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ClassicsOnline Home » MOZART: Symphonies Nos. 40 and 41
BBC Radio 3
Wolfgang - Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791)
Symphony No.40 in G Minor, K. 550
Symphony No.41 in C Major, K. 551 "Jupiter"
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg in 1756, the son of Leopold Mozart, who in the same year had published his important book on violin-playing. Leopold Mozart was an educated man, who had embarked on study at the Benedictine University in Salzburg but had turned rather to music, thereafter, entering the service of the Prince-Archbishop of Salzburg, to become composer to the court and finally, in 1763, deputy Kapellmeister.
It was unfortunate that early distinction never brought Mozart the full measure of material success and security that he and his father regarded as his due. In Salzburg an indulgent patron had been succeeded in 1772 by an archbishop with better defined ideas of what was due from his servants. There were reforms in the church liturgy and restrictions on leaves of absence neither of which pleased the Mozarts. The effect of this was Mozart's decision, in 1781, to secure his dismissal, which he did during the course of a visit by the archbishop and his entourage to Vienna.
Independence in Vienna brought its own problems. There was initial success, with the composition of works for the theatre, a field in which Mozart had long wished to shine, and appearances in concerts. Towards the end of the decade his popularity seemed to wane, but at the time of his death in 1791 the German opera The Magic Flute was enjoying enormous success.
The summer of 1788 found Mozart and his wife established by June in new quarters further out of town. In a letter to his fellow-mason, Michael Puchberg, he points out the advantages of the change, since the place is cheaper than the Landstrasse, nearer the centre of Vienna, which he had left in December the previous year, after some embarrassment over the payment of rent: furthermore, there is a garden and the house is equally suitable for summer or winter. The object of Mozart's letter to Puchberg was primarily to raise money, if possible a large enough sum to enable him to discharge debts as they occurred, a request with which Puchberg was wise enough not to comply. Funher letters of a similar kind were to follow.
It was during the space of a few weeks that Mozart wrote down his last three symphonies, of which the Symphony in G minor, K. 550, is the penultimate. The first of the group, the Symphony in E flat, in which oboes are replaced by clarinets, was finished on 26th June, the second, in G minor, on 25th July and the third, the so-called Jupiter Symphony, two weeks later. The G minor Symphony, originally written without clarinets, had these instruments added in a later revision. Unlike its companions, it makes no use of trumpets and drums. Presumably the three symphonies were intended to form pan of concerts to be given in Vienna in the coming season. In fact Mozart was to give no more concerts of his own music, as he had done in earlier years in Vienna. His last Piano Concerto, K. 595, was performed as pan of a programme arranged by the clarinettist Joseph Bähr in March, 1791. The G minor Symphony probably formed pan of a concert conducted by Salieri, the court Kapellmeister, with an orchestra of 180 players in April of the same year.
The symphony opens with an intensely dramatic theme, presented by strings, leading to a gentler second theme, shared with the wind. The central development traces the opening figure through various keys, introducing a strongly contrapuntal element. The recapitulation, reached through a descending woodwind sequence, completes the movement, with the second theme now assuming particular poignancy in the minor key. The E flat major Andante suggests not only by its key something of the mood of the preceding E flat Symphony. It is followed by a Minuet with a contrasting G major Trio. The finale remains in the minor key, contrary to the more usual practice that preferred to dispel tragedy by optimistic triumph at the end of a symphony. The second subject, in the key of B flat major, still retains an air of melancholy, a characteristic properly maintained when it makes its re-appearance in the final section of the movement.
The so-called Jupiter Symphony, the Symphony in C major, K. 551, bears the date 10th August, 1788, and is scored for flute, oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets and drums, and strings. The first movement opens with an immediate and striking call to our attention, followed by a gentler addition from the strings, elements of great importance in what is to come. The strings introduce a second theme and a third, towards the close of the exposition. It is this last that opens the central development section of the movement, contrapuntal activity leading to the premature re-appearance of the opening figure and ultimately to the recapitulation proper.
The slow movement, in the key of F major, makes use of a richness of harmony that sets off the characteristic pathos of the melodic material. It is followed by a Minuet and Trio that lead to the final movement, the contrapuntal features of which persuaded later commentators to describe the work as the symphony with a closing fugue. Some element of counterpoint is not altogether unusual in the last movement of a symphony, but Mozart here provides an inspired example of the technique, with a remarkable series of canonic imitations in the coda, as the instruments imitate in turn a series of thematic fragments from earlier in the movement.
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MOZART: Symphonies Nos. 40 and 41