The eight weeks from 17th June to 11th August 1788 are among the most significant in the history of the spirit. One knows the dates for a very horrible reason. Mozart wrote his last three symphonies in these amazingly short eight weeks, and he wrote one letter on the day he started to compose the first of them, No.39, and he wrote another letter ten days later, the day after he completed it. Both were to a Count Puchberg who was, like Mozart himself, a Freemason, begging him for money. Begging him on the 17th and begging him even more urgently on the 27th. He said among other things, “Believe me, dear Count, I only write music in order to make money.” When one hears how one of the greatest of all minds had to humiliate himself to that extent, one feels terribly guilty and small. And there are not only these two letters, there are many of them. It makes you so ashamed to read them.
Mozart’s fate was particularly tragic in that he started very happily. His father was a violin teacher who wrote a famous book on violin playing. He was a rather hard, unbending, very righteous and may I say self-righteous man, and he was not slow in discovering the unusually precocious talents of his son. Father Mozart tried to develop them for the greater glory of God – or so he said. That it would be helpful to him as well is undisputed. Mozart very quickly made great progress both as an instrumentalist (he was a violinist and pianist) and as a composer. In the beginning his success was enormous, because he was in the highest sense of the word an entertainer, and I do not say that in any disrespectful way. But the more personal, the more profound his music became the less people took notice of him. And here, as a Viennese, I must say that my city played a very shameful part in the life of Mozart, as in the life of many other great composers. The one Vienna really treated well was Brahms, and Johann Strauss. That is not very much when you think how many lived there. In any case Mozart, who was perhaps the most universal of all musical geniuses – he excelled at any and every musical form and was better than anybody else in them – was very keen from earliest days to write operas. His first really great opera, Idomeneo, was not written for Vienna but for Munich and has never really succeeded, although to me it is one of his greatest works. I absolutely adore it.
In Salzburg his “boss” was an equally unbending clergyman, Bishop Colloredo, and he exploited Mozart just as his father did. Mozart was a very gentle person, but when he felt that this bishop treated him like dirt and he could not stand it any longer he decided to go to Vienna and try his luck there. Symphony No.34 was the last symphony he wrote before he moved to the metropolis, a move he often had reason to regret. If you come to think of it, in his early twenties he had already written 34 symphonies. This is by far the greatest he wrote before he went; it is sheer delight and entertainment in the highest sense of the word. He wants us to be happy when we listen to this glorious music. It is just lovely.
The final and, at least in a technical sense, crowning glory of his symphonic œuvre is No.41. It is impossible for me to do justice to the particular miracle of the last movement. Let it suffice to say that it is a unique combination of fugue and the sonata form. There are no fewer than five different tunes which are in certain strategic positions juxtaposed on top of each other especially in the final confrontation of these tunes. And what is so wonderful is that after all these tremendously brainy things there come some happy, easy-going bars and you think nothing has happened.
The most remarkable thing to me about these last three symphonies is not the speed with which Mozart, who was 32 years old, wrote them, but that the mood of each is totally different: the first of serene tranquility, the second of utter despair, and the third a triumph over everything. You may think that though he finished the first on 26th June he had plenty of time beforehand to think about it. That unfortunately is not so. He completed the Piano Trio in E major only four days earlier. Perhaps he thought of these three symphonies in the meantime, but it is a thing ordinary people cannot understand, and we can only be grateful such supermen exist.
Georg Tintner edited by Tanya Tintner