Tempo in Mozart’s G minor Symphony K. 550

Last week I had the enormous pleasure of performing Mozart’s “great” G minor symphony K. 550. In preparing, rehearsing and performing this work the question of tempo was almost more pressing than elsewhere – in music from the Classical period in general and even more so in Mozart, who wrote to his father in 1777 that tempo is

“das nothwendigste und härteste und die hauptsache in der Musique.“ / (the most necessary, the most difficult and the main thing in music.)

The G minor symphony, of course, is one of the most influential symphonies to have been written before Beethoven, and with some of Beethoven’s own symphonies it shares a concern in cyclically binding the separate movements together. This Mozart achieves by structural means:

  • symmetry – the two fast movements share key, fast tempo, and a preoccupation with counterpoint and daring harmony (these latter also being valid in movements 2 and 3),
  • similarity of melodic and harmonic structure – movements 2, 3 and 4 have initial themes/motives that start with a rising fourth, movements 1 and 4 share some transitional harmonic/melodic material – and, lastly,
  • similarities of meter and tempo – the two fast outer movements are in duple time, the minuet in triple time, the slow movement in the 6/8 time signature that combines both triple and duple times.

This gives rise to the question in how far these structural correspondences should be reflected in the tempos chosen. Several “historically informed” modern performances indeed play the first and fourth movements at exactly the same tempo, contrary to “traditional” interpretations where the first movement is played much slower than the last; the effect is very coherent, but the resulting tempo of the first movement in particular is very fast and does appear rushed.

Here we should take a moment and reflect on Mozarts highly sensitive use of verbal tempo indications, and remember that not only did he frequently modify these tempo markings in his manuscripts to a degree that seems today almost too subtle, but that these modifications in fact give us a clearer idea of what he actually wanted to express in the first place. We are further exceptionally fortunate in that we know precisely what he meant with those terms, or if we do not know it, we certainly should: his own father, Leopold, was not only his teacher, he also published one of the late 17th century’s most influential musical treatises, the “Versuch einer gründlichen Violinschule”.

Contrary to the belief held by some colleagues this “Versuch” does not belong to a hazily defined pre-classical era “not applying to Mozart”; it was first published in 1756, the birth year of Wolfgang himself, and went on to have (international) new editions for the next couple of decades; the last edition was published in 1787, the year of his own demise and only four years before the death of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The book is not only one of the central texts for 18th-century performance practice, it is unique in its ability to show us, as no comparable work does (possibly excepting C. P. E. Bach’s Versuch) exactly how and what one of the great musical geniuses of all time was taught.

Let us see, then, how Leopold (and surely Wolfgang Amadeus) Mozart understands the tempo indications that appear in the four movements of the G minor symphony (Versuch, 1787 ed., p. 49f):

[Allegro molto =] “Molto Allegro, (…) ist etwas weniger als Allegro assai, doch ist es noch geschwinder als Allegro (…)” / Molto Allegro is a bit slower than Allegro assai, but it still is faster than Allegro.

“Andante, (…) gehend. Dieß Wort sagt uns schon selbst, daß man dem Stücke seinen natürlichen Gang lassen müsse” / Andante, walking. The word itself tells us that one must let the piece take its own natural pace.

“Allegretto, (…) ist etwas langsamer als Allegro, (…) hat gemeiniglich etwas angenehmes, etwas artiges und scherzhaftes, und vieles mit dem Andante (…) gemein. Es muß also artig, tändelend, und scherzhaft vorgetragen werden” / Allegretto is a bit slower than Allegro and has commonly something pleasing, something polite and humorous and has much in common with the Andante. Hence it must be performed politely, playfully and humorously.

[Allegro assai:] “Presto, (…) heißt geschwind, und das Allegro assai, (…) ist wenig davon unterschieden.” / Presto means fast, and the Allegro assai is little different from it.

