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Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter”, K. 551

Composed by

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart



flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings

notes by James Keays

I. Allegro vivace
II. Andante cantabile
III. Menuetto: Allegretto
IV. Molto allegro

Composed 1788.

It was common during the classical period for composers to write primarily on demand, either at the request of an employer or out of the need to present a concert for the expressed purpose of raising money on which to live. This was especially true for large, time-consuming works such as operas and, to a slightly lesser extent, symphonies. It was also particularly true in the case of Mozart after he moved to Vienna in 1781 and attempted to support himself solely through performance and composition.

The fact that, without a commission—and at a time (June 26 through August 10, 1788) when it would have been more financially sensible to write piano concertos—Mozart would compose his three greatest (and final) symphonies has long been a mystery. It had long been believed that the works were created out of an inner need or, at the very least, for a projected concert that never took place, and that Mozart never heard the works performed. Although it is true that there are no records with which to disprove this conjecture, research strongly suggests that Mozart did, in fact, perform the works either separately or as a set in 1789 at Dresden and Leipzig and again in 1790 in Frankfurt. Whatever the reasons for their composition, the works were to be a fitting valedictory statement to a form in which Mozart excelled. They are among the finest symphonies ever composed.

The Symphony No. 41 in C major, K. 551, is, in terms of its architecture and the majesty of its gestures, an appropriate climax to the trilogy. Its popular subtitle, “Jupiter,” originated in London around 1821 and was probably inspired by the flourishes of the trumpets and drums in the first movement, gestures that evoked images of nobility and godliness in the minds of the audiences at the time. The name became permanent in 1823 when it was included on the title page of the first printed edition of a version for solo piano. One can only speculate as to what Mozart would have thought about the appendage.

The first movement begins with a theme alternately martial and lyrical. A second contrasting one uses a chromatic scale as a central feature. This is followed by a closing theme borrowed from a concert aria written a few months earlier. The lyrical second and third themes serve perfectly to balance the somewhat bombastic flourishes found in the opening theme. It is the unexpected third theme that is extensively developed in the central part of the movement.

The beautiful second movement contains one of the longest themes Mozart would ever write—eleven bars. Furthermore, it is unusual in that the strings play with mutes throughout. The broad, stately minuet that follows could easily function as an actual dance in an imperial ballroom. It is the final movement that stands out as one of the most interesting symphonic movements written by any composer. It begins with a very simple four note theme that could have been taken from a church work. What follows is a strict sonata form, but with so much use of fugal imitation that early 19th century German musicians referred to the entire work as the “symphony with the fugal finale.” The movement has also been described as Mozart’s most “learned” piece of music, in that it could easily serve as a textbook of fugal devices. In the final coda, all five major thematic elements are played simultaneously, yet the overall effect is not a lesson in counterpoint, but a fitting conclusion to a dramatic symphonic movement.

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