"Because of Mozart," playwright Wendy Wasserstein once lamented, "it's all over after age seven." Indeed, Mozart's considerable legend even today owes its existence largely to the barely credible notion of a mere boy who, in the words of his father "[knew] in his eighth year what one would expect only from a man of forty." Yet while the boy's wunderkind exploits retain a central position in discussions of his life and works, it is perhaps more interesting to view his youthful efforts as the stepping stones -- and how gemlike they are -- of a composer finding his way toward a mature and more fully realized means of expression. Clearly the creative impulses of the young composer were occasionally susceptible to the lapses one expects of an inexperienced hand: "You will find three [forbidden] consecutive fifths in the violin part," father Leopold wrote of Wolfgang's first published work, "which my young gentleman perpetrated and which, although I corrected them [were] left in. . . . On the other hand, they are a proof that our little Wolfgang composed them himself, which perhaps quite naturally, everyone will not believe."
As important still as refining his technical skill, young Mozart was expected and encouraged, as many young composers were, to do a kind of journeyman's work in the absorption of influence from the music of older, more accomplished, masters. While a number of these direct influences are well-known -- Leopold himself and the sons of Bach, for example -- the scope of influence upon Mozart was unusually rich. A fortunate result of the budding composer's extensive early travels was the contact it provided with a generous cross section of European musical traditions: German, British, French (though Leopold viewed that music with some suspicion) and Italian. It was in fact during Mozart's European tour of 1763-66 -- with his entire immediate family in tow -- that his earliest symphonic compositions took shape.
The Symphony No. 1 is thought to date from the Mozart family's stay in the London suburb of Chelsea during the summer of 1764. This respite from London proper (made necessary by a severe inflammation in Leopold's throat) brought an immediate curtailment to the hubbub of activity which had crowded the Mozarts' schedule. Prior to his Chelsea sojourn, Mozart had been borne upon a whirlwind of travel, performances, and ritualized audiences before nobility -- the latter consisting mainly of the presentation of effusive praise and expensive gewgaws to the Mozart family. What this interruption did allow, however, was an opportunity for Mozart -- apparently of his own accord -- to try his hand at producing a symphony.
The present work, likely the earliest of Mozart's efforts in this form, is fairly bursting with the bottled-up exuberance of an eight-year-old confined by close quarters and exhortations to not disturb the rest of his convalescent father. The structure of the work closely resembles that of a three-part overture (indeed, a number of his early symphonies and opera overtures functioned interchangeably), a central slow movement flanked by two of a more extroverted nature. The sprightly, kinetic impulse of the first movement gives way to a Baroque stateliness in the second, marked by a near-constant pulsation of triplets. Of particular note is what seems to be the earliest, albeit unobtrusive, appearance (in the first horn) of the "Jupiter" motive, the four-note figure which Mozart puts to prominent use in the final movement of his Symphony No. 41. The almost humorous mien of the final movement recalls the tradition of opera buffa, in which Mozart himself was later to play a pivotal role.