Mozart Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551, ‘Jupiter’

The Fidelio Orchestra played Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ Symphony at their 21 February concert.

When the gambler-turned-recently retired money manager Bill Gross said, in a manner typical of American modesty, that he is “an aspiring artist who happens to be well paid for doing something”, he... completely underestimated the gap between his earnings power and that of a real artist. In the year of 1788 when Mozart wrote his last three symphonies, he probably earned around 2,000 florins, which is equivalent to 200 British pounds at the time, or £30,000 in today’s money - that’s really not a lot considering his status as the supreme musician of all Europe in those days.

Money had been a major problem throughout Mozart’s short life. As unbelievable as it sounds, Mozart rarely composed simply for the sheer joy of it. Instead, he almost always had a specific concert in mind or was working for lucrative commissions. That puts the last three symphonies he wrote, which include this one, in a rather special place among his oeuvre, as we simply don’t know the motivation behind their composition - there was no evidence of a commission, and most likely they were never performed during Mozart’s lifetime.

We do know, however, that the circumstances in which Mozart wrote the three symphonies weren’t the happiest in his life. His financial distress has intensified due to Vienna’s war against the Turks. His young wife Constanze had been constantly ill and, apparently, the only remedy included extended stays at an expensive spa in suburban Vienna. On top of all that, his fourth child died in infancy - something the Mozarts weren’t altogether unfamiliar with, as two previous children had also passed away.

Allegedly the only photo of Constanze Mozart (left on the front) who, despite constant illness during her years with Mozart, lived to the admirable age of 80.

Allegedly the only photo of Constanze Mozart (left on the front) who, despite constant illness during her years with Mozart, lived to the admirable age of 80.

But we don’t hear any of that in the three symphonies. As is usually the case with Mozart, they go beyond life itself and, although sometimes sentimental, they never succumb to the struggle of the mere present. In fact, it is very tempting to think of them as a concise but complete musical autobiography: the first, Symphony No. 39 in Eb major, is characterised by boyish liveliness, reminiscent of his triumphant and unstoppable early success; the second, No. 40 in G minor, is the most operatic of the trilogy, vividly portraying the warfare of life after he left his parental home of Salzburg; the third, No. 41 in C major, which you’ll be hearing tonight, is an utterly serious reflection on an eventful life by an ‘old man’ aged 32.

On a structural level, there is nothing revolutionary about the form or techniques employed in the Jupiter Symphony. The sonata-allegro form had been in use for over a century; the four-movement symphonic structure was much developed by Papa Haydn; the contrapuntal technique dated far back to the Renaissance; even the four-note melody in the final movement, which some have called the “leitmotif of Mozart”, can be found in an old church hymn and was by all accounts well known in Vienna at the time. What is new and ingenious, though, is how Mozart brought everything so perfectly together to create a ‘perfect’ symphony.

The first movement is in the traditional sonata form, minus the usual slow introduction. The famous tune towards the end of the first section is a direct quote from his arietta Un bacio di mano for bass and orchestra, composed three months before the Jupiter. Self-quotation is unusual in Mozart, whose melodic inspirations never ran dry.

The second slow movement is a French sarabande, a form of court dance popular at the time, where the beautiful oboe solo points to Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’ Symphony. The third movement is a traditional minuet-trio, and in the middle of the trio, you’ll hear in the horns the four-note motif of the last movement.

Few symphonic movements have received more lavish praise than the finale of the Jupiter Symphony, But upon first hearing, one doesn’t sense anything other than the word ‘chaos’. That is intentional, as Mozart wrote as many as five voices simultaneously in the coda. You can watch this for an excellent explanation of how counterpoint works in this movement. We thought we might lose your interest if we tried to describe what’s going on in the coda, so here is a coloured depiction of the complex passage you just heard:

The “contrapuntal chaos” of the coda is not so chaotic on paper.

The “contrapuntal chaos” of the coda is not so chaotic on paper.

As you can see, each string section passes on, one by one, the five subjects introduced earlier in the movement - and this happens four times in the coda. That might sound simple enough, but a fugue of this scale had never before appeared in a symphonic movement of sonata form. Although it reflects the musical aesthetics and traditions of the time, it takes things a step further. By combining all those elements together, Mozart showcases what music has achieved up to this point, and what it will do over the next 100 years. It’s like in academia - only the immortals dare to write review papers on certain topics. Mozart seems to be making exactly that statement: you want to know what a symphony is? I’ll show you what a symphony is.

With all their complexity and grandeur, Mozart finished his last three symphonies in the course of only seven weeks. Just in case you don’t fully appreciate what this means, we’ve re-produced Mozart’s calendar for the summer of 1788 for you (apparently not everyone has the luxury of going on summer holidays):

Mozart’s summer of 1788. Significant family events are in yellow. The three symphonies are in red.

Mozart’s summer of 1788. Significant family events are in yellow. The three symphonies are in red.