Mozart symphonies: where to start

Mozart wrote his first symphony when he was just eight years old, and clocked up 40 more in just over two decades. But where do you start? And which one is best? From 'Paris' to 'Jupiter', Classic FM takes you on a whistle-stop tour of Mozart’s best and most exciting symphonies.

Cutting through Mozart’s symphonies may seem a daunting task. His first had already been premiered by the time he was nine, and in just over two decades he produced more symphonies than many composers write in a lifetime. With nicknames like the 'Prague' symphony, 'Paris', or even ‘Jupiter’, it’s easy to be intimidated by their grandeur. So let’s get to grips with a few highlights.

Symphony No. 1 in E flat major

In 1764, Mozart and his family were touring London when his father Leopold was struck down with illness. Young Wolfgang wasn’t allowed to touch the piano, so he had to find other ways to occupy himself. The result? He quickly penned his Symphony No. 1 in E flat major. His father criticized the piece for being too basic, and pointed out three mistakes in the music theory, but it’s not bad for an eight-year-old… True, it’s not one of Mozart’s best works, but it’s a sign of things to come. Listen out for the French horns in the second movement – the music is simple, but it’s beautiful.

Download: Prague Chamber Orchestra/Sir Charles Mackerras

Symphony No. 6 in F major

Symphonies and operas were a lot more interchangeable in Vienna in 1767 than they are now. Mozart even rips off one of his themes from an opera he wrote that year, Apollo et Hyacinthus, in the second movement. You might be forgiven for thinking the symphony sounds a bit like an opera overture with Mozart’s fast shimmering strings and trademark fluttering flutes - it shares some of its lively characteristics with The Marriage of Figaro, composed 19 years later.

Download: The English Consort/Trevor Pinnock

Symphony No. 11 in D major and Symphony No. 12 in G major

Perhaps it’s cheating to group these two together, but they’re both examples of Mozart’s growing musical confidence. He uses his trademark features, learnt from studying Haydn and listening to opera in Vienna, but adds new and exciting music never featured in symphonies before – think uneven musical phrases, prominent tunes from the oboes and flutes, cheery violin lines, and brilliant fanfares.

Download: Grand Chamber Orchestra Moscow/Ilmar Lapinsch & Sinfonia Slovakia Chamber Orchestra/Josef Vodnansky

Symphony No. 15 in G major

Mozart certainly had a cheeky sense of humour, and he’s managed to translate it into his fifteenth symphony. The final ‘Presto’ movement is wonderfully jolly, but the joke's on us in the last few bars. The piece just doesn’t end! There are a fair few chords which imply it might be time to clap, but Mozart extends the final bars to trick us. It’s not quite side-splitting, but it certainly would have raised a smile in Salzburg in 1772.

Download: I Solisti Veneti/Claudio Scimone

Symphony No. 25 and Symphony No. 40 in G minor

Composing music in G minor might not sound like a controversial musical decision, but it was unusual at the time. With wide leaps in the tunes, and brisk rhythms in the strings, both symphonies are part of Mozart’s Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) music. Moving forward to Symphony No. 40, Mozart breaks boundaries once more – a symphony would normally end on a more positive note, in a major key, but No. 40 ends in G minor. It’s passionate and violent, and tragically beautiful.

Download: English Chamber Orchestra/Benjamin Britten

Symphony No. 31 (‘Paris’) in D major

Mozart adopts a French style of orchestral music in this symphony, written in 1778. The string players are pushed to the fore and the wind section is larger than usual – he even uses clarinets. Rushing scales and lively dynamic changes give this symphony a playful character.

Download: Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra/Claudio Abbado

Symphony No. 38 (‘Prague’) in D major

It’s still a piece designed to entertain, but from its slow introduction the ‘Prague’ symphony is set apart as something slightly more brooding. Tense and mournful in places, wistful and beautiful in others, Mozart shows us once and for all that his music is capable of a wide range of emotions. It might sound relaxing now, but the Viennese audience of 1786 found it just that little bit too stressful, and sometimes scorned his music. Luckily, it was still popular in Prague – perhaps the symphony was a token of gratitude to his loyal fans in the city?

Download: English Chamber Orchestra/Daniel Barenboim

Symphony No. 41 (‘Jupiter’) in C major

A pinch of playful naivety, a dash of European grandeur, and a hint of operatic humour thrown in for good measure: the majestic C major blaze of the ‘Jupiter’ symphony takes the best features of Mozart’s style and fits them all together in a fantastic five-movement musical jigsaw. Initially Mozart was criticised for his hotch-potch approach to composition, but every movement showcases another great Mozart moment. As if to show the world how far he’s come, the beautifully simple French horn tune from the first symphony is back – and this time, it’s the focus of the entire finale. It’s a fantastic conclusion to Mozart’s symphonies; perhaps he knew it would be his last.

Download: Orchestra Mozart/Claudio Abbado