CUMS Conducting Scholar Toby Hession on Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ Symphony

On Saturday 4 May Robert Cohen directs Cambridge University Orchestra in Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, ‘Jupiter’. Tickets available here

Toby Hession writes of addiction, tragedy and the sublime in his programme note for the ‘Jupiter’ symphony:

It is remarkable that, given Mozart’s inestimable status among the very ‘greatest’ composers of the canon, there are so many questions about his life and work that remain unanswered. Almost nothing is known of the composition of Mozart’s forty-first (and final) symphony – a situation that is symptomatic of modern Mozart scholarship’s increasing tendency to define itself by the things that it does not know, rather than what it can say with certainty. 

One such unknown is why, by 1788, Mozart had lost much of the popularity he had at one time enjoyed with his Viennese audiences. Mozart’s personal life at this time was certainly in turmoil – not only did he and his wife, Costanze, lose three of their children between 1786-88, but financially they were struggling too, their lavish lifestyle gradually proving to cost well beyond their means. Mozart secured the position of “Kammer-Kompositeur” at the Imperial Court, but the very modest salary did little to alleviate the family’s hardship; successes in Prague with Don Giovanni and Le Nozze di Figaro were not taken for granted, but they did little to help the struggling Mozarts back at home.

Wolfgang also developed a serious (and expensive) gambling addiction, possibly as a result of the personal tragedy he was experiencing at home, damaging his once-resplendent public image. It is also well-documented that Costanze did not have the wherewithal to responsibly manage the household while Wolfgang burned most of the family income. Almost certainly in the spirit of admission to serious financial misjudgment, Wolfgang wrote several times over the summer of 1788 to Michael Puchberg, a friend and Freemason (like himself), pleading for significant sums of money. One such request (worth “a hundred gulden”) was to last for one week, to see Mozart through to the start of his “Casino concerts”. It is not known where or what the ‘Casino’ was, but it known that a number of Mozart’s Piano Concerti had been performed there – and given that Mozart was working on a trio of symphonies at the time of writing to Puchberg (which would turn out to be his last, and of which the ‘Jupiter’ would be the ultimate), it had been assumed that they too were to be performed at the same venue.  

It has long been believed that Mozart never heard any of these three symphonies performed during his lifetime (on account of the absence of any documentation pertaining to such performances). However, in recent years this view has been challenged – partly due to the discovery of the Puchberg correspondence – several potential opportunities for performance have been identified, both in Vienna and in Germany. It has been argued by several individuals, including Nikolaus Harnoncourt, that the three final symphonies (Nos. 39 – 41) were conceived as a large, unified work, citing in particular the fact that No. 41 has no introduction (unlike No. 39) but instead has a finale of significantly more epic proportions than either of its companions. Whether or not this is true, the final symphony quickly earned a reputation for being one of the greatest symphonies of its age. Even by the end of the nineteenth-century, more than a century after Mozart’s death, it retained its place, with Johannes Brahms claiming that the last three symphonies by Mozart were “much more important” even than Ludwig van Beethoven’s ground-breaking first Symphony.

Equally open to contention is the origin of the popular nickname for the final symphony, ‘Jupiter’. One theory (supported by Mozart’s son, Franz) attributes it to Johann Peter Salomon, the English impresario responsible perhaps most famously for his musically prosperous friendship with Joseph Haydn, bringing him to London in 1791-92 and 1794-95. Salomon died in 1815 – yet, the earliest documented use of the ‘Jupiter’ nickname does not appear until at least 1817 (possibly later), casting doubt on this theory. In fact, the finale of the ‘Jupiter’ is considered to be a re-working of the opening movement of Carl Ditter’s (1739-1799) Symphony in D, Der Sturz Phaëton (The Fall of Phaëton) – Phaëton being the Greek name for the same planet that the Romans referred to as ‘Jupiter’. It has been suggested that this may more plausibly account for the origins of the nickname.

In terms of its music, the final symphony stands as one of Mozart’s most triumphant achievements in instrumental drama, melody and counterpoint. The first movement can be heard very much in the vein of Don Giovanni, characterised by three distinctly prevailing themes: first, the opening music – strong, imperial and subtly militaristic (perhaps a reflection on the ongoing Austro-Turkish struggles); second, a more tender, lyrical theme sounded by the violins and woodwinds; and third, a humorous violin melody in which Mozart self-quotes from his comic aria, Il bacio di mano (A Kiss of the Hand). The development section of the opening movement, imitative in nature, foretells of the spectacular counterpoint to come in the finale.

The second movement takes on the guise of a Sarabande – an old (possibly 16th-century) Spanish dance, betrayed by its slow, triple meter, and possibly reflective of the cosmopolitan side of Mozart’s personality. Lyrical at the outset, this movement soon twists into an agitated working out of its theme, struggling with painful dissonances as it winds back to the more sedate sound of its opening. The third movement returns to Austria – but this time, the dance is a Ländler, a quicker, more spritely folk-dance. 

But, of course – what makes the ‘Jupiter’ symphony so famous is its finale. Here is a movement that epitomizes Mozart’s adoration of J.S. Bach (and is perhaps a culmination of his almost life-long study of Bach’s music). The four-note motif (C-D-F-E) that opens the movement – but that was also heard very brazenly in the third movement – is a common plainchant motif (thought to originate in the Latin hymn, Lucis Creator), and had been in common currency with composers since at least the time of Josquin de Prez’s Missa Pange Lingua. More significantly, it can be found in numerous other works by Mozart, including (perhaps in a bitter case of accidental irony) his very first symphony, from 1764. 

 A fugal texture soon ensues, with up to five different motifs heard sounding at once at any point in the music. To make matters more complicated, Mozart arranges his fugal sections in an overarching ‘sonata’ model, creating a kaleidoscopic musical world in which the rigorous contrapuntal tradition of the late Renaissance and Baroque is fused with the Galant style of the Enlightenment. In this sense, the work came very close to achieving the status of ‘sublime’ – a term that 18th-century philosophers used to define an experience that was simultaneously humbling and uplifting, and most importantly transcended and evaded capture by human media (i.e. words or pictures).

Little did Mozart know that in just 26 years’ time, in 1824, Beethoven would turn the world of instrumental music on its head with his Ninth Symphony – a symphony that would include words, and therefore validate the skepticisms of thinkers such as Immanuel Kant, who had denigrated instrumental genres to the realm of ‘low’ art on the basis that, without words, they were not an adequate vehicle for ideas. Perhaps this explains the enduring popularity of the ‘Jupiter’ symphony – not just in the nineteenth century, but also today.


Watch Toby direct Cambridge University Sinfonia in Stravinsky/Bach Chorale Variations on ‘Vom Himmel hoch da komm’ ich her’ in King’s College Chapel, Saturday 15 June




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Sir Roger Norrington CBE
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Stephen Cleobury CBE
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Martin Ennis
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Sian Edwards
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David Lowe, Nicholas Mulroy