Apart from the apparent fact that the four movements should be indeed played at four different tempos rather than the first and last movements sharing the same tempo we see one major implication: The symmetry remains somewhat intact, we still have two pairs of movements (a fast one and a slower one), but instead of the two fast movements sharing the same tempo the tempo of the first pair of movements is increased by one degree in the second: Molto allegro is increased to Allegro assai, Andante toAllegretto.That is, an overall symmetrical architecture becomes dynamic by the increase in speed.

For me, the real proof of this intention, which may not have been initially apparent even to Mozart himself, lies in the fact that he modified the tempo indications for the first and last movements (as can be learned from reading the Bärenreiter edition’s critical report and not only the score itself!): originally, the first movement had the heading “Allegro assai”, whereas the last movement was plain “Allegro”; Mozart then went on to modify the first downwards to “Allegro molto” and the last upwards to “Allegro assai”; that is: he decided that he wanted the last movement very fast indeed, and the first movement to be a tiny bit slower than that, but not much, otherwise he would have written plain “Allegro” or even, as my old Eulenburg score inexplicably has it, “Allegro moderato”.

It is fascinating to see that Leopold Mozart does not define “Andante” just as “at a walking pace” or some such, but that he in fact hints that the correct tempo in such pieces is best achieved when one tries not to do too much – that one must let the piece take its own natural pace. This is in my experience very true for almost all “Andante” movements from all periods and just shows that the indication “Andante” tells less about an actual speed than about an effortlessly flowing, freely developing set of mind on the performers’ part with as little conductor’s interference as possible. That in the present case the G minor symphony’s second movement this freely flowing tempo must not be too slow is self evident, especially if one performs it with both sections repeated, as written and certainly desired by Mozart here and in the fourth movement (for he does NOT write a repeat of the development+recapitulation sections in the first movement). Also, the 6/8 time signature necessitates a very definite flowing, but neither too fast approach, since otherwise (as it happens in too many performances) any ambivalence as to its effect as “in two” or “in 6” disappears and one either hears something “in 2 with triplets” throughout, or a very slow movement indeed in triple time. If successful (and that is probably among the most fiendishly difficult tasks one ever has), the effect hovers exactly in between, effortlessly changing between the two felt meters.

The third movement’s tempo is best found if one takes the eighth-notes of this neither-too-fast-nor-too-slow second movement and speeds them up considerably – the result is a minuet that has more in common with a Beethoven Scherzo than with a conventional dance movement, especially as Mozart seems to deliberately have designed it against the grain of regular dance periods – it is full of asymmetry, hemiolas and groups of three bars. – It does not seem to have anything tändelend or artig, almost exclusively resorting to an again Beethoven-like harsh sense of scherzhaft. The Trio, on the other hand, has, uniquely in the symphony, no special tempo indication. It should be clear that a composer of such a delicate and meticulous sense of written tempo indications as Mozart would certainly have written something if he wanted the tempo to be modified; but he decides to write nothing: the actual tempo remains the same, but here we are treated to the other aspects of “Allegretto” we had so far been denied: the trio is in every respect the opposite of the minuet: the minuet is in G minor, the trio in G major; the minuet is more scherzhaft and robust, the trio is more tändelend and artig: the minuet is full of metrical irregularity, the trio slightly less so; the minuet relies strongly on (double) counterpoint, the trio not at all; the minuet is mainly forte, the trio mainly piano. These striking contrasts become even stronger if the fundamental tempo is not modified; its strict maintenance is necessary to keep the movement unified.

So far I have not written about the actual tempos that I took after all these considerations – and I will not do so, since every orchestra, every hall, every single factor resulting in an actually taken tempo is highly variable.

However, the tempos that in my opinion come closest to Mozart’s intentions result when one thinks of the LAST movement’s tempo before beginning the first slightly slower; and of the third movement’s tempo before beginning the second (again slower) – this procedure ensures not only much less uncertainty before these two notoriously difficult-to-conduct beginnings, but it also keeps the first, second and third movements from dragging.