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Mozart composed his last three symphonies (Nos. 39–41) in the space of six weeks during the summer of 1788, at a time when he had sunk into poverty, regularly borrowing money from his friend Michael Puchberg and pawning household items. In recent years he had been organising many concerts in Vienna and was equally in demand as a teacher. Then, in Prague, he had enjoyed the tremendous acclaim of his Marriage of Figaro (1786) and Don Giovanni (1787). Now, however, he struggled to find subscribers for the publication of three string quintets and faced what seemed to be the end of his Viennese concerts. No doubt he recalled the warning of Count Karl Arco, court chamberlain to his employer at that time, the Archbishop of Salzburg – “A man’s reputation here [Vienna] lasts a very short time ... after a few months the Viennese want something new.” Mozart had quickly outgrown his native city, while his unconcealed disdain for the archbishop’s boorish manner did nothing for their working relationship. In spite of Count Arco’s warning, his urge to leave for Vienna was unquenchable.
Apparently, in June 1788, Mozart planned a subscription series of concerts in Vienna for which he specially composed his last three symphonies, but there is absolutely no evidence that the performances actually took place. In a letter to Michael Puchberg, written in June that year, he does mention an imminent series of concerts, but it is believed that only one of the three works (possibly No. 40) was performed in the composer’s lifetime – in April 1791 in Vienna’s Burgtheater.