Mozart & Sibelius

Event details

  • Sunday | May 13, 2018
  • 5:00 pm
  • Porter Auditorium, Wesleyan College

Join the GSO for Mother's Day as two masters combine in a concert full of melodic manipulation. The opening of Mozart's "Famous 40th" has appeared in commercials, films, and even ring tones. Sibelius' colorful orchestration in his second symphony contributes to it being one of his most often performed masterpieces. The sublime last movement creates a finale for the Georgia Symphony's 67th season that is not to be missed.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Symphony No. 40
Jean Sibelius Symphony No. 2

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) spent much of his life writing what was expected of him, in order to please his father, Leopold, his adoring fans or his employers.  In order to meet these demands, he copied the popular styles of his peers, at the same time perfecting them.  Thus his own music became the model of Classicism.  But with maturity came a desire to produce music that was truly his own.  In 1781, Mozart settled in Vienna, abandoning the security and servitude of a hometown court position to become an independent virtuoso in the musical center of Europe.  His creativity did not impress the Viennese, however, who rebuffed the challenge of bolder, more personal works.  These include his last and greatest symphonies produced in the summer of 1788:  The Symphony No. 39 in E-flat Major; the Symphony No. 40 in G Minor; and the Symphony No. 41 in C Major (“Jupiter”).  Mozart never mentioned these symphonies in letters, perhaps fearing they would be viewed as excessive and capricious.  (Keep this in mind as you listen!)  Following this surge in creativity, he saw little in the way of commissions and performance prospects.  In the end, Mozart died bankrupt and alone, and one wonders what even greater music he would have written had his circumstances been different.

A somber work without trumpets or drums, Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550, the “Great” G minor symphony (as opposed to the Little” G minor Symphony, No. 25), holds a place of its own among Mozart’s last masterpieces.  It has been said that Mozart was too much a classicist and a professional to allow personal feelings to intrude upon his creativity and, in most cases, this appears to be true:  his “happiest” works belie the fact that his personal circumstances were wretched, even at the best of times.  Yet Symphony No. 40 does indeed appear to reflect his life experience which, at this stage, included financial woes, declining popularity, his wife’s illness, and the recent failure of his opera  Don Giovanni.  

Symphony No. 40 reflects Mozart’s frame of mind in several ways:  the nervous drive and harmonic drama of the opening Allegro; an Andante that is lilting, yet also restrained and melancholy; the intense, even ponderous, tone of the Menuetto; and the Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress”) nature of the Finale, written in the minor key to the very end, its course offering no hope of a “sunshine” ending.  This is the real Mozart, unencumbered by the wishes of parent, public, or commissioners, his “excesses” straining Classical boundaries while remaining totally under control.  Symphony No. 40 is a stunning masterwork, one described by music scholar Charles Rosen as “a work of passion, violence and grief.”

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957), is probably the most widely recognized Scandinavian composer of the last century, his fame rivaled only by the Norwegian Edvard Grieg and, more recently, by the Danish Carl Nielsen.  His post-romantic style is like Mahler’s in its lush expansiveness and conservative tonality – he did not seek, as did his peers, to avoid traditional harmony – yet his harmonic imagination and innovative musical structure mark him as a progressive.

Sibelius’ early works – tone poems based on the Finnish epic Kalevala (1893-95), the popular En Saga (1892) and The Swan of Tuonela (1893) – represent the composer’s nationalist pride in the face of tsarist repression in the 1890s.  In 1897, the Finnish senate, in a bold political move, granted Sibelius a pension, freeing him from the necessity of teaching and enabling him to devote his energies to composition.  A few years later, in 1899, he produced the first of his symphonies and the stirring Finlandia, beloved by audiences world-wide for its uncompromising nationalistic fervor.  Sibelius composed in every musical form except opera – symphonic poems, orchestral suites, the famous violin concerto, chamber music, songs and piano pieces – but his reputation rests on his seven symphonies, written from 1899 to 1924.

By the turn of the new century, having traveled widely, Sibelius was well on his way to achieving international recognition, and with this came a material security few artists even dare to hope for.  But given the freedom to do as he pleased, he composed less and less, content to live in seclusion on his private estate.  Sibelius’ last symphony appeared in 1924; in 1927, he composed incidental music for a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest; after that, nothing.  As William Machlis put it, “With every incentive to go on producing – fame, leisure, an eager public – Sibelius’ muse fell silent ….”

Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43, was completed in 1901, following Sibelius’ travels to Paris, Germany and Italy. The course of the opening Allegro is one of constant thematic metamorphosis, an assemblage of several melodic fragments seemingly conceived, as Stephen Johnson writes, “in one great imaginative sweep.”  In the dramatic Andante, the symphony’s longest movement, Sibelius turns somber, covering significant emotional ground while channeling Tchaikovsky in moments of deep pathos.  The third movement, a whirling scherzo  marked Vivacissimo, has an unconventional trio section, hymn-like episodes which recall the dark tone of the second movement.  The final re-statement of the scherzo’s theme serves as a lead-in to the final Allegro, a movement which, as Hans-Christian Schmidt puts it, “manages to reach a level of emotional intensity that gets dangerously under the listener’s skin.”  Ending the work is a stunning build-up of both emotional and orchestral resources.


Nicolas Slonimsky, ed., The Concise Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Music, Schirmer Books, New York, New York, 1994

Don Michael Randel, The Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, and London, England, 1996.

Maynard Solomon, Mozart: A Life, Harper Collins Publishers, Inc., New York, New York, 1995.

Carnegie Hall presents The Met Orchestra, January 23, 2011, Program Notes by Jay Goodwin, 

William Machlis, The Enjoyment of Music, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, New York, 1984.

BBC Music, Vol. IV, Number 3, Sibelius Symphony No. 2, Walton Symphony No. 2, liner notes by Stephen Johnson, CD BBC 34D, 1993, 1995.

Sibelius-Mehta, New York Philharmonic, Symphony No. 2, Finlandia, liner notes by Hans-Christian Schmidt, trans. Clive Williams, Teldec CD 2292-46317-2 1990.