Symphony in D major “Parisian”, K. 297

“I had to write a symphony for the opening of Concerts Spirituels. It was performed on Corpus Christie with great success; I hear they mentioned it in Courrier de l’Europe. Unusually, they liked it.” Thus Mozart begins a letter written on July 3rd 1778 to his father, in which he talks about the success of his latest work in Paris at length and in surprising detail. “The audience rewarded my symphony with great applause. Afterwards, in my joy, I went to the Palais Royal, ate a good ice cream, performed my rosary and went home since I am generally happiest there” continued Mozart in this chatty and eloquent letter.

He even comments on Voltaire’s death a few days earlier, currying favour with his father’s own inclinations (“… that godless, chief chief scoundrel Voltaire has died like a dog, like an animal – a fitting end for him!”) He briefly mentions the plan for an opera (“… the situation with opera is that it is so hard to find a good libretto”, and finishes with his usual formulaic closing lines: “All the best. I kiss your hand a thousand times, I hug my sister heartily and remain your most obedient son…” The only thing that this “most obedient son” did not report to his father was that his mother, Anna Maria, with whom he had arrived in Paris weeks earlier, had died only a few hours before. It seems Mozart wanted to cause his father the least amount of distress, and along with the letter quoted above, wrote to an old friend of the family explaining what had happened and asked him to prepare his father and sister in their souls “for the worst”. Mozart wrote and told his father the truth six days later.

Anna Maria’s death was only the latest, but certainly the most tragic, event of what proved to have been a quite unfortunate trip. The 22 year old composer only remained in Paris for two months but during this time he did not write a single work, and there was not a single premiere. Although the aristocracy had been extremely enthusiastic 15 years before when he was presented as a child prodigy, as a young, adult – yet superbly talented – composer, he was far less interesting for them. Mozart’s “influential friends” could do little to help him with their connections. As Count Grimm, one of Mozart’s most distinguished Parisian admirers said later: “Mozart would have gone much further if he had been twice as talented in intrigue and only half as gifted in music.” The trip ended in Salzburg: after a year’s absence, Mozart returned to his home town both musically and humanly wiser, where he had no option but to work again for the archbishops.

Although Mozart did not like the French – neither their behaviour not their clothing or music – he was still prepared to try and overcome his antipathies to achieve success. In the symphony he wrote for Paris, he perfectly exploits the characteristic features of contemporary French music, sometimes employing local conventions, other times reversing them. In the July 3rd letter, we can observe with tremendous clarity Mozart’s compositional procedures: “… the symphony began. Soon in the centre of the first Allegro there is a passage which I knew must please: every member of the audience loved it and there was great applause. I knew when I wrote it what an impact it would have, and I wrote it again at the end: the same thing happened again. They also liked the Andante and particularly the concluding Allegro. I had heard that in Paris, closing Allegros, just as with opening movements, begin with all the instruments playing together, usually unisono; for this reason, I began with just two violins, piano, for eight bars, and then a forte followed. The audience (as I had calculated) whispered during the piano – then came the forte: they equate hearing forte with clapping.”

This gives us a fascinating insight into contemporary performance traditions (audiences applauded not only between movements but at interesting compositional features – to the greatest joy of the composer), but we can also how Mozart consciously used his knowledge of French music and how rationally he calculated just how he could move the audience with music. The pride of French orchestras was the characteristic nature of opening and closing movements, movements began with a perfectly executed premiere coup d’archet, which is to say the entire orchestra launched in unison, during the course of which all the string instruments “pluck the strings” at once.  We saw how Mozart went against his tradition in the closing movement but he could do so because he had adhered to it in the launch of the first movement. The Concert Spirituels orchestra was one of the finest in Europe at that time, its players significantly outnumbering those found in Salzburg orchestras. Mozart here first encountered the clarinet, that was to be of such profound importance to him later in his career. However in this symphony, he was content to treats them with care: their role is no more than doubling other instrumental lines employing lower registers so they don’t leap out from the orchestral background.

Although the symphony enjoyed a catastrophic rehearsal in the morning, it was a success on its premiere, but the orchestra’s impressario, Le Gros, made Mozart composer a new slow movement for later performances. “Sadly the Andante did not satisfy him. He said there were two many modulations in it, and it was also too long” he wrote to his father on July 9th, and he did indeed composer a much simpler Andante, which – looking back with two hundred and fifty years of hindsight, is more boring than the original slow movement. Quite why Mozart who was satisfied with the work and was not one to make artistic compromises, wrote this second movement is unknown, but we must perhaps suspect that his mother’s death a few days before perhaps made him more pliable.