) and 9 (D minor). It seems clear to me that these movements have something in common, something that sets them apart from all their major-key brethren -- and something that even sort of applies to the littler Mozart G minor Symphony, No. 25.

Let's listen again to the Mozart G minor opening movements.

MOZART: Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K. 183:
i. Allegro con brio

Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter, cond. Columbia, recorded Dec. 10, 1954 (mono)

Concertgebouw Orchestra (Amsterdam), Josef Krips, cond. Philips, recorded June 1973

MOZART: Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550:
i. Molto allegro

Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter, cond. Columbia-CBS-Sony, recorded 1959

Concertgebouw Orchestra (Amsterdam), Josef Krips, cond. Philips, recorded June 1972


When you take into consideration that the general default position for classical composers is writing in major keys, with the always-available option of dipping into minor ones, it's hardly surprising that minor-key symphonic opening movements generally have a distinctive character. After all, the composer has made a quite deliberate choice to use the minor mode.

Maybe an easy way to illustrate is with music we've already heard. Among Mozart's couple of dozen piano concertos, again only two have minor-key opening movements, and they clearly stand apart from all the rest.

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466:
i. Allegro

András Schiff, piano; Camerata Academica of the Salzburg Mozarteum, Sándor Végh, cond. Decca, recorded c1990

Arthur Rubinstein, piano; RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, Alfred Wallenstein, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded in New York, Apr. 1, 1961

MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491:
i. Allegro

Rudolf Serkin, piano; London Symphony Orchestra, Claudio Abbado, cond. DG, recorded October 1985

Arthur Rubinstein, piano; RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, Josef Krips, cond. RCA-BMG, recorded Apr. 20, 1958

The obvious thing to say is that these two movements really don't resemble each other all that much. And yet they have something in common, something that sets them apart from all of Mozart's other concerto first movements. They aren't necessarily "better," just different.

We spent a fair amount of time with Concerto No. 20 in the company of its major-key fraternal twin, No. 21 in C, in the May 2010 post "After producing six remarkable piano concertos in one year, Mozart was just getting warmed up." Which provides a segue of sorts into our two Beethoven minor-key first movements, because the first of them, one of the best-known pieces of music ever written, also has a fraternal twin: Beethoven composed his Fifth and Sixth Symphonies in a large overlapping cloud of inspiration -- and we listened to them together in an October 2010 post.


I would never suggest that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is "better" than the Pastoral. But there is that first movement, which I believe I described Friday night as "iconic."

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67:
i. Allegro con brio

Vienna Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, cond. DG, recorded live, September 1977

Cleveland Orchestra, Christoph von Dohnányi, cond. Telarc, recorded Sept. 20, 1987

And if the opening movement of the Beethoven Fifth is iconic, what word is there to describe the colossal opening movement of the Ninth?

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125:
i. Allegro ma non troppo, un poco maestoso

Vienna Philharmonic, Karl Böhm, cond. DG, recorded live, 1980

Tonhalle Orchestra (Zurich), David Zinman, cond. Arte Nova, recorded Dec. 12 and 14, 1998


Where do you go from there?

And in a separate post, probably in two weeks, we're going to come back to these symphonies and see how Mozart and Beethoven answered the question. [UPDATE: No, actually it's next week.]

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