Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphonies Nos. 39 in E-flat major, 40 in G minor, and 41 in C major (Jupiter)

Written for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Not to be reprinted without permission.

Mozart’s Final Symphonies

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s late symphonies are among the first fully in the sense we know today. His 40 or so earlier efforts include some gems, but were written either for social occasions that likely included chitchat during the music, or as lead-ins for arias and concertos, which were the star genres up to that time. For most of the 18th century, symphonies were decorative and disposable. It’s no wonder Mozart’s catalogue is speckled with lost, dubious, and misattributed ones.

Yet in about nine weeks over the summer of 1788, Mozart wrote three symphonies that embraced an idiosyncratic personal vision. These pieces—No. 39 in E-flat major, No. 40 in G minor, and No. 41 in C major (Jupiter)—paved the way for late Haydn and early Beethoven, and by the turn of the 19th century, an encyclopedia could define a symphony as: “every perfection that can render instrumental music interesting and sublime: invention, science, knowledge of instruments, majesty, fire, grace, and pathos by turns, with new modulations, and new harmonies.” Such a conception would have been completely alien to a musician just 30 years earlier.

Mozart’s success had crested in the mid-1780s, and by 1788 he found himself at a personal and professional low (a slide that contributes to the somewhat exaggerated idea that he eventually died unappreciated and in poverty). His father, Leopold—a domineering presence—had died the previous year, an infant daughter died that June, and he had gradually fallen out of touch with his once-beloved sister, Nannerl. Meanwhile war with the Ottoman Empire depressed the Austrian economy and put a damper on concert life and music publishing. Mozart’s income dropped almost 75 percent from the previous year, and he moved to a cheaper apartment and took on debt.

Looking to revive his fortunes, Mozart probably wrote the three symphonies for a planned concert series in Vienna, which doesn’t seem to have taken place, or perhaps for a trip to London, which definitely didn’t happen. It was long thought they weren’t performed at all during his life, but circumstantial evidence now points to several performances in the years before his unexpected death from an uncertain illness in 1791. Just two years later, an anonymous German critic, reporting on musical fashions, wrote:

Mozart appears to be enjoying much more prestige and approval among the public since his death than was allotted him during his lifetime. Now he is called incomparably great.… Mozart’s talent appears to me to be an original spirit, one which in any case is still searching for compositions which are bizarre, striking and paradoxical, melodically as well as harmonically, and avoids natural flow so as not to become common.

The writer might well have been reacting specifically to the last symphonies. But he also hedges, doubting if Mozart is truly “a great man for his own time and for posterity,” and arguing that if only he had lived longer, he would have embraced a new simplicity and “acquired all the aforesaid attributes of greatness.” Whether or not we agree, it’s worth being reminded that when we talk about “late” Mozart, we’re talking about someone in his early 30s.

Some contemporary scholars, including Rose Rosengard Subotnik and Neal Zaslaw, see a conscious act of rebellion in the “striking and paradoxical” tone of these symphonies, which they describe as “irrational” or “illogical.” Perhaps Mozart was willfully rejecting classical niceties, motivated by social and economic dissatisfaction, or perhaps he was liberated for the first time from his father’s conservative guidance. Others, notably conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, try to resolve the symphonies’ apparent disjointedness by finding a bigger unity: suggesting the three were intended as an interconnected cycle. The strong version of this argument (that it’s essentially all one big piece) is far-fetched, requiring Mozart to be forward thinking on a whole second level above the one already evident. They aren’t any more connected than you would expect from three pieces written by the same person within nine weeks, but they do have a striking flow and drama when played in order.

Symphony No. 39 in E-flat major, K. 543

Set in E-flat major, a classic Mozart key, this symphony begins with a slow Adagio introduction, reaching back to the genre’s origins in overture. For the only time, Mozart replaces oboes entirely with clarinets, giving a slight chilliness to the orchestration. The sturdy opening chords dissolve into questioning scales, and the main Allegro contrasts an elegant ¾ theme with an irritable forte reaction.

The Andante is much more demure, yet it periodically inflects toward minor, suggesting a conflicted heart. The Menuetto, based on an Austrian Ländler dance, has a surprising severity, with rising arpeggios that recall the questioning scales of the first movement. The trio section has a memorable clarinet duet with one playing high, and the second accompanying in the lowest register.

The Finale throws around a catchy tune, first in the strings, and then between strings and winds. The scampering tempo and playful scoring are at odds with a discreet darkness—it sounds like someone trying to be cheerful while hiding pain. The movement ends on a weak beat with the last measure empty, a sudden cutoff without any symphonic fanfare. Mozart completed the work and entered it in his catalogue on June 26.

Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550

The “Great” G-minor Symphony launches itself with a churning accompaniment in the violas—it sounds like the piece might already have begun in another room before we hear it. It’s an innovative effect in Mozart, putting atmosphere before theme. The whole movement is filled with gloomy urgency and quick flashes of blinding light.

The Andante layers the strings with a heartbeat in the horns. It’s the most hopeful movement we have heard yet, but seems to leave something unsaid, like a secret wish. The Menuetto is rather strict, while the trio section makes a pleasantly sleepy contrast.

The furtive finale turns the first movement’s theme on its head, copying the same stress and phrase structure while flipping the melodic contour. The recurring pattern of call and response echoes emptily, hollow and jaded. Mozart completed the work and entered it in his catalogue on July 25. He later revised the scoring, adding clarinets to the wind section (further evidence he heard at least two performances during his lifetime).

Symphony No. 41 in C major, K. 551, Jupiter

Nobody knows for sure how Mozart’s last symphony came to be known as Jupiter. The name was added posthumously and popularized in England, perhaps by the impresario Johann Peter Salomon. By 1823 it appeared formally in print on Muzio Clementi’s chamber arrangement of the symphony, decorated with an engraving of the Roman god. The name is in no way authentic to Mozart, but everyone seems to agree it is fitting.

The first movement, Allegro vivace, immediately finds a confidence and grandeur entirely absent in the previous two works. Here the back-and-forth phrases are mutually supportive rather than questioning or belittling. A second theme is lifted from an amorous Mozart aria, “Un bacio di mano” (A kiss on her hand), bringing in an element of comic opera and offering an approachable contrast to the overall sense of loftiness.

The slow movement, Andante cantabile (slow and singing), extends the operatic sensibility—Mozart brings forward a whole number of characters, broadening his expressive stage compared to the mostly internal worlds of the previous two symphonies. The Menuetto is a light affair, a brief return to full classical elegance.

Before this symphony was widely known as Jupiter, German speakers usually called it “the one with the fugal ending.” Less vivid, but accurate. Mozart piles ideas into surefooted counterpoint where multiple voices maintain their independence while working in consort. Perhaps we can hear it as Mozart rejoining the bustle of society, fortified enough to know that it would not subsume him. He completed the work and entered it in his catalogue on August 10. He did not know it would be his last symphony.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.