Linzanity in the Concert Hall

It was great to return to Mozart’s Symphony no. 36 last week after a long break since my last encounter with it. The last performance I was involved in was not, as they say, entirely satisfying, and sometimes the best thing for one’s relationship with a piece is to set it aside for a while.

More than almost any other piece, I think the Linz tells you a lot about the kind of composer Mozart was. Famously, he wrote it in only four days. In spite of this, I think any musical person will recognize that in those four days, he wrote a masterpiece. For all its beauties, the Linz has never commanded quite the respect accorded the last four Mozart symphonies, especially the G minor and his next and last C major symphony, the Jupiter. Is the Linz a lesser piece than the Jupiter? Well, I suppose so, but not in all categories. Maybe if he’d had six days to write it, he might even have surpassed the Jupiter? More than any of his other works, I think the Linz shows Mozart’s unique mixture of genius and pragmatism.

In many ways, I think the first movement of the Linz is much more beautiful and rather more interesting than that of no. 41. The thematic material is richer and more interesting, not to mention more memorable. The slow introduction in no. 36 is so striking, and incredibly rhetorically interesting- much more original and interesting than the foursquare and rather formulaic opening of no. 41. And has there ever been a symphonic Allegro that opened more beautifully and magically  than that of the Linz?

So, why is the Jupiter the greater piece? How can you tell Mozart was working at great speed?

The key is in the developments of the first and last movements. The developments of the first movements of the Jupiter and Linz are on a similarly modest scale, but the Jupiter makes far more use of all the material in the exposition- 90% of the development of the first movement of the Linz comes from one idea in the closing theme. By limiting the scale and ambition of the development of the Linz, Mozart was able to save himself a lot of time sketching or working out how to combine and develop the ideas of the exposition more fully. In the Jupiter, Mozart slightly limits the scale of the development of the first movement to make all the more impressive the development of the Finale.

It’s Finale of the Jupiter which makes the symphony as a whole a strong contender for “greatest symphony ever written.” The development of the last movement of the Jupiter is, quite simply, one of the most astounding things in any field of art or science ever created by a member of the human race, and then Mozart surpasses even that in the Coda. Compare that with the Finale of the Linz- I would contend that the exposition of the last movement of the Linz is just as good and in some ways more interesting than that of the Jupiter, but the development of the Finale in the Linz is pretty pro forma. Mozart just uses one four-bar idea in the development, which he passes around the orchestra in not-very-interesting ways. Imagine the movement he could have written if he’d had the time and inclination to find a way to properly integrate and develop all of the ideas of the exposition? Even for Mozart, that kind of developmental work took time and usually quite a bit of sketching, something he didn’t have time for on his four day deadline.

What is so amazing, however, is that other than these two development sections, the Linz is about the most beautiful, rich and fascinating piece imaginable. One could (and should if you are conducting it) spend hours just decoding the first forty bars of the first movement.  Everything in it is so wonderfully detailed, so original and so full of fascinating structural and rhetorical touches that it never ceases to amaze me.

My long-time colleague at the Rose City International Conductor’s Workshop, David Hoose, used to tell the students every year “when you study, sit on your hands.” His point was that you should spend a long, long time thinking about the music before you start trying to figure out how to show it. If ever there was a case in point of the wisdom of David’s advice, it’s the 2nd mvt of the Linz. It’s a piece I’d love to teach one summer, but I fear it is too hard by several orders of magnitude for a teaching situation. This movement needs such nuance and sensitivity, not to mention tons of detail of articulation, and an incredible awareness of light and shade and strong and weak, none of which is really written in the music. As a conductor, you’ve got to either show it all or coach it all (and most players don’t like too much coaching). Either way, if you just get your score out and think “hmm, in six or in two?” before chucking your batons and your Urtext in your leather bag, you may not be screwed, but your musicians and your audience sure are.


Post script- I’ve previously defended the old Breitkopf editions of many of the Mozart symphonies is “not too bad, and certainly useable.” Not in this piece. Said old edition managed to sneak its way on to the musicians stands last week, and it is a mess. Stick with the NMA for this work and avoid the old edition at all costs.

Post- post script- A colleague who was also doing the piece last week remarked on Twitter that the piece needed to be de-Kleiberized. As it happens, I haven’t watched the famous Kleiber film in a long, long time. I had long feared that I hadn’t achieved complete de-Kleiberization in this piece, but after the concert I felt like my own view of the piece had evolved well past my boundless admiration for Kleiber’s performance with the VPO (at least as I remember it). Some time this week, I’ll watch CK again and let you know what I think….

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

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1 comment on “Linzanity in the Concert Hall”

  1. Peter

    What lovely advice from David Hoose. I must admit it is becoming harder to ‘sit on my hands’ the more experienced I become so I will work harder at this! The Linz is very special to me as it is really the first piece I studied for a course. Will be performing it next year and thankfully will not need de-Kleiberisation as I have never seen the performance in question! I may need de-Harnoncourting or de-Mackerrasing, however, although I haven’t seen them do it!

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