Monday, July 9, 2012

Music Monday: Mozart's First Symphony

Each Monday, I share a piece of music I really enjoy. This week I am jumping back to the Classical period to talk about Mozart's earliest symphonies, his first in particular.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Symphony No. 1 (1764)

When you think of a symphony, you probably think of a big orchestra, and music that goes on forever. At least, that's what I always thought of, before I got to college. So, it was a bit hard for me to believe that Joseph Haydn (a contemporary of Mozart's) wrote over a hundred of them during his career! Mozart's exact number is debated, but he definitely wrote over forty. Most later composers were lucky to reach nine (or unlucky, if you believe in the curse).

I soon realized that these earlier symphonies were pretty different from my idea of what a symphony was. When the form first developed, they were much smaller, often serving as a kind of interlude between the featured music of a concert. Today, the symphonies are the featured music, and typically will last anywhere from thirty minutes to over an hour. But many of the earliest symphonies -- in addition to being played by a much smaller group of instruments -- were barely ten minutes long.

When I decided that I wanted to focus on an earlier symphony for this week, I sat down and listened again to the first few CD's in my set of Mozart's complete symphonies. I'd heard them all before, of course, sometimes listening with more focus, often simply as background music. But it was interesting to listen with the intent of discussing them, because I kept noticing certain things.

Because they're so short (individual movements lasting only a few minutes), and because of the conventions of the time (specifically where and when to include repeats), the music can feel very repetative. Also, there is not nearly as much development as I'm used to from listening to 19th-century works. Every so often I'd hear something a little different and think, "Ooh, that's interesting," but it would last only a couple measures before going back to the same theme we'd already heard. I admit, every time it happened I felt a little let down, but it was like hearing a hint of things to come. And, as I approached the end of his early period, I started to hear more and more of these moments, and they started lasting a little bit longer. It was a strange experience, listening to Mozart's music maturing over time.

Mozart had been composing short pieces for the keyboard from the age of five, and shortly after that began adding works for violin (which he also played). He composed his first symphony at age eight. EIGHT!!! I don't remember what I was doing at eight years old, but it certainly wasn't writing symphonies! Listening to it, it isn't anything special, certainly not compared with Mozart's output as a whole. But it's still good. It's actually one of my favorites among his early pieces. Plus, did I mention he was only eight when he wrote it? Nothing like a prodigy to make the rest of us feel like we're wasting our lives . . . or is that just me?

I especially like the second movement (starting at about 6:05). To me it seems to have a kind of depth, despite its simplicity. The continuous pulse of the strings, the relentless push of the horns, the simple melody in the bass . . . it just combines to create something much more than the sum of its parts, and to me that is one of the characteristics of great music. Even before he'd developed his own style, Mozart understood how to do that.

Thanks for reading my latest Music Monday, my little way of sharing something I'm passionate about while introducing you to music you may be unfamiliar with. Let me know if you've enjoyed it, and let me know if there's something out there you think I should listen to.

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