Winter, as Vivaldi observes, brings both pain and joy. However, so go all seasons, both literal and in life’s course. At times we can minimize our difficulties and see life as pure bliss all the time; in worse moods we may fail to see the light given a profusion of gloom. Such times of trouble can arrive at any time of year. So, to conclude tonight’s concert, let us unwrap Mozart’s great gift to the city of Paris, his Symphony No. 31, and reflect on the difficulty he faced in writing it—at the height of a beautiful summertime. Seeking his fortune as a mature musician after touring Europe as a child prodigy, Mozart seemed to suffer from what we might now call failure to launch. He attempted to find loyal audiences in several cities, at last trying Paris in 1778. The public responded to his compositions with enthusiasm, but the politics of the local arts scene and the tastes of the local aristocrats bothered him. A series of mishaps, including lack of payment, shored up his conviction that the town simply would not do. This symphony, a masterclass in tailoring personal style to local preferences, proved a hit at the Concert Spirituel, the ticketed concert series that had introduced the concept of a ticketed concert series in the first place. However, Mozart oversaw its premiere and subsequent repetitions under a cloud of deep anxiety: His mother, who traveled with him, had fallen ill.
In the famous 1780 portrait of the Mozart family that features father Leopold and siblings Wolfgang and Nannerl around a piano, one feels with a pang the absence of mother Anna Maria, present only in a picture on the back wall. The time of Mozart’s Parisian triumph coincided precisely with her convalescence and death, a blow that, as much as anything else, convinced him to go back to Austria. We can nonetheless celebrate the unique passion audible in this composition, sonic traces of a desire to charm. Germanic symphonies almost always had four separate movements, but in accordance with French tendencies, this one has three. Mozart even wrote two separate versions of the middle movement; tonight we hear the more fleet of them. Leopold advised his son from afar on how to cater to a fashionable crowd, and the combined wisdom shows. While Mozart may have felt snowed in by grief and despair within weeks of hearing the piece performed for the first time, the sun was shining outside, and his fame and fortune lay just a few years in the future. If this symphony had a poetic motto, it could run something like: Mourn what is lost but despair not for the future; this too shall pass, with luck and time. Perhaps we all need that message right now.