Monday, March 13, 2017


Vincent P. de Luise M.D.

W.A. Mozart (1756-1791)
The portrait in oil by his brother-in-law Joseph Lange

Wolfgang Amade' Mozart was one of the greatest symphonists in history. Over the course of thirty years of composing, he crafted over 54 symphonies and sinfonias; about forty-one are the canonical compositions, with the last three among the finest ever written.(1)
Mozart composed his 38th symphony, the D Major K.V. 504 ("Prague") in December 1786 and it premiered in that great city on January 19, 1787.  A year and a half would pass before Mozart returned to the symphonic genre. 
Then, seemingly without a specific reason, over the course of six weeks in that magical summer of 1788, Mozart composed not just one, but three magisterial symphonies, his last and greatest in the genre. 
June 26, 1788; 25 July, 1788; 10 August 1788. These are the dates of completion of the three last symphonies. 
For what purpose were they written? For what commission or special event? Why did Mozart decide to write three large-scale and intricate works, masterpieces which stood on the shoulders of Haydn's creations, compositions that opened the door to a new world for the symphonic form?
Mozart very rarely wrote music without a specific purpose, just "for the heck of it." The quaint trope of the starving artist living in a garret and composing out of "divine" inspiration is a romantic and Byronic conceit, yet one that, curiously, is still held onto by some Mozart admirers. 
That myth was not Mozart's reality. Mozart was not a starving artist, certainly not by 1788. He was earning the modern equivalent of at least $ U.S. 100,000 in each of the last three years of his life, compensation that put him in the upper middle class of Viennese society. (2) 
To be sure, his creative output ebbed and flowed in 1787 and 1788, but by then, he had secured some level of financial security with his three operatic Da Ponte collaborations (Le Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi' fan tutte), piano concerti, had given several Akademies (subscription concerts where he kept the profits), and had a number of talented and wealthy keyboard pupils under his wing (among whom were Barbara Ployer, Josepha von Auernhammer, Thomas Attwod, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, and Prince Karl Lichnowsky, who would become his patron and then, curiously, a legal adversary in an unpaid debt). Mozart was beginning to see the financial light at the end of the tunnel.(2)
As Mozart scholar and Cornell Professor Neal Zaslaw entitled one of his essays, Mozart was  a "working stiff." He needed to make a living, he had a spouse and two young children, a large apartment, expensive clothes, a valet and a coach, and a desire to live as an equal to the aristocrats who patronized his concerts. 
Mozart was one of history's first "freelance" artists (i.e. not fully employed church or having a munificent aristocratic patron, as had Handel and Haydn). To earn an income, Mozart was largely on his own.(3)
Yet, there is no record that the symphonies known today as the 39th (Eb major K.V. 543), 40th (g minor K.V. 550) and 41st (C major K.V. 551, nicknamed "Jupiter" by Haydn's employer Johann Peter Salomon in London in the 1790s) were commissioned. There is no record of any purpose for which they were composed, and there is no concrete evidence that they were ever performed during Mozart's lifetime. Some musicologists believe that Mozart wrote the symphonies as a whole, for publication purposes, but again, with no proof of performance.
An intriguing statement in one of Mozart's letters implies that he had intended to perform these symphonies at a new casino in Vienna's Spiegelgasse (owned by his friend Philip Otto), and a letter to another colleague, a comment about tickets for a series of concerts at that venue, supports the notion of a planned performance.(4)
In a July 10, 1802 letter by the musician Johann Wenzel to the Leipzig publisher Ambrosius Kuhnel, Wenzel refers to a performance of the g minor symphony (what we no call the 40th) at the home of Baron Gottfried van Swieten, but it was so poorly performed that Mozart had to leave the room! (4)  
Concert programs exist from performances in Dresden, Leipzig, Frankfurt and Vienna in 1789 and 1790 that refer to Mozart "symphonies," however without date or key signature. 
An announcement for the 15 October 1790 Frankfurt concert, at which Mozart conducted
 "eine grosse Simphonie." The specific symphony remains unknown.

