Mozart in Paris: Symphony No. 31

Tuileries Palace in Paris where Mozart’s 31st Symphony was performed in 1778.


In 1778, at the age of 22, Mozart traveled to Paris with his ill mother in hopes of landing a job at the court of Versailles. Years earlier, as a child harpsichord prodigy, he had created a sensation in the French capital. Now, the mature Mozart’s music went over the heads of most French nobility. It seemed too complicated. There were just “too many notes.” As one review observed,

The composer obtained the commendation of lovers of the kind of music that interests the mind without touching the heart.

Mozart’s Parisian job search was ultimately unsuccessful. Following the death of his mother, Anna Maria, he returned to Salzburg a year later in 1779. But his time in Paris resulted in one spectacular, crowd-pleasing triumph: the Symphony No. 31 in D major, K. 297. The “Paris” Symphony took advantage of the large orchestra Mozart had at his disposal (this was his first symphony to use clarinets). The public premiere took place at the Concert Spirituel at Tuileries Palace, one of the earliest public concert venues.

Mozart’s letters to his father suggest his simultaneous contempt for the French and his determination to craft a symphony that would be popular with the audience. In this excerpt he anticipates the “Paris” Symphony’s public performance:

They both liked it very much. I too am very pleased with it. But whether other people will like it I do not know … I can vouch for the few intelligent French people who may be there; as for the stupid ones – I see no great harm if they don’t like it. But I hope that even these idiots will find something in it to like; and I’ve taken care not to overlook the premier coup d’archet [the loud, tutti opening developed by Lully which was popular with Parisian audiences at the time]…What a fuss these boors make of this! What the devil! – I can’t see any difference – they all begin together – just as they do elsewhere. It’s a joke.

Mozart went so far as to repeat a passage in the first movement that he thought would be popular with the audience. It was standard for eighteenth century audiences to applaud in the middle of movements if they found the music exciting:

In the middle of the opening Allegro there was a passage that I knew people would like; the whole audience was carried away by it, and there was tremendous applause. But I knew when I wrote it what sort of an effect it would make, and so I introduced it again at the end, with the result that it was encored.

Amazingly, in spite of all of Mozart’s efforts to “play to the crowd,” which included writing an alternate, now rarely heard Andante in 3/4 time, the most sublime music emerges. Contrary to the premise of this recent New York Times article, we don’t hear Mozart’s life experiences or his emotions in the music. In Paris, he ran up against the same mediocrity and petty politics we all encounter. But the music came from somewhere else. While Mozart was “playing to the crowd,” perhaps even poking fun at popular elements like the first movement’s opening Mannheim Rocket tutti, higher powers were playing through him.

No one is sure which passage Mozart purposely repeated in the first movement, but it could be the contrapuntal music first heard at 2:05. Listen to the layers of rhythm which explode with childlike enthusiasm in the inner voices at 2:58.

Throughout this symphony there are interesting sudden shifts between major and minor-moments which hint at a sense of melancholy lurking under the surface (for example listen to 10:12 in the second movement).

Here is a performance featuring period instruments with the Mozart Akademie Amsterdam conducted by Jaap Ter Linden:

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  1. Allegro assai (0:00)
  2. Andantino (8:30)
  3. Allegro (14:10)


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La Folia’s Endless Possibilities


Good composers borrow. Great ones steal.

-Igor Stravinsky

La Folia, the ancient theme/chord progression which originated in Portuguese dance music as early as 1577, was borrowed (and stolen) by composers throughout the Baroque era. VivaldiScarlattiHandel, and Jean-Baptiste Lully were among the composers who took advantage of the theme’s endlessly rich musical possibilities. Later composers also paid homage to La Folia. It surfaces briefly at this moment in the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Franz Liszt included it in his La Rhapsodie espagnole. Even contemporary Welsh composer Karl Jenkins (of “diamond commercial” fame) has written his own La Folia variations for marimba and strings.

One of the most famous Baroque versions of La Folia was Arcangelo Corelli’s. In a 2013 Listeners’ Club post we explored a few contrasting performances of this music. Shinichi Suzuki’s La Folia in the opening of Suzuki Violin Book 6 is based loosely on Corelli’s piece.

Recently, I ran across another great La Folia performed by Spanish viola da gamba player Jordi Savall. No one is sure who wrote this piece. It is part of a collection of now anonymous music called Flores de Música (“Musical Flowers”), compiled by Spanish organist and composer Antonio Martín y Coll (died c. 1734). The viola da gamba is a stringed instrument which first appeared in Spain in the mid to late fifteenth century. You’ll notice a distinctly Spanish flavor in the instrumentation (castanets and the wood of the bow hitting the strings) and rhythm (1:04, for example). Listen closely to the way the guitar’s dance-like rhythm livens things up at 5:17.

At their best, theme and variations are about fun-loving virtuosity and a wide range of expression and drama. These aspects are on full display here:

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Rachmaninov’s Variations on a Theme of Corelli

Now, let’s hear Sergei Rachmaninov’s 1931 Variations on a Theme of Corelli, Op. 42. Throughout twenty ferocious variations and a coda, the La Folia theme enters bold and adventurous new territory. Following the opening statement of the theme, the music begins quickly to move far afield harmonically. There’s a spirit of the “trickster” here as we’re thrown sudden curveballs (1:08). At the same time, it’s easy to sense something ominous and slightly gloomy under the surface. At moments we get the faintest glimpse of the outlines of the Dies Irae (the Latin “Day of Wrath” chant) which shows up in so much of Rachmaninov’s music. Listen for the ghoulish low notes around the 4:44 mark. As the final, solemn chord dies away, ghosts evaporate.

This work is dedicated to the violinist Fritz Kreisler, with whom Rachmaninov performed occasionally. Rachmaninov never recorded this piece. In a letter dated December 21, 1931 he lamented:

I’ve played the Variations about fifteen times, but of these fifteen performances only one was good. The others were sloppy. I can’t play my own compositions! And it’s so boring! Not once have I played these all in continuity. I was guided by the coughing of the audience. Whenever the coughing would increase, I would skip the next variation. Whenever there was no coughing, I would play them in proper order. In one concert, I don’t remember where – some small town – the coughing was so violent that I played only ten variations (out of 20). My best record was set in New York, where I played 18 variations. However, I hope that you will play all of them, and won’t “cough”.

You won’t hear any coughing or miss any skipped variations in Hélène Grimaud’s excellent 2001 recording:

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