Program Notes


BORN: January 27, 1756. Salzburg, Austria

DIED: December 5, 1791. Vienna

COMPOSED: July 25 (at earliest) through August 10, 1788

WORLD PREMIERE: No information has survived concerning its premiere, although a concert of Vienna’s Tonkünstler Societät in April 1791 did include “a grand symphony” by Mozart, and this may have been this work

US PREMIERE: January 7, 1843, Henry Schmidt conducted the Academy of Music in a performance at the Boston Odeon

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—February 7, 1913. Henry Hadley conducted. MOST RECENT—March 2016. Herbert Blomstedt led

INSTRUMENTATION: Flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings

DURATION: About 30 mins

THE BACKSTORY Mozart’s biography contains such an amazing procession of experiences and achievements that it reads almost like an eighteenth century novel. The story of his final three symphonies occupies a full chapter of this life-as-novel—unfortunately, one that falls not terribly far from its end. More than two centuries after they were written, these works—the Symphonies No. 39 in E-flat major, No. 40 in G minor, and No. 41 in C major (Jupiter)—continue to stand at the summit of the symphonic repertory, where they keep company with a small and supremely select group of fellow-masterpieces by the A-list of composers.

Almost incredibly, all three were produced in the space of about nine weeks, in the summer of 1788: he began his Symphony No. 39 around the beginning of June, not quite a month after Don Giovanni was granted a lukewarm reception at its Vienna premiere, and went on to complete the succeeding symphonies on July 25 and August 10. Each is a very full-scale work, comprising the standard four movements of the late-Classical symphony. Twelve movements in nine weeks would mean that, on the average, Mozart expended five days and a few hours on the composition of each movement. That doesn’t factor in that he was writing other pieces at the same time, giving piano lessons, tending a sick wife, enduring the death of a six-month-old daughter, entertaining friends, moving to a new apartment, and pestering his fellow freemason Michael Puchberg for financial loans.

Mozart, of course, had no idea that these would be his last symphonies. He undoubtedly had every expectation of living well into the nineteenth century; and although that is not what happened, at least he had another three and a half years in which he might well have written further symphonies. Since he didn’t, these three works stand as the summa of his achievement in symphonic music, and in their strikingly different characters we glimpse not only a drawing together of strands of development that had enriched his orchestral music to that point but also hints of what the future might have held.

THE MUSIC In the Symphony No. 41, Mozart seems intent on showing off his sheer brilliance as a composer. Its emotional range is wide indeed, prefiguring the vast expressive canvas that would emerge in the symphonies of Beethoven. In performance, one may be struck by how this work, though filled with incident, unrolls with a luxurious stride, at least until its finale. Certainly compared to its predecessor, the edgy, nervous Symphony No. 40 in G minor, this final symphony seems in no great hurry even when its music is moving quickly.

To be sure, the first movement bears a fast tempo marking, Allegro vivace; but its opening phrases are stately, their rhythms emphatic and their harmonic motion firmly anchored in the home key. Revelation stands on every ensuing page. One can only marvel at how this opening music takes on strikingly different characters when it recurs—for example, in the passage in the middle of the exposition where the opening “emphatic theme” is rendered by just first and second violins, playing softly in octaves beneath a chuckling filigree of scales from the flute and oboe (with a bit of support from the bassoons). Near the exposition’s end Mozart injects the last of numerous themes to populate this movement, a lighthearted, skipping tune (self-borrowed from his concert aria “Un bacio di mano”) that, for all its simplicity, reveals a brilliant touch of orchestration. The first two measures are for strings alone: first and second violins playing the melody in octaves, cellos accompanying with simple arpeggios, violas and double basses plucking pizzicatos on the opening beat of each measure. As this continues, the two oboes enter to sustain a “pedal tone” on the note D (the dominant note in this passage), and then solo bassoon adds its voice to the violins’ line, which means that the melody is sounding in three different octaves at once. It’s the kind of detailing that makes music great. The development arrives via an unembellished harmonic step from C to E-flat. The orchestra at first carries over the same idea in its orchestration, but it quickly gives this up as the development launches into an imaginative harmonic exploration that includes impressive touches of counterpoint.

