Save money with an SCO concert subscription and get a free concert, £5 CD voucher and many other benefits.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Symphony No 41 in C major, K551, Jupiter (1788)
C major is Mozart’s Olympian key, nowhere more so than in the last and most dazzling of his symphonies, K551, traditionally known as the Jupiter. Though the title was not Mozart’s – the astute Johann Salomon, Haydn’s London impresario, is said to have thought of it – it is thoroughly in keeping with a work which progresses from a seemingly simple opening flourish to a finale which is an unsurpassed example of sustained polyphonic panache.
During the summer of 1788, when it was written, all was not well with Mozart. For financial reasons, he had moved house to the Viennese suburbs, though he could still, as he said, afford a cab into town. However, in spite of what he called "black thoughts," inspiration was running high. The superb symphonic triptych of which the Jupiter forms the completion was composed - for no obvious reason - between June and August, though some of the music was probably already in his head, along with the great C minor Adagio and Fugue for strings and two of his finest piano trios.
But if the use of conventional eighteenth-century odds and ends in the Jupiter Symphony – the first movement’s initial call to attention and the four notes which launch and propel the finale – suggest that it was written in haste, what Mozart does with these sounds anything but rushed. Everything, indeed, seems fashioned with the utmost poise, and with the most precise sense of timing. The way the first movement’s opening phrase returns, after a mere twenty bars, in counterpoint with a chirpy woodwind overlay and a glowing horn part is an example of how classical formality in this symphony becomes witty and sublime. Even the insertion, at one point in the movement, of what sounds like a merry little afterthought of a melody - it was written earlier that year for a baritone friend (the first Viennese Don Giovanni) to sing in different composer’s opera - is transformed into a stroke of genius.
The nocturnal slow movement, with its atmospherically muted strings, exquisite wind parts, and moods gradually less calm than they seem to begin with, maintains the inspiration. Even the silky opening theme proves subject to disruption. The idiosyncratic minuet, too, has something unstable about its stomping dance-beat, puncturing the suavity of the violin line. The central trio section is notable for its preliminary use of the four-note motif which will serve as the finale's launching-pad. But it is in the finale itself - a contrapuntal juggling act in which more and more balls are tossed into the air and effortlessly spun - that the symphony conspicuously reaches its exhilaratingly relentless apotheosis.
© Conrad Wilson