Mozart made a revision of the g minor (40th) symphony a few months after he composed it, to include clarinets and to give new parts for the flutes. Could this revision have been for a performance in a different location in Vienna or elsewhere in Europe? Ever the pragmatist, it is unlikely that Mozart would have rescored the symphony if he had not intended to perform it in a different venue. 
A poster survives announcing that on April 17, 1791, the Tonkunstler Societat presented a program in the Burgtheater of Vienna, conducted by Antonio Salieri. The concert included two works by Mozart: an aria sung by his sister-in-law Aloysia Weber Lange, and a "Grand Symphony." The specific Mozart symphony which Salieri conducted is not mentioned in research by Colin Lawson. (6)  Julian Rushton suggests that the Symphony performed may have been the revised version of the g minor (KV 550) with the inclusion of parts for the clarinets.(7)
But that's it. 
There are no ticket receipts, no written recollections by concert-goers, no reviews in the Viennese newspapers or journals (and new compositions by any of the several excellent composers in Vienna - instrumental or operatic - were often talked about), and no mention of a performance of any of the last three symphonies in any correspondence by Mozart to his friends, or to Constanze or his sister Maria Anna (Nannerl). 
Which is all very odd. 
Over 800 letters exist from Mozart to and from his family, colleagues and friends, one of the largest troves of correspondence by any composer. In these letters, Mozart mentions in detail not only his musical triumphs but also the quotidian events in his life, such as purchasing a pet starling, or eating pork cutlets, con gusto, on October 6, 1791, eight weeks before he died. Given this extraordinarily detailed chronicle of a life, it is unlikely that Mozart or one of his addressees would not have made a reference to one of these symphonies.
Yet nothing. 

Haydn, in his 98th symphony of 1792, seems to have channeled motifs that are found in Mozart's 41st symphony (Jupiter). Could Haydn have heard a performance of Mozart's 421st symphony sometime between 1788 and 1792? We do not know.

Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the brilliant and prolific Early Music conductor, has offered the possibility that Mozart crafted his last three symphonies as an integral whole, as a final statement on the symphonic genre.
Harnoncourt opines that Mozart composed them without commission, perhaps as instrumental music underpinning a grand oratorio, which Harnoncourt calls Mozart's "Instrumental Oratorium." 
Harnoncourt considers the first movement of the 39th symphony the "Prelude" of this putative oratorio, and the last movement of the 41st symphony, the "Finale." He argues that the 39th has no ending, the 40th has no true beginning, and the 41st has a magisterial coda. 
There is no proof that these three masterpieces were conceived as part of a larger whole, but it is an intriguing thesis.(5)
Harnoncourt and the Concentus Music Wien have performed Mozart's last three symphonies chronologically in one concert, without any interruption between them, and it is fascinating to hear them this way:


What is evident is the remarkable quality of these three last Mozart symphonies, their assuredness and complexity, their modulation and chromatics, their "knocking on the door" of Romanticism seventeen years before Beethoven would break open that door, in April 1805 with his Eroica Symphony.

With regards to the 41st symphony (Jupiter), there are melodic antecedents. The last movement motif  is found not only in Mozart's own first symphony (Eb major, KV 16 of 1764), his Missa Brevis in F (KV 192 of 1774), and his 33rd symphony (KV 319 of 1779), it can be heard as far back as the Missa Pange Lingua of 1515 of Josquin de Prez. 
Mozart had seen the autograph of the Symphony no. 27 in C major by his friend, Michael Haydn, which was written four years earlier than Mozart's Jupiter, and which has the same motif in the finale. In those days, before copyright laws, imitating another composer's melodies was not only not considered plagiarism, it was viewed as a compliment.
The finale of Mozart's Jupiter is an astonishing burst of creativity: the coda is comprised of five separate and intertwined fugal motifs. Johann Sebastian Bach would have been proud:

The fugal coda of Mozart's Symphony no. 41 in C major, 
KV 551 "Jupiter," with its five separate, intertwined motifs.

Mozart's creative process is as mysterious and wondrous as the genius underlying his ineffable compositions. In what would be his last three symphonies, Mozart demonstrated that he had mastered this genre as well.

Ars longa !

@ 2017 Vincent P. de Luise M.D. 


1. Zaslaw, Neal. Mozart's Symphonies: Context, Performance Practice, Reception. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1989. 

2. Baumol, William and Baumol, Hilda. On the economics of musical composition in Mozart's Vienna, in, On Mozart,  James Morris, ed. Woodrow Wilson center and Cambridge University Press, 1994.

3. Zaslaw, Neal, Mozart as a working stiff, in On Mozart, James Morris ed., Woodrow Wilson Center and Cambridge University Press, 1994 

4. Milada Jonasova: Eine Auffuhrung der g-moll-Sinfonie KV 550 bei Baron van Swieten im Beisein Mozarts", in: Mozart Studien 20, Tutzing 2011, pp. 253-268. An abridged English translation was published in the Newsletter of the Mozart Society of America 16:1 (2012)


6. Lawson, C. Mozart: Clarinet Concerto, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996, pg. 27.

7. Rushton, J.  Mozart, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009, pg. 210.

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