[Essay originally written for MUSIC 2224, “Mozart in History, History in Mozart” at Cornell University, taught by Professor Neal Zaslaw, February 2019.]
When Wolfgang left Salzburg at the age of 21 for Mannheim and eventually Paris, he was accompanied by his mother and full of hope for his future prospects. On this journey, however, he experienced the loss of both of these, faced instead with rejection of employment and the unfortunate death of his mother. Mozart’s K. 297 “Paris” symphony reflects Wolfgang’s hopelessness and longing for the past which he must have felt during his travels in Paris in 1777.
It is undeniably true that in Mozart’s childhood, he was greatly admired. Therefore, as he grew older and the novelty of the title of “prodigy” began to fade, he grappled with the idea that he was not as well or as widely-liked as he was in his youth. This concern was only magnified by his struggles to find employment. After leaving home with his mother, the pair initially went to Mannheim in hopes of finding either commissions or a permanent position for Wolfgang. When this failed, they left Mannheim and, by Leopold’s orders, ventured on to Paris in hopes of better results. He faced similar setbacks there; however, he did receive a commission from the director of the Concert spirituel, Joseph Legros. From this commission came K. 297, “the Paris symphony”. The symphony was written by Wolfgang and performed on Corpus Christi amidst his internal struggles with his mother’s grave illness, eventual death, and the burden of having to relay such news to his father and sister in Salzburg.
It is no wonder that out of all this hardship, Wolfgang would yearn for the relative simplicity of his past, in which he was adored by crowds as far as Paris, all with his family and mother by his side. “The Paris symphony” clearly demonstrates this, as it seems Wolfgang wrote it almost entirely with a single question in mind: what would put him in favor with the Parisian audience? This may not outwardly appear to be the case when one examines much of Wolfgang’s correspondence concerning the symphony. In 1778, Wolfgang states in a letter to his father that he does not know how the audience will feel about the symphony, and that he frankly does not “consider it a great misfortune if they don’t like it” (Eisen). However, every part of this statement is probably dishonest on Wolfgang’s part. He knew that the audience would adore the symphony. In fact, he knew which parts of the symphony they would enjoy the most, as he accurately predicted there would be a loud applause in response to a section in the middle of the opening allegro, which motivated him to also introduce it at the end. He was also sure to include the premier coup d’archet, “a common orchestral gesture in which all the instruments started together with a unison or chord”, even though he himself found the French’s emphasis on the gesture “laughable” (Eisen). Mozart’s efforts to please continued beyond the symphony’s premier, as he provides a new version of the Andante in a later published edition of the symphony so as to suit the tastes of the commissioner, Legros.
Wolfgang’s hardship in his early adulthood had a great impact on his works at the time. This is easily observed in K. 297, “the Paris symphony”, as his efforts to please his audience and his commissioner display his hopes to return to a more prosperous, happier time.
Eisen, Cliff et. al. The Mozart Project. Pipedreams Media, 2014, pp. 139–141.
“Mozart to his father, 3 July 1778, Paris.” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: A Life in Letters, edited by Cliff Eisen, Penguin Books, 2006, pp. 307–311.
“Maria Anne Mozart to her husband, 1778, Paris [Mozart’s Postscript].” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: A Life in Letters, edited by Cliff Eisen, Penguin Books, 2006, pp. 301–305.