Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551, “Jupiter”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Date of Composition: 1788
Duration: 33 minutes

When Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) left the employ of the Archbishop of Salzburg in 1781, he risked losing the security of a court position in exchange for the freedom to pursue his own artistic agenda. Initially his decision seemed sound, as his first years in Vienna were relatively profitable: his operas were successful, commissions flowed in, and he found regular opportunities to perform his piano concertos for the Viennese elite. He also befriended Joseph Haydn, became a Freemason, married Constanze Weber, and started a family. The Mozarts lived lavishly and saved little. In late 1787, Amadeus was granted a part-time position in the court of Joseph II. However, by 1788 Austria was at war with the Ottoman Empire and funds for arts patronage were scarce. For Mozart, a lack of resources was compounded by his own financial mismanagement. After he could not pay rent on the centrally located apartment he and his family occupied, they moved to a new abode, smaller and farther removed from the city center. He was also forced to beg for and borrow income from his friends. Soon afterward, his baby daughter died. Despite these struggles, the summer of 1788 was quite fruitful musically.

In less than two months, Mozart finished two piano trios, a piano and a violin sonata, as well as his Symphonies No. 39, 40, and 41. These last three works show the composer at the height of his maturity, each uniquely masterful. Mozart may have written his final symphonies anticipating performance in the upcoming season, but no evidence remains to suggest they were ever performed during his lifetime. The last, Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K. 551, stands as the pinnacle of Mozart’s orchestral output. The nickname “Jupiter”—evoking the grandeur and vastness of the Roman sky god—is most often attributed to Johann Peter Salomon, the same gentleman who commissioned Haydn’s London Symphonies. While the composition adheres to the expected fast-slow-minuet and trio-fast, four-movement classical symphonic structure, its brilliance, emotional content, and complexity surpasses all that Mozart had accomplished previously in his instrumental writing. At just over thirty minutes, the work is Mozart’s longest symphony. Each movement develops its musical material completely. The finale, however, reveals the composer’s true brilliance.

Until this time, a symphony’s first movement stood as the most notable by convention. In the case of Symphony No. 41, Mozart saved his best efforts for last, and in doing so, set a new standard. His last movement still adhered to a sonata-allegro form, but he expanded the number of themes in carefully considered insertions throughout, some of which receive a quasi-fugal treatment. Then, just when listeners believe the final movement is complete, Mozart overlays all five themes in invertible counterpoint in a coda, a perfect conclusion to one of the most celebrated symphonies in the entirety of the Classical orchestral repertoire.

© Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, 2023