Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551, “Jupiter”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

In the summer of 1788, Mozart produced three symphonies in rapid succession.  Symphony No. 41 was the last of the three, completed on August 10th of that year, and it was to be his last symphony ever written.  Those who are eager to spin legends around one of the greatest composers of all time have been quick to attribute this intense output to a fit of inspiration, one that Mozart indulged for no better reason than for the love of it.  Such a motive is highly unlikely, as Mozart hardly ever composed without a commission.  The rapid work pace was very probably out of the necessity for immediate funds, particularly by this point in his career; quite simply, he needed to pay the bills.  There is also evidence that he hoped to find an audience for these pieces in London, and he was hastening to finish in anticipation for his visit, which in the end never materialized.  This period of Mozart’s life, when he was 31 years old, was a dark one personally and professionally, even apart from his financial difficulties.  Vienna appeared to be cooling towards him, with their indifferent reception of Don Giovanni, and he needed a way to reignite their interest. Furthermore, his life was marked by tragedy when his six month old daughter died that same summer.

In spite of the enormous challenges Mozart was facing, his Symphony No. 41 emerged as a bright and bold piece that later inspired the name “Jupiter” after the noble and powerful Roman god; it was not Mozart, but probably the musician Johann Peter Solomon who gave it this name in a later piano arrangement.  It is often considered Mozart’s most quintessentially “classical” symphony, with its complex layering of themes within a highly organized structure, all the while maintaining a certain elegance in all of its moods.  In this symphony, more than any of his others, Mozart dazzles us with his fertile imagination and a seemingly insatiable appetite for spinning idea after idea out of the many themes with which the piece is filled.

The opening of the symphony rings out and commands our attention.  It presents a variety of material in the first few bars alone, starting with contrasting motives that balance each other—an assertive declaration of ascending triplets and a gentle, lyrical response—before plunging into fanfares.  The motives are developed before a second theme group enters, a violin melody over a rocking accompaniment.  After more expansion, a pause—then a catchy, singable tune appears, a quotation of Mozart’s aria Un bacio di mano.  Mozart develops it in one of the many demonstrations in this work of his inexhaustible skill in generating ideas from simple material.  Finally, the opening theme returns and the recapitulation closes the movement.

The trumpet and timpani that brought fanfare to the first movement drop out in the Andante, and muted strings signal a change in atmosphere.  The basses take over the first theme, yearning and lyrical, from the violins, who now unfurl garlands of 32nd notes behind it, and though moments of tension arise, they soon pass and the overall feel of the movement is sweetly beautiful.  The Minuet returns to a more lighthearted mood, with a quieter trio section in the center of the movement, and it sets the tone to lead into the finale, which will pick up at an exhilarating pace.

The last movement has been called Mozart’s greatest symphonic finale, and it is an exuberant display of contrapuntal mastery at its finest.  Its complexity has lent itself to much scholarly debate, and many have theorized upon the origins of the multiple themes, whose sources range from plainchant to Haydn.  They are introduced in rapid succession, and extraordinarily combined, as many as five at a time singing out together in a brilliant fugal closing to the piece.  It is this breathtaking and joyful proliferation of themes that inspired Claudio Abbado to describe the finale’s ideas as “bursting out, one after another, like fireworks.”

© Pamela Feo