Mozart wrote over fifty symphonies, but only two of them, the 25th and 40th, are in a minor key. Interestingly, those two are some of his most highly regarded and most often played works. Why did he write only two symphonies in a minor key?

One argument might be the minor keys are, at least now, considered to have a more doleful sound and the time of the 40th Mozart was having financial problems, but were minor keys considered doleful in Mozart's time the way they are now? Did he ever write anything giving a clue to his motivations in his compositions?

  • Interestingly, they're both in G minor. That might provide a clue.... – Dekkadeci Jun 6 '18 at 14:05
  • Beethoven only wrote two in a minor key for that matter. In general, the "Classical" (and those writing between 1750 to 1830 or so) tended to favor major keys. The Baroque and Romantic eras seemed to treat major and minor keys equally (at least numerically.) Haydn's score is 97 major and 7 minor. As symphonies are generally named for the key of the first movement; the imbalance between the amount of time spend in major and minor could be different. – ttw Jun 6 '18 at 16:24
  • It's only speculation, but the changing nature of tunings and temperaments might have made minor keys besides G minor unpleasant to Mozart's ears while other composers before and after him might have heard them more favorably. – Todd Wilcox Jun 6 '18 at 17:53
  • Over 50 symphonies? I've heard of the first 41. Where did you find the others? – JimM Jun 6 '18 at 19:37
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    @JimM It’s surprisingly difficult to nail down precisely how many symphonies Mozart wrote. Of the traditional 41, at least four are all but definitely not by him (#s 2, 3, 11 and 37). However there are many symphonies that were all but certainly written by him that aren’t in the traditional numbering scheme. If you’re conservative about what pieces should count, you arrive at somewhere around 45 or even 50 symphonies. If you don’t worry about the pieces of doubtful authenticity you wind up wit well over 50. – Pat Muchmore Jun 7 '18 at 11:09

A possible reason could be "natural horns and trumpets." To use these instruments in a minor key, either you can't use the (major) third from the instruments' harmonic series of notes, or you can write for two instruments in different keys (e.g. one horn in G and one in B flat in G minor) and then dovetail the required notes together from both instruments. Both options are limiting for the composer, and the second may have been problematic in performance as well.

When a piece using natural brass instruments modulate to another key, the available notes were restricted to some extend regardless of whether the new key was major or minor, and often the composer's solution to the problem was simply to give the brass (and timpani) a rest during the modulation.

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