Mozart was 32 when he wrote his last three symphonies in the summer of 1788. Seven successful years as an independent composer-performer-impresario in Vienna had made him prosperous. However when the Austrian Empire, of which Vienna was the capital, declared war on the Ottoman Empire (today, Turkey) in February of that year, the Viennese economy fizzled, and Mozart’s career fizzled with it. His livelihood depended on the Viennese moneyed class, which dwindled as upper-class men left the city to serve as military officers, or went to their country estates to avoid questions about why they weren’t serving.
In June of 1788 Mozart moved his family from his apartment in the centre of Vienna to a more spacious suburban residence at Alsergrund 135 (today Währingerstraße 26), a seven-room apartment with a garden attached. The rooms were spacious and it is speculated that Mozart intended to use the large rooms for rehearsals of music he was about to compose. It was in this house that Mozart would compose his last three symphonies (Nos. 39, 40, and 41, all from 1788), and the last of the three Da Ponte operas, Cosi fan tutte, which premiered in 1790.
Evidently the music for Symphony 39 was already in Mozart‘s head as he made the move to Alsergrund and he finished it on June 25; No. 40 followed on July 26 and No. 41 on August 10. That’s two months give or take a few days, a compositional speed record for such masterpieces.
Contrary to common belief, Mozart heard and possibly performed the three symphonies. He had orchestra parts copied, an expense he would not have incurred unless he needed them for a performance and he went to the trouble of re-orchestrating the G-minor Symphony to add clarinets, an effort that would have made no sense unless the Symphony were going to be played.
Mozart included symphonies, most likely from this final set, in concerts he gave in Leipzig in 1789 and Frankfurt in 1790, and a Mozart symphony was performed at a concert led by Antonio Salieri in Vienna in 1791. Programs do not include numbers for these symphonies but it is not likely that Mozart would have passed up a chance to show off one or another of his new works. The orchestra for Salieri’s 1791 Vienna concert included the clarinetists Johann and Anton Stadler, probably the reason for the second version of the G-minor Symphony with clarinets.
The Symphony in E-flat is the only symphony from Mozart’s adulthood that does not use oboes, which means that the clarinets are given unusual prominence. It also has a slow introduction, a common feature in symphonies of the day, but rare in Mozart. This slow introduction is a grand procession eventually dissolving in a few misty bars before the energetic Allegro makes a cautious entrance.
The ambling Andante con moto and the energetic Minuet are typical of Mozart’s mature symphonies. The middle section of the Minuet, with one clarinet playing a simple but unforgettable little tune over the other clarinet’s bubbling arpeggios, would most likely have been composed with the Stadler brothers in mind.
Mozart’s finales are often remarkable for their sheer number of melodic ideas, but the finale of this Symphony relies essentially on a single theme, explored, varied and worked over in the style of Haydn.