Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his 40th symphony in the summer of 1788, one of three symphonies he wrote between June and August of that year. Louis Biancolli considers these three symphonies the greatest Mozart composed. In writing this amount of music in a relatively short period of time, should it be considered a masterpiece? Qualities in the first movement will be under consideration for this determination.
David Dubal tells us that a true work of art should “not only add something new”, but “transmit and enrich the old”. He also states that a masterpiece would be appreciated in every generation. Carl Dahlhaus poses that an authentic masterpiece should be in line with the philosophy of the time it was written. Putting these two thoughts together then, a masterpiece should be in tune with the philosphy of its time while adding something new to the enrichment of familiar ideas, and would be appreciated and recognized as an important work of art by subsequent generations.
In order to investigate if this symphony is attuned to its time, we must look at the society in which it was written. The eighteenth century encompassed a time of major change, initiated by scientific and philosophical discovery. Isaac Newton’s discoveries in the laws of motion and gravity lead to the belief that natural laws such as these dictated what happened in everyday life rather than direct, everyday involvement in mundane details from a supreme being. This is not to say there was a shift away from belief in, or worship of, a supreme being, only that society felt He did not often get involved in everyday affairs.
These discoveries enabled society to have more faith in human reason, and historians label this as the ‘Enlightenment’ period, or the Age of Reason. Actions by leading figures such as David Hume in England and Scotland, and Voltaire in France caused widespread revolutions and revolts against the establishments of the courts and the church that ruled the western world. The idea that certain people were more important by divine ruling was replaced by the belief that everyone should have equal importance in the eyes of society. This belief sparked major revolutions such as the American Revolution and the French Revolution, and installed democratic governments instead of monarchies.
Now that that power and wealth were available to more than just the aristocrat, economic success was a possibility for the common people. This meant music that was previously only afforded by the wealthy monarchies and church was now accessible to the middle class. Concerts for the general public could be organized and attended, and musical instruments such as the newly invented piano could be bought and played by amateurs.
Composers now could attempt to support themselves by writing for the general public rather than only for a patron from the courts or church. This gave them more freedom in what and when they wished to compose. Mozart grew increasingly frustrated with...