Jupiter Sends His Thunderbolts: Mozart’s Final Symphony

July 18, 2019

by Kelly Dean Hansen

Guest blogger Kelly Dean Hansen has chosen one work from each of the six weeks of the 2019 Colorado Music Festival season to spotlight.  He will be exploring these works with the aim of explaining what makes them lasting, immortal parts of the classical repertoire.

Leopold Mozart died in May 1787. And by dying, he deprived posterity of much information regarding the last four years of his son’s life and the composition of his final masterpieces. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s extensive correspondence from Vienna to his father in Salzburg provides the most substantial window into his compositional process. Through these letters, we know a great deal about how he created such works as the opera Idomeneo, symphonies such as the “Haffner,” “Linz,” and “Prague” (Nos. 35, 36 and 38), along with various piano concertos, not to mention detailed accounts of their premieres and the impetus for their composition.

Unfortunately, the great trilogy of the composer’s last three symphonies (Nos. 39-41) was created in the summer of 1788—and we have very little information as to what motivated Mozart to compose them. We do know that he was experiencing severe financial difficulties that year and that it was also the first year of a significant downturn in his professional success. Almost certainly, he composed them as a potential set for publication.

While Mozart would not have planned such a concert, placing all three on a program together makes a great evening of music. In 2016, the Colorado Music Festival did just that under then music director Jean-Marie Zeitouni, a memorable event called “Mozart’s Summer of the Symphony.” The first one, No. 39 in E-flat major, is the only one to have a slow introduction, which then becomes an introduction to the trilogy. Seething drama has its best place in the middle, and the G-minor work, No. 40, fits that bill.

The last of the three—the so-called “Jupiter” in C major, or “No. 41,” certainly feels like a summation, not just of the work in that summer, but for Mozart’s symphonic oeuvre in general. That is because of the special nature of its finale. And when the Colorado Music Festival performs it on July 28 under music director Peter Oundjian, it will serve as the culmination to a two-concert “Magnificent Mozart Mini-Festival.”

From a series of letters to his Masonic brother Michael Puchberg, we do know some details about Mozart’s dire financial straits in 1788. He desperately asks Puchberg for a loan with promises that upcoming performances of his works will generate enough revenue to pay it back. From these letters, we find that Mozart was planning a series of concerts “in the Casino.” It is probable that the last three symphonies were composed for that series, but we do not know whether it really took place.

The idea that the composer never heard his last three symphonic masterpieces is surely a myth—he lived for three more years, after all, and success did return in the year of his death—but without any correspondence with Leopold, we just don’t know for sure when he did hear them. There is enough internal evidence to presume that he heard them possibly on multiple occasions. The revision of the G-minor, with added clarinets and altered oboes, attests to a second performance of that symphony, for example. We do have precise dates for their completion thanks to Mozart’s own invaluable thematic catalog of his Viennese works. The C-major symphony was entered on August 10, 1788.

The Nickname and the Finale

The most reliable source for the origin of the “Jupiter” moniker ascribes it to Johann Peter Salomon, who is best known for commissioning Joseph Haydn’s final 12 symphonies for London (well after Mozart’s death). The English musician Vincent Novello recalled a conversation with Mozart’s son Franz Xaver in which the younger Mozart said that he considered the Finale to his father’s C-major symphony to be “the highest triumph of instrumental composition.” Novello relates in passing that it was Salomon who christened the work as the “Jupiter” Symphony.

The last movement really is the source of the symphony’s notoriety, even though the other three movements are themselves superb compositions.

That is because it really was the first time that the weight of the symphonic argument had been shifted toward a “grand” finale. The 18th-Century symphony was typically a “top heavy” genre, with a substantial first movement and an emotional slow movement followed by a lighter minuet and a cheerful, brisk finale, both generally shorter than the first two movements.

The “Jupiter” breaks that paradigm with a lofty, elevated finale that uses what was considered the most “learned” style of the time, fugal counterpoint. It is not, as is sometimes mistakenly indicated, an actual “fugue,” but a standard “sonata-allegro” form with heavy use of fugue-like contrapuntal techniques. Most of all, it has a coda that is such a tour de force of this style that it is a true culminating capstone. While some of Haydn’s “London” symphonies come close to that paradigm, none of them truly reach it.

Mozart was obviously familiar with some of Haydn’s earlier symphonies, most likely including the recent set of six composed for Paris in 1785-86. While influenced by the older composer’s model in many ways, including the structure of the first movement, the idea of the “grand finale” (if in fact he intended that precise effect) was his own.

The word “sublime” obtained a certain countenance and prominence in the late 18th Century as a concept to describe not just an “elevated” style, but something that goes even beyond that. The finale of the “Jupiter” is often cited as a quintessential example of the “sublime.” Given our own understanding of the word, it is hard to argue with that.

As for the “Jupiter” nickname, there is no reason not to embrace it. The symphony has its share of “thunderbolts,” not just in its Finale, and the grandeur implied by the Jovian moniker is reflected in the “lofty” experience of hearing the symphony in all its splendor.

Despite the significance of the Finale and the admiration it has always generated, the “Jupiter” is not a true “Finale Symphony” in which it is the most dominant and the most important movement. The “grand finale” does shift the balance toward the center, but it would be left to another composer, Beethoven, to complete the job of shifting the focus entirely.

Styles and Surprises in the First Movement

To call the “Jupiter” a true “Finale Symphony” would be an injustice to its thematically diverse and lavishly scaled first movement—in which Mozart continually raises expectations and then thwarts them, and a movement that, with its exposition repeat, runs to almost 12 minutes. For its time, this is an exceedingly generous length, especially given the absence of a slow introduction. The first movement of the “Prague” Symphony, No. 38 (to be performed by the CMF under guest conductor David Danzmayr a week earlier on July 21) is Mozart’s only symphonic opener that is longer—but it does contain a slow introduction, a particularly massive one.

If Mozart is at all “conservative” with the first movement “sonata form” that he and Haydn helped to codify, it is on a larger scale, particularly the third major section, the “recapitulation” or reprise, which closely follows the model of the opening “exposition” with the expected adjustments for key. But in the other two sections, the exposition and the development, he is far from conservative. The normal pattern in the exposition would be for a distinctive main theme or “first theme,” followed by a contrasting “secondary theme” in a different character and key, and then possibly a “closing section” or “closing theme” in the same key as the “secondary theme,” which was usually short and almost an appendage to the “secondary theme.”

Mozart adheres to the main outlines of this pattern, but he lays the three themes out with unusually broad strokes and with an extreme level of contrast. The “closing theme” here is not a mere “appendage,” but a substantial new theme in a completely different style—and one whose absence would not have been surprising given that there is already a sort of “substitute” for a closing theme.

The principal thematic material is in what classical-era musicians and theorists would have called the “grand style,” with trumpets, drums, forceful opening gestures, and fanfares. Mozart’s initial presentation comes to a pause on a long-held note. He then presents the opening theme in a new and gentler setting that includes a countermelody in the winds. This consists of a rising octave and then a rapidly falling scale, played against the opening flourishes. This quieter version expands into an extended and brilliant transition to the second theme, which is prepared by another dramatic pause.

This contrasting melody is in the expected key of G major (the closely related “dominant” key of C major—the key a fifth above the home key was the expected location for the secondary theme in a major-key movement). Contrast in character as well as key was pivotal for classical-era secondary themes. And the style that would typically be used was dubbed the “singing style,” usually a melody in vocal character with a simple accompaniment, and that is what the strings present here, joined later by the winds.

The singing theme spins itself out and reaches yet another full pause. And here is where Mozart thwarts expectations. A loud outburst beginning in the home minor key (C minor) is highly disruptive, Jupiter’s first “thunderbolt.” It leads back quickly to G major (where the exposition should end) and returns to material from the first theme. This outburst and its sequel could have very well stood in lieu of a separate “closing theme,” but Mozart redirects things yet again with a fourth grand pause. And he provides us with an entirely new and fully worked-out “closing theme.” It is in a “popular” or “folk” style that quotes one of Mozart’s concert arias. This “popular” style was typical for closing themes since it lent itself well to a final cadence, which it does with a return to rhetorical flourishes like the opening.

Notice that Mozart’s styles in his three themes move from the “grand” to the “lyrical” to the “popular,” a sort of gradual scaling down of the rhetoric. Following the exposition and its repeat, the first part of the central “development” section uses the “popular-style” closing theme, beginning in a new key, E-flat major. It is manipulated at length and then leads to what sounds like a re-transition. This would not have been surprising. Classical-era development sections tended to be rather short. But then Mozart upends expectations again. The main theme returns, but it is in the “quiet” version, accompanied by bassoons playing the countermelody, and most importantly, it is in the wrong key, F major.

Some might call this a “false recapitulation” or “false reprise,” but it is really the anticipation of the recapitulation that is “false.” The first theme provides the remainder of the material for the development section, and when the real re-transition and recapitulation arrive, there is absolutely no doubt about it. The grand flourishing gestures and fanfares return in C major, where they should be.

As noted, Mozart does not introduce more obvious surprises in his recapitulation, perhaps thinking he has already given us enough. There is the adjustment that is standard in the transitional passage (beginning with the “quiet” statement of the main theme with countermelody), which is manipulated so that the secondary theme can appear in the home key. And there is one other very subtle change. The loud outburst and the closing theme follow in their expected keys (F minor and C major) based on the exposition, but the former is briefly intensified with a turn to the remote key of D-flat major, a change whose significance will not be clear until the finale. There is no coda, just a short extension of the final brilliant cadences.

Expressive Expansions in the Second Movement

Jupiter’s thunder—or Mozart’s defying of expectations—does not take a break for the second movement just because it is slow and lyrical, played with muted strings throughout. In fact, the very area where he was conventional in the first movement—the reprise or recapitulation—is where the composer chooses to go in strange directions here.

While other composers would often restrict the three-part sonata form to first movements, Mozart did not hesitate to use the same form for slow movements and finales. In fact, he uses it for all three of these movements in the “Jupiter.” This “Andante cantabile” is in F major, a fourth above the main key of C major, and a key suggested by the “false” reprise in the first movement.

It opens as innocuously as possible—with a single line from the muted first violins, emphasizing the second beat of the 3/4 bar, followed by a sharp, but not violent chord. Before too long, this spins itself out into a main theme with some decorative figuration. Then the theme is heard in the low strings with continuation of the figuration in the violins.

The contrasting theme would be expected in C major, the symphony’s main key (another reason for the choice of F major for the movement). Indeed, we move there, but there is another violent eruption—another thunderbolt—and it is in the key of C minor. A descending arpeggio, along with its accompaniment, is dramatically syncopated and followed by off-beat upward gestures. It turns out that this eruption is a delaying tactic—an “extra” transition after the key change has already occurred—before the real second theme.

The true second theme in C major is again gentle, a rising line accompanied by arching figures in groups of six notes. These groups of six then take over the theme itself. There is a “closing theme,” and this time it really is an appendage to the second theme, in the same character and the same rhythmic groupings. The exposition ends with a single transitional line in the first violins. Mozart asks for an exposition repeat, and conductors are justified in either taking it or cutting it.

The development section is very short, but of great import to the overall structure because it is entirely based on the syncopated descents from the “eruption”—and nothing else. This allows Mozart to largely eliminate the eruption from the reprise and replace it with something even more disconcerting.

The reprise or recapitulation, as stated, is the most interesting part of this movement due to its expansions and contractions. The opening theme is now decorated in the bass from the outset, and it is varied considerably from the exposition. This is unusual. There must be some manipulation to remain in the movement’s home key (F major) for the second theme, but that usually happens in the transition, not the main theme itself.

But the transition is now completely replaced. Mozart, in using the previous syncopated “eruption” as the basis for the development, frees himself to add an entirely new disruptive “extra” transition here in the reprise. It emerges directly out of the varied main theme with fanfare figures in the wind instruments against the continuation of the decorative figuration. This builds up to a full-fledged fanfare at the climax and is completely removed from anything in the exposition—it is another “thunderbolt.” There is a vestige of the syncopated original transition, but it is fleeting, and the second theme, now in F major, follows directly.

Unlike the first movement, Mozart here adds a real coda based on a return of the main theme. It serves to effectively ground things after the disruptions and provides an effective closing. In fact, it is clear from the autograph score that Mozart added this coda as a late revision.

Delayed Confirmations in the Minuet

Three-movement symphonies had been the norm until the 1770s, and most of Mozart’s early symphonies follow that pattern derived from the Italian opera overture. By the 1880s, however, the minuet movement was standard and rarely omitted—Haydn’s symphonies were all in four movements by this time—which is why the “Prague” symphony from the previous year is notable for not having a minuet.

The minuet movement in the “Jupiter” is a slippery little piece. It has been unfavorably (and unfairly) compared to the dramatic one in the G-minor symphony (No. 40) and the regal one in the E-flat-major (No. 39). But its mastery lies in its subtlety. Hidden in its apparent conventionality are more disruptions—more thunderbolts.

The minuet movement almost always had a main section in two repeated parts, with the second part usually considerably longer and often incorporating a full or partial reprise of the first part. Then there was a contrasting section that was almost an entirely separate piece, usually called the “Trio” (although by that point it had nothing to do with the number three). It was also in two repeated parts, usually shorter than the minuet. Then the minuet section would be played again without repeats.

