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Symphony No. 41 in C major, K. 551 "Jupiter"

About the Work

Wolfgang Mozart
Quick Look Composer: Wolfgang Mozart
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor: Midori, violin, plays Schumann's Violin Concerto / Symphonies by Mendelssohn & Mozart Oct. 30 - Nov. 1, 2014
© Peter Laki

There has been a lot of speculation as to precisely what went wrong in Mozart's life between 1785, the apex of his "golden years," and the summer of 1788, when the last three symphonies were written.  By 1788, the concert series where Mozart had presented his great piano concertos had been discontinued.  For a variety of reasons, not all completely understood, Mozart had lost the audience support he had previously enjoyed.  In 1786-87, he had an immense success in Prague with his operas The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni (the latter was written specifically for that city), but back home in Vienna, things were going downhill financially.  Mozart's appointment to the relatively minor position of "Kammer-Kompositeur" at the imperial court did little to improve matters.  Mozart's family life was also extremely difficult:  four of his children died in infancy, three of them between 1786 and 1788.  (This left Mozart and his wife Constanze with only one surviving child, Karl Thomas, born in 1784; a second son, Franz Xaver Wolfgang, who would become a composer, was born in 1791, the last year of Mozart's life.)  Among the further reasons that may have contributed to the deterioration of Mozart's situation, researchers have cited the composer's gambling habit, household mismanagement by Constanze, and a general tendency of the Mozarts to live beyond their means.

      What is certain is that during the summer of 1788 Mozart started writing heart-rending letters to his friend and fellow Freemason, Michael Puchberg, imploring him for rather large sums of money.  In one of these, he was asking Puchberg for "a hundred gulden until next week, when my concerts in the Casino are to begin."  Since the letter was written at the time Mozart was working on what would prove to be his last three symphonies, there is reason to believe that they intended them for concerts "in the Casino."  We don't know exactly where "the Casino" was, but Mozart had previously played some of his piano concertos there. 

      The performances of Symphonies No. 39-41 may or may not have taken place in the fall of 1788.  Because there are no known records of performances, it used to be believed that these symphonies were never heard in concert during the composer's lifetime.  Recently,  experts have become more careful and we no longer rule out a contemporary performance on the basis of missing evidence.  There were in fact several opportunities for Mozart to present these symphonies both in Vienna and in Germany, where he journeyed in 1789 and again in 1790.   

      We may not know when or where the first performance took place, but one thing is certain:  by the early 1800s the C-major symphony, the last of the three, was universally recognized as one of the greatest ever composed.  It came to be known as the "Jupiter," a nickname probably invented by Johann Peter Salomon, the famous London impresario.  As musicologist Elaine Sisman writes in a book devoted to the "Jupiter" (Cambridge Musical Handbooks, 1993), most responses ranged "from admiring to adulatory, a gamut from A to A."  (For Mozart, who died in 1791, the praises unfortunately came too late.) 

      The most widely admired aspect of the work (besides its magnificent proportions and general mood of majestic serenity) was, and still is, the fugal finale-in Germany, the symphony is known under the nickname "mit der Schlussfuge" (with the final fugue).  The fact that the finale should be the crown of the entire work is in itself unusual since most earlier symphonies placed the greatest emphasis on the opening movement.  But the symphony is revolutionary in more ways than we often realize:  each of the four movements significantly transcend the traditional movement types from which they originated.

      In his seminal book on Mozart's Symphonies (Oxford:  Clarendon Press, 1989), Neal Zaslaw invokes the world of opera for an explanation of the "Jupiter" Symphony's first movement.  In Zaslaw's interpretation, the relationship between the opening fanfares and the closing theme is like that between a serious operatic character and a figure from comic opera.  Throughout the movement, Mozart moves between "high-brow" and popular musical styles with astonishing ease and without the slightest  incongruity.  Shortly after a great dramatic outburst (with a suspenseful general rest and an unexpected foray into the minor mode), we hear a beguilingly simple folk-like closing theme.  Mozart borrowed this theme from an aria for bass he had written just a few months earlier, in May 1788.  The words were possibly by Lorenzo Da Ponte, with whom Mozart collaborated on three of his greatest operas.  The aria, "Un bacio di mano" ("A Hand-kiss"), K. 541, was intended as an extra number for a comic opera by Pasquale Anfossi (1727-1797).  The text of the aria passage Mozart used in the "Jupiter" Symphony runs as follows:  "Voi siete un po' tondo, mio caro Pompeo, le usanze del mondo andate a studiar" ("You are a bit naïve, my dear Pompeo, go study the ways of the world").  In the development section, this theme becomes the starting point for a whole series of transformations, as if the simple melody were indeed "studying the ways of the world."

      The second-movement "Andante cantabile" opens with muted strings playing a simple musical question-and-answer phrase.  We will hear the first of these phrases (the question part) again, but not the second part, which will become completely submerged under a cascade of thirty-second notes.  In fact, after the simple opening, Mozart soon piles up harmonic and rhythmic complexities in what is one of his most personal and profound musical statements.  Then the complexities disappear, and the Andante ends as simply and reassuringly as it began.

      The minuet starts with another question-and-answer; however, this time the structure remains simple throughout.  Mozart plays a fascinating game in the trio, which begins with a closing gesture, in a move that has been described as "putting the cart before the horse."  Within only a few measures, this closing gesture undergoes an astonishing number of changes as it is inverted, transposed, and harmonized in different ways.  For a moment, it is even made to anticipate the four-note motif of the finale to follow.  It then returns in its original form, leading into the recapitulation of the minuet.

      The celebrated four-note motif of the finale was a commonplace in 18th-century contrapuntal studies, probably derived from the Gregorian hymn "Lucis creator" ("The Creator of Light").  It may be found in several of Mozart's earlier works, from as early as his Symphony No. 1 written at the age of eight, or the "Credo" movement of his Missa brevis in F major (K. 192), written ten years later.  In the "Jupiter" Symphony, Mozart used this motif to create a movement whose perfection may be part of the reason why Mozart did not write another symphony in the remaining three years of his life. 

      The four-note motif is first presented in a simple form by the first violins, accompanied only by the seconds.  A fugal elaboration soon begins, and the motif is joined by several countersubjects.  At one point, no fewer than five different motifs are heard simultaneously.  To make matters even more complicated, Mozart embedded his fugue within a sonata structure.  This means that there are several fugal sections, arranged in an order that follows the usual exposition-development-recapitulation scheme of sonata form.  In other words, two worlds meet in this magnificent finale:  the strict contrapuntal technique inherited from the Baroque and the freer, "galant" idiom of the Classical era.  The seamless synthesis of those two worlds was an achievement unmatched even by Mozart.  Music has never been closer to what 18th-century philosophers called the "sublime," a term defining an experience at once   powerful, uplifting, and transcendent.  It is, no doubt, this sublime quality that invited the association with Jupiter, the chief of the gods in Roman mythology.