February 13 – Thursday at 7:30 p.m.
February 14 – Friday at 7:00 p.m.*
February 15 – Saturday at 8:00 p.m.
February 16 – Sunday at 3:00 p.m.
Symphony No. 41 (“Jupiter”) in C major, K551
Wolfgang Amadè Mozart (1756-1791)
At a Glance
Mozart finished the score of this work, his last completed symphony, on August 10, 1788. The location and date of its first performance are not known. The nickname “Jupiter” (used mostly only in English-speaking countries) was probably suggested by Johann Peter Salomon (1745-1815), the German-born violinist and impresario who brought Haydn to London (and hoped to invite Mozart as well).
This symphony runs about 35 minutes in performance. Mozart scored it for flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.
The Cleveland Orchestra first performed Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony during the 1922-23 season under founding music director Nikolai Sokoloff. It has been performed quite frequently since then, most recently in 2018 under the baton of Herbert Blomstedt.
The Cleveland Orchestra recorded this symphony in 1955 (mono) and again in 1963 (stereo) with George Szell, and in 1990 with Christoph von Dohnányi.
About the Music
On Friday, July 25, 1788, Mozart finished his new Symphony in G minor, today known as No. 40. It was his second in that key. He had also very recently composed a Symphony in E-flat major (No. 39).
Nevertheless, Mozart turned immediately to creating yet another symphony, destined to be his last. This one was in C major, and came to be designated decades later as his Symphony No. 41, and given the nickname “Jupiter” (mostly in English-speaking countries). It took him no more than two weeks and two days to complete this score, probably less, and he entered it in his own catalog of works on August 10.
It was not unusual that he should compose so fast, but it was odd that he should compose three such substantial works without a performance in view. As far as we know, no impresario had invited him to present concerts, and no publisher had asked him for symphonies (which were not as easy to market as concertos). Mozart was not competing with other composers, at least no more than usual, and in any case he disdained such motives.
The only explanation, widely accepted by historians today, is that he planned to mount his own concerts in Vienna during the autumn and winter seasons, and would need new works to draw in the public. No mention of such plans is found in his letters or in the press, however, but there was little reason why such an idea should have progressed further than a few discussions in Viennese cafés with possible collaborators and patrons.
Such letters as have survived from this period speak of Mozart being: a.) madly busy, and b.) desperate for money. If he was planning concerts, both of these would apply.
Still, no such concerts were given. In fact, in the three years of his life remaining, Mozart gave no more public concerts in Vienna and composed no more symphonies.
Thus, the great burst of symphonic composition in the summer of 1788 must therefore be seen as his last dream of giving regular concerts to enthusiastic Viennese audiences, as he had in 1783 and 1784.
All three of these final symphonies had to wait until after Mozart’s death to be published and performed. No first performance of the “Jupiter” has been identified, although the parts were published in 1793. The nickname itself was conferred by Johann Salomon, the German impresario who settled in London in 1781 and secured Haydn’s two long visits, with twelve new symphonies. It is highly likely that he presented the “Jupiter” sometime in London before his death in 1815.
All four movements vie with one another for the greatness that the term Jupiter implies, but the finale fourth movement stands out for its miraculous combination of fugue and symphonic form. The four equal notes that begin the finale are both a fugue subject and the first theme of the movement. Mozart then introduces new themes which turn out in due course to be counterpoints to the four-note subject. The movement’s development section is where complexity begins to take over, although not until the extended coda are all the counterpoints heard together in a magnificent tour de force. At the same time, the energy and positive spirit of the finale make a solid, satisfactory conclusion to the whole work.
The first three movements are scarcely less impressive. The slow movement stands out for the way in which its innocent opening generates a movement of great intensity, with harmony sometimes as dissonant as anyone could imagine in 1788, and decorative figures in the winds which are by no means simply decorative. The balance between winds and strings is the most ingenious and resourceful that Mozart ever achieved — and he did it without calling for clarinets, an instrument he understood so well and had begun using in orchestral writing.
At the time Mozart penned his last three symphonies, Haydn still had a dozen yet to write. Great though that composer’s “London” Symphonies are, however, many musicians believe that it is Mozart’s “Jupiter” that crowned the 18th century’s enormous legacy of the Classical orchestral symphony — a legacy that Beethoven single-handedly transformed while re-setting the stage for the Romantic Era of the next century.
—Hugh Macdonald © 2020
Hugh Macdonald is Avis H. Blewett Professor Emeritus of Music at Washington University in St. Louis. He has written books on Beethoven, Berlioz, Bizet, and Scriabin.