A minuet movement would also usually begin with a forceful statement from the full orchestra. But not here. The first part of the main section is in regular phrases with predictable four-bar lengths, but Mozart does not begin with a dramatic statement. Instead, the violins start with an almost sneaky, narrow descending line with no bass. Only three bars in is there a loud confirmation of the key and the downbeat. The pattern is repeated in the next phrase. Finally, the first section ends with a forceful phrase beginning with a similar narrow descent but ending, as expected, on the so-called “dominant” key (G major).

The second part is much longer and begins conventionally enough, with development of the material leading to a disruptive (but not surprising) fanfare. But this fanfare does defy expectations by breaking the regular phrase structure, plunging headlong into the opening melody, merging its expected final bar into the first bar of the theme (a so-called “elision”). What then happens is not the expected full reprise, but a rising sequence based on the opening melody. This does lead to a full cadence.

Mozart could have ended the minuet here, but masterfully, he does not. He inserts a passage for woodwinds alone based on the opening melody, moving again to a quiet level. Finally, he brings things to a close with the last phrase from the first section, underpinned by more active timpani. Recall that in the first section, that phrase was in G major. Here, it is in the home key of C, which means that it begins the same way as the opening phrase, but now leads to a final cadence—in the home key. Another delayed confirmation.

The Trio section is notable for beginning with what sounds like (and in fact is) another final cadence gesture in the woodwinds, beginning with something that sounds like the end. Its first part is only eight bars, following the cadence gesture with a jaunty descending melody and ending with a strange call of a descending third that sounds almost like a cuckoo. The second section is longer, but shorter than the corresponding section of the main minuet. It begins with a loud disruption (the latest thunderbolt). The most notable thing about this disruption is that it begins with a pattern very similar to the famous four-note theme that will open the finale. It is extended to twelve bars beyond the expected eight. There is then a reprise of the first eight-bar section with a slightly embellished ending, adding a new flute line. The “cuckoo call” then serves as a transition back to the main minuet. Here in the Trio, the “confirmation” comes too early with the cadence gesture instead of too late (as in the minuet), and the closing gesture, the strange call of a third, is ultimately a transition rather than an ending.

Grand, Learned, and Sublime: The Finale

Four notes. C-D-F-E. A rising whole step, a skip of a minor third, then a falling half-step. A simple pattern lifted from the Credo of one of Mozart’s early masses. Mention the “Jupiter” Symphony to a musician or scholar, and those four notes may be the first thing that comes to mind. They are the first of six distinctive ideas that form the magnificent tapestry of this, the most significant symphonic finale to have been written to this point in history.

Five of these ideas take part in the movement’s extensive sections of virtuosic counterpoint and fugue. The other one plays another major role as a “closing” gesture. To follow the course of the movement, it is probably best to number these ideas. The four notes are (1). The next part of the main theme group, beginning with three repeated notes followed by a descent, is (2), and it is the element that is not used in the counterpoint.

Here let us insert an explanation and an anecdote. The explanation is the role of counterpoint in the late classical era. In the baroque period, fugue was king and polyphonic composition was the standard. In the more melodically oriented classical era of Mozart, counterpoint was deployed in a special way, as a signal that the composer wanted to show off his learning and intellect. Indeed, fugal counterpoint itself was often dubbed the “learned style.”

And now the anecdote, one involving Johannes Brahms. Allegedly, he was asked toward the end of his life which key he would use for his next (fifth) symphony, which of course he never wrote. His response was supposedly “Look at the finale of Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’.” Brahms’s four symphonies are centered on C, D, F, and E, in other words, our idea (1). This means that the three repeated notes of (2), on the note A, indicate that the next three of Brahms’s symphonies would have been in A major or A minor!

But back to Mozart. The movement, as explained, is not a “fugue,” but another sonata form. (1) and (2) form the main part of “Theme 1.” They are presented quietly against an undulating pattern. And then, yes, in a “thunderbolt,” they are stated with force from the full orchestra and extended. They then obtain a sort of “clinching gesture” (3), which is also part of Theme 1. It is very similar to (2), beginning with three repeated notes followed by a descent, but it is distinctive because of the long-short rhythm at the beginning. This third element moves the key, as expected, to G major and leads to a dramatic pause. The second theme should come now.

But it doesn’t. As in previous movements, Mozart inserts an extended transition, and it is the first “fugue” of the movement, based on the first three of the four notes (1). In the course of this passage of counterpoint, the fourth element (4) is introduced, a short rising gesture that incorporates a trill in the middle. (4) forms a part of the transition, not the first or second themes.

