Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551

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        Mozart’s symphonies are generally conceded to surrender pride of place to his incomparable operas and piano concertos.  Nevertheless, they still constitute one of the treasures of symphonic music.  Admittedly, he began composition of symphonies when both he and the genre were practically in their respective infancies.  He had not yet the models of achievement of the maturity of Joseph Haydn before him, but as Haydn gradually developed the modern symphony, Mozart grew along with the older colleague.  They later became close friends in Vienna, and constituted a mutual admiration society.  As with all his works, Mozart’s symphonies were generally written “upon demand,” for a specific purpose or event.  But the “wunder” summer of 1788 produced a group of three symphonies that distinguish themselves from all of his others.  Mozart was in the full bloom of his late genius--he had only three more years left.  He was writing the masterpieces that best represent his unique talent. Don Giovanni, after a triumphal première in Prague the previous fall had opened in Vienna in May.  On the other hand, his financial position was obviously deteriorating.  That summer he moved to a more distant suburb of Vienna where rents were cheaper, and the embarrassing letters to his friends asking for support began.  Yet, for unknown reasons he took the time out to write symphonies 39, 40 and 41.  A group of symphonic works without equal, and that seemed to be motivated only by interior and personal reasons.   They were written in the short space of about two months, amazingly at the same time of the composition of seven other significant works of his maturity.

        No. 41 in C major, called the “Jupiter,” is the culmination of Mozart’s symphonic composition.  The great commentator, Tovey, called the nickname one of the silliest injuries ever inflicted on great works of art, but it serves its purpose, for it alludes to an Oympian mastery of technique that characterizes Mozart’s late works.  However, unlike many of those very late works, it bears no darkness, or presentiments of life’s precariousness.  Rather, in the context of a sunny, but clearly detached mood--hence the title--Mozart reaches the summit of his symphonic works.  It is cast in the usual four movements of the classical period: four movements, with the interior two consisting of a slow movement and a dance-like movement.

         While the music of Mozart is famously infused with some of the world’s memorable melodies, what is of great interest in this last, great symphony is the degree to which the composer chooses concise, indeed, incisive motives with which to generate the composition.  One might usefully think of the first movement of Beethoven’s famous fifth in this context.  And it is just that aspect of Mozart’s melodic style, here, that is the locus of the most well-known and revered movements of this symphony.   The last movement is literally a tour de force of that most “austere” of musical textures: counterpoint.  The careful listener will discern not just one or two important melodies in the finale, but five!  One by one they appear, short and easily identifiable--and then in a most unassuming and musical way Mozart combines them all simultaneously.  Theorists call this amazing feat “quintuple invertible counterpoint.”  It usually takes a J.S. Bach to pull this off, and then in an earlier and more severe style, Mozart almost throws it off casually--and like all works of great genius, you don’t even have to realize it’s there to enjoy the whole show immensely.  It is a Jovian farewell from this most musical of human beings.

--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan