In the jungle of myths

Mozart’s last three symphonies

Mozart’s Symphonies Nos. 39, 40 and 41 are widely seen as the zenith of his output as a symphonist, but numerous myths have grown up around them. Did their composer intend them as his legacy? Was he already aware of his impending death? A number of questions have been answered by Mozart scholars, but others remain shrouded in mystery.

Mozart’s last three symphonies are his Symphony No. 39 in E♭ major, his Symphony No. 40 in G minor, and his Symphony No. 41 in C major (“Jupiter”). All three are uncontested masterpieces and all are the stuff of legend. Why did Mozart write them? Did he ever hear them performed? Since we do not have any unequivocal answers to these questions, various fictions have grown around these works.

The Romantic belief that Mozart had a premonition of his own death and felt urged to toss off three works that would be the quintessence and culmination of his symphonic output is a tempting one, but this is doubtless an exaggeration. Writing in 1810, E. T. A. Hoffmann noted that the Symphony No. 39 was “known as the composer’s swansong”, and even one of the most eminent of early twentieth-century German musicologists, Hermann Abert, opined in 1920 that all three works, but especially the Symphony no. 40, expressed “a profound, fatalistic pessimism”.

An artistic testament …

It is a fact that Mozart wrote his last three symphonies not shortly before his death in December 1791 but more than three years earlier, in the summer of 1788. According to his handwritten entry in the catalogue that he kept of his works (his Verzeichnüß aller meiner Werke), they were written within the space of only eight weeks, with only two weeks lying between Symphonies no. 40 and no. 41 – an extraordinarily short space of time, albeit one that is less exceptional when judged by the conventions of the time and by Mozart’s own compositional habits.

Although it has become known as his “Jupiter” Symphony, this name is not Mozart’s. By the early years of the nineteenth century it was famous as the “Symphony with the Final Fugue”. Here it is hard to set aside the Romantic notion that a composer’s final work must be a summation of his overall output, since the “Jupiter” was not only the last symphony that Mozart wrote but also the ne plus ultra of the genre as it then existed - a genre that was a child of the eighteenth century. As such it marked the end of an era.

It is unlikely, however, that two years before his death – of which he could have had no inkling at this time – Mozart was consciously drawing a line beneath the medium. Indeed, it seems absurd to argue that with his “Jupiter” Symphony Mozart was bequeathing his “artistic testament” to posterity.

His desperate attempts to have his works performed and to generate an income from that source speak a different language. By 1788 he was beginning to feel the chill wind of rejection on the part of Vienna’s audiences. This was also the year in which he first started to write begging letters to his well-to-do friend Michael Puchberg. That he might have been writing symphonies simply for his own amusement at this time flies in the face of everything that we know about his pragmatism and about the economical way in which he made use of his time.

Probably Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in the year before his death. Painting by Johann Georg Edlinger, 1790
(Photo: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie)

…or simply financial worries?

The hypothesis that this group of Mozart’s last three symphonies was indeed performed in 1788 has been advanced by the American musicologist H. C. Robbins Landon, who, in support of his argument, cites a letter to from Mozart to his patron, Puchberg. Unfortunately this letter is undated. In it Mozart announces that he will be giving a series of “academies at the Casino” – in other words, public concerts – and that they will include a number of new works. Mozart offers Puchberg “2 tickets”. If this letter does indeed date from August 1788, as various writers argue, this would indicate that the new symphonies that Mozart wrote in June, July and August of that year were ready in time to be performed at a subscription concert that autumn.

In the case of Symphony No. 40, an examination of the watermarks of the paper that Mozart used has shown that the two clarinet parts that were added later are written on the same type of paper as the rest of the work, suggesting that Mozart undertook these revisions immediately after completing the symphony as a whole and that he did so with a concrete performance in mind.

In 2011 the Czech musicologist Milada Jonášová was able to demonstrate that Mozart attended a performance of his G minor Symphony at the home of his benefactor Gottfried van Swieten. Writing in 1802, the Prague musician Johann Wenzel noted in one of his letters that he had heard from Mozart – who had subsequently died - that he had had his new work “produced” at van Swieten’s, but that the performance had proved so disappointing that Mozart “had had to leave the room, so badly was the work performed. ”

Third theory: commissions

Gottfried van Swieten not only promoted concerts, he also played a role in the musical life of Vienna in other ways: he was known for commissioning new works. It was van Swieten, moreover, who introduced Mozart to the music of Bach and Handel. Is it possible, then, that he also commissioned Mozart’s last three symphonies? Did the self-declared lover of Baroque music perhaps inspire Mozart to write the highly polished contrapuntal passages that are a feature of the final movement of the “Jupiter” Symphony? Here Mozart conjured up all the tricks of the trade in terms of contrapuntal techniques, and merged them with the elegance of a Classical symphony.

Symphonies were also performed at the concerts that Mozart gave in Leipzig and Dresden in 1789 and in Frankfurt am Main in 1790. It is entirely possible that he took his latest works on tour with him. There is also evidence of a concert in Vienna in April 1791 when a “grand symphony from the pen of Herr Mozart” was performed under the direction of Antonio Salieri, who was later to find himself cast in the role of Mozart’s rival.

As for the question of whether these three works by Mozart were conceived as a triptych, perhaps with a view to having them published as a set, this, too, has received no straightforward answer. The German musicologist Peter Gülke has given one of his essays the eloquent title “A World in a Cycle”, speculating that there is an overriding unity to these symphonies. His colleague Volker Scherliess, conversely, insists on their individuality in terms of their differing instrumentation: “Paradoxically speaking, anyone wanting to interpret them as a group of works that belong together will find that the factor that links them together is precisely how different they are with regard to their individual design.” As is the case with every good mystery, there is still room for imagination and for flights of fancy, despite all this scholarly attention to detail.

Kerstin Schüssler-Bach

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