We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more


Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries

CHAPTER 11 The Composer’s Voice

Mozart’s Piano Concertos; His Last Symphonies; The Fantasia as Style and as Metaphor

CHAPTER 11 The Composer’s Voice
Richard Taruskin

Richard Taruskin


To cap the point on which the previous chapter came to rest, and appreciate the range and depth to which subjective emotional declaration could now be brought within the reach of late eighteenth-century instrumental style, consider a symphonic movement by Mozart, Haydn’s great contemporary, whose short life came to an end during Haydn’s first London tour. Owing to the vastly different conditions of his career, symphonies and quartets were never as central to Mozart’s output as they were to Haydn’s—or rather, they attracted his intense interest only rather late in the game, not long before its premature termination. Until the mid-1780s, they remained for him light entertainment genres. For Mozart, the symphony, especially, remained close to its sources in the opera pit and its frequent garden-party function. One of his best-known symphonies, no. 35 in D, subtitled “Haffner,” was actually composed (as late as July 1782) as a serenade to entertain a party celebrating the ennoblement of a Mozart family friend, and became a concert symphony by losing its introductory march and its second minuet.

Mozart’s instrumental style underwent an appreciable deepening after his move to Vienna in his late twenties and the start of a risky new life as a “free artist.” Meeting Haydn and playing quartets with him—Haydn on violin, Mozart on viola—was one of the catalysts. Mozart wrote a set of six quartets—“the fruits of long and laborious endeavor,” he called them—as if in direct response to Haydn’s op. 33 (then Haydn’s latest works) and published them in 1785 with a title page announcing that they were Dedicati al Signor Giuseppe Haydn, Maestro di Cappella di S. A. il Principe d’Esterhazy &c &c, Dal Suo Amico W. A. Mozart, Opera X (“Dedicated to Mr. Joseph Haydn, Music Director to His Highness the Prince of Esterhazy, etc. etc., by his friend W. A. Mozart, op. 10”).1 The features of texture and motivic saturation that so distinguished Haydn’s quartets were a powerful stimulus to Mozart’s imagination, with results that caused an astonished Haydn to exclaim to Leopold Mozart (at another Vienna quartet party), “Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me in person or by name. He has taste, and, what is more, the greatest knowledge of composition.”2

Chapter 11 The Composer’s Voice

fig. 11-1 Five-octave piano customary in Mozart’s time (Ferdinand Hoffman, Vienna).

What he did not have was a steady job. In the years following his boot from Salzburg, Mozart lived what was by comparison with Haydn, or even with his own father, the life of a veritable vagabond, enjoying a precarious love-hate relationship with a fickle public and its novel institutions of collective patronage. The very fact that Mozart dedicated his quartet volume to Haydn rather than to a prospective noble patron is an indication of his unusually autonomous, hazardous, and self-centered existence. For his livelihood he relied most on something Haydn did not have: surpassing performance skills. Mozart’s most characteristic and important instrumental music, for that reason, usually involved the piano. Because they did not, symphonies and quartets had perforce to take a back seat.

But in the summer of 1788, in the happy aftermath of the Vienna première of Don Giovanni, Mozart composed the three symphonies that turned out to be his last: no. 39 in E♭, K. 543 (finished 26 June); no. 40 in G minor, K. 550 (finished 25 July); no. 41 in C, K. 551 (known as “Jupiter,” finished 10 August). They are not known to have been commissioned for any occasion; and while Mozart surely hoped to make money from them, either by putting on subscription concerts or selling them to a publisher, they seem (like the “Haydn” quartets) to have been written “on spec,” as the saying now goes among professionals—without immediate prospects, on the composer’s own impulse, at his own risk.

This was not then a “normal” modus operandi for musicians; in somewhat hyperbolical historical hindsight these works loom as the earliest symphonies to be composed as “art for art’s sake”—or, at the very least, for the sake of the composer’s own creative satisfaction. (This of course is not in the least to imply that other composers did not derive satisfaction from their achievements; only that under conditions of “daily business” such as eighteenth-century musicians thought normal, creative satisfaction was the result of their effort, not its driving force.) Is there anything about their style, craft, or content that reflects this unusual status?

An argument could certainly be made that they are more reflective than most “public” music of the kind of subjectivity associated—like the very act of composing “for no reason”—with romanticism. It is a point similar to one made in a previous chapter about Mozart’s operatic music and its emotional iconicity, its way of appearing, through the exact representation of “body language,” to offer an internal portrait of a character to which listeners could compare their own inner life. The difference, of course, is that in the case of a symphony there is no mediating, “objectively” rendered stage character; there is only the “subject persona” evoked by the sounds of the music, easily (and under romanticism, conventionally) associated with the composer’s own person. There is no hard evidence to support the view that Mozart’s music contains a Romantic emotional self-portrait; there is just the widespread opinion of his contemporaries, and the supposition that the composer, late in life, may have subscribed to what was fast becoming a conventional code.

The supposition is often supported by citing the virtually operatic first movement of the G-minor Symphony, with its atmosphere of pathos, so unlike the traditional affect of what was still regarded in Vienna as party (or at least as festive) music. That atmosphere is conjured up by two highly contrasted, lyrical themes, a wealth of melting chromaticism, and a high level of rhythmic agitation. As with Haydn’s extraordinary concision, Mozart’s lyrical profusion is perhaps his most conspicuous feature. And yet it would be a pity to overlook, in our fascination with Mozart’s prodigal outpouring of seemingly spontaneous emotion, the high technical craft with which a motive derived from the first three notes of the first theme—exactly as in Haydn’s “Joke” Quartet (Ex. 10-6)—is made to pervade the whole musical fabric, turning up in all kinds of shrewd variations and contrapuntal combinations. It is the balance between ingenious calculation and (seemingly) ingenuous spontaneity, and the way in which the former serves to engineer the latter, that can so astonish listeners in Mozart’s instrumental music.

Mozart was keenly aware of the relationship in his work between ingenuity of calculation and spontaneity of effect, and the special knack he had for pleasing the connoisseurs without diminishing the emotional impact of his music on the crowd. His letters are full of somewhat bumptious comments to the effect that (to quote one, to his father, from 1782): “there are passages here and there from which only Kenner can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned (nicht-kenner) cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why.”3


(1) Mozart, Dedication of “Six Quartets, op. 10” (Vienna: Artaria, 1785).

(2) Leopold Mozart to Maria Anna Mozart, February 1782; quoted in H. C. Robbins Landon, Haydn: Chronicle and Works, Vol. II (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976), pp. 508–9.

(3) Mozart to his father, 28 December 1782; Eric Blom, ed., Mozart’s Letters, trans. Emily Anderson (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1956), p. 204.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 The Composer’s Voice." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 16 Oct. 2019. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-11.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 11 The Composer’s Voice. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 16 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-11.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 The Composer’s Voice." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 16 Oct. 2019, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-chapter-11.xml