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By Jason Sundram

Symphony #31 in D major Paris K. 297 (300a) (1778)



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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (January 27, 1756–December 5, 1791)

  1. Allegro
  2. Andante
  3. Allegro

In the summer of 1778, Mozart and his mother left Salzburg on a fateful journey to Paris, in search of a salaried position for 22-year-old Wolfgang. Mozart would return to Salzburg alone and dejected; the death of his mother and his inability to find a position made the trip a failure.

Parisians remembered Mozart as the 8-year-old virtuoso who had toured Europe for three years. In 1778, an older Mozart hoped to impress potential employers while defraying travel expenses with public concerts of his compositions. These compositions, written expressly for Paris, would include the Paris symphony, a piano sonata (K. 310), and a violin sonata (K. 304), among others. His father’s advice was: “Be guided by the French taste. If you can only win applause and be well paid, let the devil take the rest!"

Mozart did allow himself to be guided by French taste. Parisian orchestras of the time were very proud of le premier coup d’archet (the attack on the first note of a piece), taking particular care to begin exactly together. In his only symphony for Paris, Mozart constructed the Allegro movements to highlight le premier coup d’archet. Concert Spirituel, the orchestra which premiered the Paris, was larger than the Salzburg orchestra; it included clarinets, and generally had more instruments per part. Mozart accommodated Concert Spirituel by using clarinets in a symphony for the first time in the Paris. He was, however, cautious; the two clarinets usually double other instruments, and are scored in a low register so they don’t protrude.

Mozart, eager to make a good impression, even composed a new Andante at the behest of Joseph Legros, the director of Concert Spirituel. Legros, according to musicologist Neal Zaslaw, may have found the original Andante boring. Mozart, as he wrote to his father on July 9, 1778, saw nothing wrong with the original Andante. His complaisance may have been due to the recent death of his mother on July 3.

The symphony was premiered on June 18, 1778. The first and only rehearsal (as was usual in that time) took place the previous day. After the rehearsal, Mozart wrote a letter to his father, confessing “never in my life have I heard a worse performance.” He even considered skipping town, fearing the performance would be an utter fiasco. Unsure of how the symphony would be received, he was still sure of its worth, though. “I cannot say whether it will be popular . . . I still hope, however that even asses find in it something to admire."