Symphony No. 41 in C major, K. 551, “Jupiter” (1788)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
In the summer of 1788, Mozart composed three symphonies, Nos. 39, 40, and 41, in rapid succession. His motivations for composing these works are unclear. While Mozart usually composed on commission, as did most Viennese composers at the time, there are no records of a paying customer or patron for these works. For some reason, his previously handsomely paying Viennese audiences no longer appear to be the main source of his income after 1786. His financial situation grew dire, and his father Leopold and three of his children died between 1786 and 1788. Given these personal difficulties, it has been speculated that Mozart composed the three symphonies for an inner need. It is also possible that they were created in hopes of presenting them in a concert. Yet, it is not clear where or when these symphonies were performed, if they were performed at all during his lifetime.
Despite the many mysteries surrounding its conception, the Symphony No. 41 in C major, K. 551, is undoubtedly the largest and most complex of all Mozart’s symphonies. The weight of this magnificent symphony is aptly captured in the work’s subtitle “Jupiter,” coined not by Mozart but possibly by the London-based German impresario Johann Peter Salomon. In an unusual practice, the symphony’s sublime quality comes from its final, rather than the first, movement. The remarkable use of a fugal style in the last movement is not unprecedented, however. Examples come from the symphonies of Michael Haydn, Franz Joseph Haydn’s brother, whose fugues Mozart studied closely. Furthermore, as musicologist A. Peter Brown explains, the Symphony No. 41 follows the century-long tradition of the Austrian C-major “trumpet symphony,” a lineage of symphonic works that express festivity and triumph through the use of prominent brass and timpani parts and fanfare-like music.
The “Jupiter” symphony opens with one of the most common Mozartian features—the swift rising triplet figures that also mark the start of the D-minor Piano Concerto, K. 466 and Leporello’s aria in Don Giovanni. The thunderous tutti outburst is followed by more lyrical music. After the main theme is repeated, fanfares fill the transition to the second thematic group, in which chromatic scales are prominent. Just before the end of the exposition, Mozart inserts his own area “Un bacio di mano” (“A kiss on the hand”), K. 541—a touch of postmodern pastiche avant la lettre. That area theme is treated expressively in the development section. While the extensive development heightens anticipation for the return of the initial music, Mozart teases the listener with a false recapitulation, presenting the opening theme softly and in the “wrong” key of F major. Once the real recapitulation in C major returns, the rest of the music unfolds in a conventional manner. The graceful second movement, Andante cantabile in F major, is a sarabande, a slow French dance in triple meter with the second beat emphasis. Strings are muted throughout this movement, generating a delicate, sweet tone. The minuet and trio third movement uses an elegantly stylized Ländler. The minor-key trio section contains a four-note theme that would manifest as a main theme in the last movement.
In the Molto Allegro finale, various conflicting elements are effortlessly orchestrated primarily through imitative counterpoint in a sonata form. The counterpoint is built from five simple motives, including the four-note figure (C-D-F-E) heard at the very onset of the movement. An intricate fugal passage is established even before the movement reaches the point where the second theme of a sonata movement would normally be introduced; at that point, the fourth and the fifth motives are presented and immediately swept into strettos. The themes are treated further, fragmented and inverted at times, in a near ecstatic drive of motivic development, all within the exposition already. The relatively brief development section begins at a more eased pace, providing a breather, but soon launches back to strettos. The recapitulation starts with the return of the four-note theme, and in the final coda, all five themes are integrated into a glorious fugal music.
- Jung-Min Mina Lee, Duke University, Music Department