Symphony No. 39 in E flat major
Symphony No. 40 in G minor
Symphony No. 41 in C major Jupiter
“Representing no occasion, no immediate purpose, but an appeal to eternity” is how his biographer Alfred Einstein characterised the creation of Mozart’s last three symphonies, which will open the Berliner Philharmoniker’s new season under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle. The transfiguring image of the immortal Mozart, “darling of the gods”, who wanted to erect a symphonic monument for himself and the history of music, has stubbornly persisted.
Probably he composed them for the three “academies in the casino” he mentioned in a letter to his friend and lodge brother Michael Puchberg. What is certain is that he created three of the crowning masterpieces of classical symphonic writing, works that differ from one another in every aspect, even instrumentation. It is as though Mozart wanted to display the entire spectrum of the artistic means at his disposal. The E flat Symphony K. 543, in the words of E. T. A. Hoffmann, leads “into the depths of the spirit realm” – its astonishing radiance and its high spirits notwithstanding, touching on the dark and demonic sphere as well.
The beloved G minor Symphony K. 550, by comparison, is a locus classicus of architectonic balance, its Andante acting as a lyrical island between the dramatically charged minor-key movements. And the mastery of form and compositional technique exhibited by the “Jupiter” Symphony K. 551 suggests the quintessence of every apparent possibility for instrumental music during Mozart’s lifetime.
“Dearest, most beloved friend!” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote to the Viennese textile merchant and fellow Freemason Michael Puchberg before 17 June 1788. “The conviction that you are indeed my friend and that you know me to be a man of honour encourages me to open my heart to you completely and to make you the following request. In accordance with my natural frankness I shall go straight to the point without affectation. If you have sufficient regard and friendship for me to assist me for a year or two with one or two thousand gulden, at a suitable rate of interest, you will help me enormously! You yourself will surely admit the sense and truth of my statement when I say that it is difficult, nay impossible, to live when one has to wait for various odd sums. If one has not at least a minimum of capital behind one, it is impossible to keep one’s affairs in order. Nothing can be done with nothing. If you will do me this kindness then ... I can work with a mind more free from care and with a lighter heart, and thus earn more.”
About ten days later, on 26 June, Mozart recorded in the “Catalogue of all my works”, along with the incipit of the Adagio introduction, “A Symphony. ...”, the E-flat major Symphony, K. 543.
Another letter followed at the beginning of July: “Owing to great difficulties and complications my affairs have become so involved that it is of the utmost importance to raise some money on these two pawnbroker’s tickets. In the name of our friendship I implore you to do me this favour; but you must do it immediately.”
On 25 July he entered the G minor Symphony, K. 550, in the catalogue.
Then another letter: “Dearest brother! Your true friendship and brotherly love embolden me ... that I dare to implore you to help me out with a hundred gulden until next week, when my concerts in the Casino are to begin. ... I take the liberty of sending you two tickets which, as a brother, I beg you to accept without payment, seeing that, as it is, I shall never be able adequately to return the friendship which you have shown me.”
And finally on 10 August: the C major Symphony, K. 551, whose familiar nickname “Jupiter” appeared for the first time in 1823 on an arrangement for piano, flute, violin and cello by Muzio Clementi published in London – a 19th-century creation.
What a curious “counterpoint”: on the one hand, the begging letters to Puchberg, on the other, the last three symphonies, composed within a period of only six weeks. If we add the move to the suburb of Alsergrund on 17 June – to a smaller apartment in the house “At the Three Stars” on Währingerstrasse – and the death of his six-month-old daughter Theresia on 29 June, these summer months of 1788 were anything but a happy time for Mozart.
There were several reasons for the composer’s descent into debt. For one thing, Mozart’s musical idiom had deviated from the taste of his public – fortunate for us, unfortunate for him and his livelihood. Significant is the fact that the set of three string quintets, K. 406, 515 and 516, which Mozart had offered for subscription in April 1788, found few takers. For another, there were also external political reasons for the public’s lack of interest, as Volkmar Braunbehrens pointed out in his study Mozart in Wien [Mozart in Vienna]. 1788 “was the year in which the [so-called Eighth Austro-] Turkish War was at its peak; social life in the Viennese capital almost came to a standstill, since a large segment of the male nobility rushed off to join the army and the others retreated to their estates. ... Mozart obviously attempted to maintain his standard of living by accumulating debts.”
Since leaving his native city of Salzburg in summer 1781 and establishing himself as a “freelance” composer in Vienna, Mozart had composed only three symphonies, none of which was intended for the imperial city: the “Haffner” in July 1782 (D major, K. 385), the “Linz” in October/November 1783 (C major, K. 425) and the “Prague” in December 1786 (D major, K. 504). He would have had a perfect opportunity to present himself as a symphonist during his Vienna academies. Why did he return to this genre now? They were probably meant for concerts to be given in the hall of the new casino in the Spiegelgasse owned by Philipp Otto. There are indications that these concerts date from the end of August/beginning of September – which would explain the urgency with which he composed the three symphonies. Although it is often maintained that these academies did not attract enough subscribers and were discontinued, both the two tickets that Mozart enclosed with his letter to Puchberg and the fact that the begging letters stopped, at least until the end of March 1789, suggest that the concerts did perhaps take place and brought in enough money for Mozart to pay the most pressing debts.
Cohesive as a Triad or Loosely Connected?
Uncertain as the genesis and performance history of Mozart’s last three symphonies may be, there are just as many questions surrounding their conception. Despite the brief period of time during which they were composed, the difference in instrumentation alone suggests that Mozart did not intend them as a triptych. The echoes of other works are noteworthy, however. The main theme of the G minor Symphony, for example, seems to be modelled on Cherubino’s aria “Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio” from Le nozze di Figaro, and the second theme in the first movement of the C major Symphony sounds like a quotation from the bass arietta “Un bacio di mano”(K. 541), which Mozart composed in May 1788 for an opera by Pasquale Anfossi. Even the famous four-note motif with which the finale of the “Jupiter” Symphony begins is more or less a quotation of a formula that “belongs to the basic melodic stock of counterpoint theory”, according to Volker Scherliess, which the eight- or nine-year-old Mozart had already used in his very first symphony (E-flat major, K. 16).
The web of connections corresponds to a fabric of forms and ideas that has resulted in various interpretive perspectives. The aura of death is almost always implied, the idea of a symphonic “legacy in his lifetime”, wafted by a breath of eternity. For example, in July 1810 E. T. A. Hoffmann wrote about the E-flat major Symphony, K. 543: “Mozart leads us deep into the realm of spirits. Dread lies all about us, but withholds its torments and becomes more an intimation of infinity. We hear the gentle spirit-voices of love and melancholy, the night dissolves into a purple shimmer, and with inexpressible yearning we follow the flying figures kindly beckoning to us from the clouds to join their eternal dance of the spheres.” The same year an edition of the score of the C major Symphony, K. 551, published in London praised the work as “the highest triumph of Instrumental Composition”. The most contradictory opinions have been expressed about K. 550. Robert Schumann (1837) spoke of its “Greek floating grace”; for Hermann Abert (1921), on the other hand, “this symphony is the most poignant expression of that deep-rooted and fatalistic pessimism in Mozart’s nature which, especially in the last years of his life, strove for artistic expression.”
With all due respect, but everything was probably quite different, quite simple. Mozart needed money, planned a series of academies and wanted to surprise the Viennese public with three new symphonies. Not a trace of death or eternity, just the ordinary human condition of a composer. Only this composer happened to be Mozart, and the ordinary exudes perfection.