The counterpoint builds up until (3) brings everything together to yet another pause, this time introducing the actual “second theme.” This consists of two related elements. The first arches down and back up in longer notes followed, like (2) and (3), by a rapid descent. We will call this (5). The second is a version of the down-up arching motion in faster notes, played against the longer version, the last major element (6), heard first in the oboe.

But again, Mozart doesn’t follow the rules. His “second theme” not only utilizes (5) and (6), but also (3) and (4). (3) is heard in the flute right after the oboe presents (6). Then (4) is heard in harmony in the bassoons. All this while (5) is continuing in the strings. This is a precursor to the coda, when five elements will be placed in simultaneous counterpoint.

This “second theme” area builds to a thrilling climax, with entries on (5) overlapping with each other, culminating with the appearance of (2), another “first theme” element, which unexpectedly and dramatically turns to C minor and here functions as a “closing theme.” But Mozart is not done with surprises in this exposition. He again introduces (3), but he turns it upside down so that the scale figure after the long-short rhythm rises (another device used in counterpoint, that of “inversion”). Finally, things settle down, and (3) in its original form quietly appears in oboe, then bassoon, to end the exposition.

Mozart directs an exposition repeat here, which should be taken to solidify the six elements in the listener’s mind. The development section is a large passage of fugal counterpoint based on (1) and (3), using the latter to some extent in its “inverted” form, and moving rapidly through several related keys (mostly along the so-called “circle of fifths”). The entries on (3) overlap with each other in dizzying fashion. The counterpoint dissipates, and a simple statement of (3) in its original form leads seamlessly to the original presentation of (1) and the recapitulation/reprise.

The first statement of (1) and (2) proceeds as expected, but the full-orchestra statement is replaced by a dissonant “thunderbolt” sequence in which (1) gradually moves up for two statements, then back down. This avoids the turn to G major. The fugal transition is also cut, but (4), which had been associated with it, is presented in the home key, and (3) is again used to bring things to a pause before the “second theme.” This, using (5) and (6) along with (4) and (3), proceeds largely as in the exposition, now in the home key of C major.

Here we should look at the first movement, whose recapitulation only had one subtle surprise, the turn to D-flat major in the outburst before the closing theme. Mozart introduces a most artful parallel here, with the “closing theme” based on (2) making the corresponding turn to minor (here F minor), but with a new intensification—and a brief motion to D-flat major. This harmonic motion and intensification correspond exactly with the analogous spot in the first movement, right down to the keys used. And both occur during passages that are otherwise conventional. We are certainly not looking at “cyclic” composition yet, but this is evidence that the symphonic movements are not separable from the complete work

Mozart, unusually for this period in his career, asks for the entire development and recapitulation to be repeated. His motives seem well-intentioned. The movement is grand. Repetition adds to the epic grandeur. But while the exposition repeat seems warranted, this much longer repeat might be Mozart’s only miscalculation in the symphony. Why? Because it delays the most impressive section of the entire symphony, which is far too brief, and which will and can only be heard once: the coda, which provides the last and most overwhelming “thunderbolt.”

After a brief transition based on an inversion of the four-note figure (1), Mozart fulfills the promise of the fugue passages heard in the exposition and the development. In a tour de force worthy of J.S. Bach at his most complex, he combines all the elements except for (2) in an exhilarating five-part counterpoint, with the elements movable between different voices. And this is sublime. The four-note figure itself already had sublimity in its essence, and this is the culmination. Perhaps because it is so special, it is also brief. Mozart uses the one element not heard in the counterpoint, the sequel to the four-note figure (2), to bring everything together, as it did when functioning as a “closing theme.” It is now a “closing theme” on a grand and global scale, leading in a most satisfying manner to the shimmering trumpet fanfares and thundering timpani that bring this movement and this symphony—this monument of western music so full of Jove’s thunderbolts—to its glorious close.

NOTE: The analysis and background information in this essay rely heavily on a distillation of ideas found in Elaine Sisman’s excellent monograph on the symphony, part of the Cambridge Music Handbooks series (Elaine R. Sisman, Mozart: The ‘Jupiter’ Symphony, No. 41 in C major, K. 551, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993). Sisman refers to ideas such as “topics” and “styles” propagated by Leonard Ratner and other classical-era specialists and includes an excellent discussion of the “sublime.” Her analysis, particularly of the finale, has greatly influenced scholarly reception of the symphony over the last 25 years.

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