Violins install mutes for the slow movement (Andante cantabile), yielding a veiled timbre. Analysts have sometimes described this movement as being rooted in the sarabande, a French courtly dance of the Baroque. Indeed it does display that dance’s essential attributes of 3/4 meter with a stress on the second beat, but it nonetheless seems a remote connection. Whether the association was in Mozart’s mind or not, he develops this sonata-form movement in a way that has very little to do with the Baroque.

The first and second movements both included passages in which the bass line descended by chromatic steps. In the Menuetto, a descending line with a related chromatic curve stakes its place at the top of the texture, and Mozart ends up developing it into a serpentine canon for woodwinds. The Trio section plays a joke on listeners by (as musicologist Peter Brown put it) “having the end of the phrase precede its beginning”; that is to say, the opening notes of each phrase sounds like a concluding cadence, while the notes that follow sound like they are revving up for that conclusion—whereas they themselves end up being the end. This is a joke that had recently been made by Mozart’s friend Haydn, in his Quartet in D major (Opus 50, no.6, nicknamed the Frog); it was published in October 1787, about ten months before Mozart wrote this symphony.

The finale (Molto allegro) is a marvel even by Mozartian standards. It may remind listeners of Mozart’s opera Le nozze di Figaro in its propulsive exuberance as well as the slyness with which it reveals its surprises. Mozart begins by stating a four-note motif that composers had obsessed over for generations, a motif doled out in simple whole-notes, one per measure. In fact, he has already stated it, in the Trio of the Menuetto, where we are not likely to have paid much attention to it. Now it holds pride of place, at first on its own, then in counterpoint with itself. Other themes make their entrances one by one—not extended melodies so much as fleeting motifs, yet Mozart gives them all enough play to lend them familiarity. In the movement’s development section he juxtaposes several in counterpoint, and he works in a passage in which woodwinds intone descending chromatic lines, densely harmonized, recalling related contours in the first and second movements.

But he withholds the most astonishing surprise until the coda: a breathtaking display of counterpoint—five melodies sounding against one another, worked out so any of them can fall at any pitch level within the orchestral texture. It all passes quickly, leaving a listener amazed but bereft of the possibility of pondering what is happening while it is going on. In her monograph on this symphony, Elaine Sisman wrote: “The mass of simultaneously writhing fragments, at all rhythmic levels and in all instruments, with the relentless background of the four whole-notes, cannot be taken in. It reveals vistas of contrapuntal infinity. The coda thus creates a cognitive exhaustion born of sheer magnitude. It makes vivid the mathematical sublime.” That climax may be viewed as looking both backward, to the sort of contrapuntal virtuosity we associate with Bach and Handel, and forward, to the dramatic power of fugue as demonstrated in many of the greatest compositions of Beethoven.

THE LEGACY Symphony No. 41 is universally known among English-speaking music lovers as the Jupiter Symphony. As with so many musical nicknames, this one did not originate with the composer. We have no reason to doubt the account provided by the English composer and publisher Vincent Novello, who (along with his wife) visited Mozart’s widow and their son Franz Xaver in 1829 and reported: “Mozart’s son said he considered the Finale to his father’s Sinfonia in C—which Salomon christened the Jupiter—to be the highest triumph of Instrumental Composition, and I agree with him.” This would have been the German violinist Johann Peter Salomon, remembered especially for having established himself as an impresario in London and arranging Franz Joseph Haydn’s two stints in Great Britain in the 1790s. It rings true: the earliest concert programs to use the nickname were Scottish and English, and the first printed edition to slap the name on the title page was a piano transcription of the symphony published in London in 1823.

Although we don’t know just when it was premiered, the Jupiter Symphony quickly earned a reputation as a work of exceptional qualities. In 1798, a reviewer for Leipzig’s Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung referred to Mozart’s “formidable Symphony in C major, in which, as is well known, he came on a little too strong.” But soon commentators adopted tones of almost universal adulation. By the time Georg Nikolaus von Nissen published his groundbreaking Mozart biography, in 1828, the tone was firmly set. “His great Symphony in C with the closing fugue is truly the first of all symphonies,” declared Nissen. “In no work of this kind does the divine spark of genius shine more brightly and beautifully.”—James M. Keller

LISTEN AGAIN—Karl Böhm conducting the Berlin Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon)  

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback. 

(September 2019)

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