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Phil Lambert examines the mythology of Mozart in this interview with Scottish conductor Douglas Boyd.

Of all the great composers, few are obscured by as much myth as Mozart. The ‘Mozart Myth’ was kicked off by his admittedly sensational childhood – the boy wonder who astonished Europe, charmed monarchs, and attracted the mentorship of the leading composers of the day. According to the Myth, propagated by theatre and film, the child prodigy grew into the chaotic adult who, despite his foul mouth and fart jokes, became God’s musical conduit. Why, all he had to do was dip his quill and the glorious notes poured forth, with no effort on Mozart’s part at all

It’s an attractive myth, and certainly a theatrical one, but it’s not the truth, or at least not the whole truth. Mozart worked tirelessly at his craft, often revised works and sought continual self-improvement by studying past masters. But there is one episode, late in Mozart’s short life, which even the most hard-eyed and unsentimental musicologists have not yet explained, and that is the appearance within a single summer of not just one, but three of the greatest symphonies ever penned. They were not commissioned, nor was there any particular concert series coming up to ensure their performance. So, the questions remain: why did Mozart, the most practical of all composers, write them, and how on earth did he deliver three works of such magnitude within such a short timeframe? Scottish conductor Douglas Boyd has his own theory on the miracle of Mozart’s three last symphonies, and also some thoughts on their significance.

[This article was first published in ANAM’s Music Makers Newspaper V28]

PL: In revisiting these three symphonies, I’m struck by how very different each is from the others. I mean, if you ever needed proof of Mozart’s range, in technique and imagination, there it is, in these three works. Can you tell us, in a nutshell, how you approach each one?

DB: They are so different but also so connected, not only by the fact that they were written within six weeks during one Viennese summer (1788), but also I see them as a narrative, a three-act opera without words, or perhaps, as Nikolaus Harnoncourt has suggested, a gigantic instrumental oratorio. 

I love the mystery of their conception. No commission as far as we know, in itself almost unheard of for a work of Mozart. An assumption that they were written for a subscription series that never took place... really? the middle of summer in Vienna, when most of the cultural life closed down? Perhaps it was simply an outpouring of Mozart’s innermost feelings, something he simply had to express.

We also have a trilogy of keys that seem connected: E-flat major, the masonic key of enlightenment, with an “overture" opening the proceedings - rising a third to the “stürm und drang” of the dramatic, dark key of G minor, before the light and triumph of the home key of C major, and of course in the last movement, the ultimate finale.

So, let’s return to that six-week conception. I am not sure if I could physically copy out a full score of these three symphonies in six weeks. It seems proof that the works were already “composed” in Mozart’s head and simply required the quill to copy the notes on to the page. If one inspects the original autograph of the scores, there are barely any corrections. It’s as if Mozart’s brain is the hard drive, already with the stored information and the quill is simply the printer.

Mozart's Symphony No.39 in E-flat major

PL: Mozart was always keeping an eye on what Haydn was doing and, it seems, vice versa. It can’t be a coincidence that only six months before Mozart wrote these last symphonies, Haydn published the first three of his ‘Paris’ Symphonies – also in C, G minor and E-flat?

DB: I am just about to record all the Haydn Paris symphonies - and I hadn’t realised the possible key connection. I will revisit this and let you know if I see a connection! Food for thought!

PL: You spent twelve years as Principal Oboe for the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, playing numerous concerts under the late Nikolaus Harnoncourt. What do you think you learned about these works from him, and what do you think you’ve gleaned since? 

DB: We were all blessed to work with Harnoncourt, a true revolutionary. As a conductor now, I think it’s essential to be oneself and not to copy or parody anybody else but I would be kidding myself if I didn’t say that he had a huge influence on me and a whole generation of musicians. He had a phenomenal knowledge of each work, based on extraordinary research of the composer, the score itself of course and the period in which the composer lived. But more importantly he had fantasy and was not interested in creating a museum piece. For him the greatest music could express every emotion of the human spirit and that was what made it still relevant to our lives today, something I try to use as a mantra! Essentially he was obsessed with rhetoric, that every piece had a narrative and the last three Mozart symphonies are a great example of this possibility.

PL: I know you spend most of your time conducting now, but do you ever miss the oboe?

DB: If it's not a cliché… I have another instrument now, which is the orchestra. The difference is that I don’t make a sound and I need the collaboration, ability and willingness of other musicians to make music. But the only time I miss it is when occasionally I teach oboe. I used to demonstrate a little and that is of course now impossible and a little frustrating. Otherwise I am really blessed with my new life.

Hear Mozart's truly diverse symphonies live when the Australian National Academy of Music performs Mozart 39, 40 & 41 with conductor Douglas Boyd on Friday 28 September.

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