Mozart’s three final symphonies are perhaps his best-loved, what do you think it is about them that people respond to?

They contain every emotion of the human spirit and, as Nikolaus Harnoncourt has said, they may be a kind of narrative or instrumental oratorium. No 39 begins like an overture in the key of E Flat, the key of masonic enlightenment and nobility and ends… without a proper ending. No 40 (which has almost no beginning) is in the key of ‘Death’ – G minor, a symphony which we all know too well, sometimes thought of as a kind of relaxing backdrop,  but is in fact the epitome of Stürm und Drang (storm and stress), terror and angst. No 41 becomes the ultimate triumph in the most open key of C major with one of the greatest finales ever created. Tonality and what each key represented, and could express, were essential expressive tools for Mozart.

Douglas Boyd, ANAM, MozartDouglas Boyd. Photo © Jean-Baptiste Millot

Mozart’s circumstances were somewhat straitened when he wrote these, do you hear evidence of his personal and professional struggles in this music?

Well not, at least, in the ease of writing. We know they were all completed in a six week period from June to July 1788. If you look at the manuscript there is a barely a crossing out or error. It is as if they were already composed in his head and simply copied out – think of Mozart’s brain as the hard drive and his quill as the printer. That is an astonishing concept. Yet I would challenge anyone just to copy these symphonies in six weeks by hand! On the other hand he was in financially difficult straits and, more painfully, had lost a child that summer. There seems to be no proof that these symphonies were commissioned or even performed and in fact the summer was a lean period in Vienna for performances. Maybe Mozart had a deep yearning to create this narrative for its own sake.

He was still quite productive in the final years up to his death – why do you think he left off writing symphonies after 1788?

He, like most composers, was reactive to commissions, so that could be one reason. Perhaps consciously or unconsciously he knew he had said everything he needed to say in this genre.

For you, who have been the greatest Mozart interpreters? 

Of course there is no ‘truth’ which is why these incredible works will be played for eternity and have endless possibilities for interpretation. We have to remember that Mozart, like Haydn essentially wrote very few instructions other than soft/loud and tempo indications, which create the greatest challenges (unlike say, Mahler, who can give instructions nearly every bar). Having said that, I was part of a generation that was blessed to work in The Chamber Orchestra of Europe with Harnoncourt, who was a true revolutionary, combining extraordinary research and fantasy.

Do you think coming from an oboe background has given you a different perspective on Mozart compared with conductors from a string or piano background?

I would only say that the essence of Mozart is in opera, with phrasing and especially with breathing – all essential to be a good oboist! Playing the oboe is very close to the singing so that helps.

What are the challenges for an orchestra in this music?

Many! Also for the conductor! To find transparency, for string players to use the right hand for expression rather than only using left hand vibrato, to release the sound so every voice speaks in conversation. To find the myriad colours so that – see above! – the audience get a sense of all our emotions being expressed through music, from joy to terror. To find the right tempi and within the tempi, flexibility so that the music has pulse but is not rigid – in the same way as our hearts and blood stream have rhythm but the heart beat subtly changes.

This is your first residency at the Australian National Academy of Music – what are the pleasures of working with student orchestras?

I love working with students because there is an openness to ideas and to experiment. Also for some students it may well be their first experience of these works and the revelation that this brings often outweighs any lack of experience from having played these symphonies many times. I conducted the Australian Youth Orchestra a while back and it was one of the most inspiring projects I was ever involved with, so I am so looking forward to returning to Australia to work at ANAM.

Douglas Boyd conducts the ANAM Orchestra at Melbourne Recital Centre on September 28