In the summer of 1788, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed three 4-movement symphonies in the space of two months. Given the composer’s situation at the time, a financial condition best described as debt-ridden, one would assume he had been handsomely commissioned to spend precious weeks laboring over lengthy, complex scores.
That assumption would be wrong. No one knows for certain why Mozart composed the works we know as his last symphonies: No. 39 in E-flat, No. 40 in G minor, and No. 41 in C, the latter nicknamed “Jupiter.” There is no record of a commission, and the symphonies were likely not performed in his lifetime. Mozart died in 1791.
Success and Fading Fortune
Upon his arrival in Vienna from Salzburg seven years earlier, Mozart had been feted and acclaimed as a fresh young talent, and commissions and students abounded. Now 32, he could no longer lay claim to youthful status.
Two other factors worked against him as well: His mature style ran miles ahead of his contemporaries, and audiences weren’t keeping up. As Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, put it, Vienna audiences needed to hear Mozart’s pieces “many, many times” before understanding them. And secondly, in February 1788, Austria had entered the war against the Ottoman Empire. The threat of Turkish invasion and problems stemming from the war sent many of Vienna’s elite, Mozart’s main source of commissions and students, fleeing west.
If at any time in his life Mozart needed to focus solely on income-producing endeavors, the summer of 1788 was it. Yet here he was, devoting two months to three major scores on no commission, without promise of performance. Why?
The cliché about Western composers prior to the 19th century is that they were craftsmen, solely concerned with pleasing patrons, who were usually the church or the nobility. Marxist critics, in particular, are quick to categorize musical works—and all artistic efforts—as the material products of their particular time and culture, as if artworks were nothing but commodities on their way to becoming artifacts.
Something to Say
The truth is that art is a vehicle for the comprehension of experience. Music, in particular, is capable of conveying psychic states—not the generalized “emotions” suggested in music appreciation classes, and not stories per se, but the states of experience.
Mozart, in that Vienna summer of poverty and the Turks at the door, had something to say, something big. Couched as a simple dialectic, the three last symphonies reflect youthful exuberance (No. 39), countered by disappointment and sorrow (No. 40), conquered by spiritual transcendence (No. 41). Though they are almost always performed separately, hearing the symphonies in succession makes it clear Mozart wrote them as a triptych.
That was the realization reached at last within the musical community seven years ago, when conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt announced his belief that, yes, Mozart wrote the three together because he intended them to be performed together.
Harnoncourt’s reasoning was formal: The three share a degree of material, and the first of them, No. 39, begins with a slow introduction that lacks a coda, or end-piece. The coda, it seems, is found in the famous last measures of No. 41, which effortlessly toss five musical motives in the air at once in perfect counterpoint.
But more than formal reasons support Harnoncourt’s belief. Below is a very brief guide to Mozart’s final symphonic utterances. The “K” numbers refer to a catalogue of Mozart’s works in roughly chronological order.
Symphony No. 39 in E-flat, K. 543
The first movement opens with a majestic Adagio that portends something of great importance. A stinging dissonance a few measures from the end of this introduction tells us the journey ahead will not be easy, but by the time the work is off on its first Allegro, there is only sunshine. Here and there throughout the rest of the work, dissonance will erupt, but in every case, it will be treated as a momentary detraction. The second movement has a number of these eruptions, yet optimism pushes them aside. The finale is one of the most gleeful pieces ever imagined.
Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550
It’s somewhat ironic that Mozart’s most popular symphony is also his most relentlessly pessimistic. No. 40 finds our listener unable to overcome the pull of G minor’s dark attraction. Even the lyrical second movement in E-flat, the key of the brightly lit Symphony No. 39, cannot rise above a sense of defeat.
Symphony No. 41 in C, K. 551
From start to finish, the symphony documents the superior joy of accepting suffering (see No. 40) as a path to understanding. Dissonance is no longer dismissed or denied (as in No. 39), but incorporated into a bird’s-eye view of the whole, culminating in that coda of five different motives juggled in the air of a newfound freedom.
Not bad, for two months’ work.
Former music critic for the Arizona Republic and The Kansas City Star, Kenneth LaFave recently earned a doctorate in philosophy, art, and critical thought from the European Graduate School. He is the author of three books, including “Experiencing Film Music” (2017, Rowman & Littlefield).