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Program Notes: Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony

Concert Program

Richard Wagner (1813 – 1883)
Siegfried Idyll, WWV 103
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791)
Symphony No.41 in C major, K.551 (Jupiter)
I. Allegro vivace
II. Andante cantabile
III. Allegretto
IV. Molto allegro

Program Notes

Born in Leipzig, Germany, May 22, 1813; died in Venice, Italy, February 13, 1883
Siegfried Idyll, WWV 103 (1870)

Birthdays were taken seriously in the Wagner household.  For Richard’s birthday, Cosima Wagner commissioned a play and dressed up her children as the Goddess Erda and her three Norn-daughters.  On another occasion, a musician sounding Siegfried’s horn call roused the composer from his birthday slumbers.  But a single blast of the bugle may not have been sufficient, since the following year, May 22, 1870, Cosima arranged for an entire military band of 55 to wake the composer with his own Huldigungsmarsch.  Wagner returned the favour later in the year for his wife’s birthday.  This took the form of a chamber music serenade featuring the newly written Siegfried Idyll, soon to become the best-known of Wagner’s non-operatic works.

Its origins lay in a string quartet that Wagner is believed to have sketched in 1864, inspired by his love for Cosima.  She was then the wife of his best friend and most devoted champion, conductor Hans von Bülow.  Later, after the birth of two daughters (Isolde and Eva, and a son, inevitably christened Siegfried), Wagner and Cosima were married, August 25, 1870.  Wagner then returned to the quartet as the basis for the new piece for her 33rd birthday.  He also wove in music from Act 3 of the opera Siegfried that he had been working on when their son was born.  The conductor Hans Richter rehearsed the piece secretly and rose to the challenge of learning the trumpet part for the group of 15 strings, winds and brass who gathered on the steps outside the bedroom in the Wagners’ villa at Tribschen, near Lucerne, Switzerland.  Wagner himself conducted the performance that woke the sleeping Cosima.

Born in Salzburg, Austria, January 27, 1756; died in Vienna, December 5, 1791
Symphony No. 41, in C, K. 551 (‘Jupiter’) (1788)

Mozart did not expect to die early.  He kept a hand-written catalogue of the music he had written and dated its cover into the 19th century.  Neither did he know that the ‘Jupiter’ was to be his final symphony.  So, although the piece provides an admirable summary of his life’s symphonic work, it is clear that Mozart did not plan it as such.  He entered the piece in his catalogue August 10, 1788, a little over three years before his death.  He did not give it the nickname ‘Jupiter’, ruler of the gods.  This came about roughly three decades later, from the London-based violinist and impresario Johann Peter Salomon.

The ‘Jupiter’ is revolutionary in the way that the finale does not relax the tension built up throughout its four movements.  Instead, it brings it to a climax in a precedent that Beethoven and the romantic composers were eager to follow.  The opening movement is one of Mozart’s most powerful.  It is a study in contrasts, both between the three main thematic ideas and within each of them.  The first juxtaposes an assertive statement with a pleading phrase from the violins.  Then, after several variants, comes a gentle, questioning idea from the violins, with its own playful answer.  And finally, after an abrupt pause, a direct quotation from an aria Mozart had recently written, titled Un bacio di mano (A kiss on the hand).  The melody brings the world of comic opera into the symphony and with it, perhaps, an allegory for life itself, where characters from all walks of life are presented as equals.  It is, as Mahler was to say, a century later, all the world in a symphony.

The two middle movements take the ideas we have heard further still.  Coloured by its muted violins, the sonata-form slow movement reaches deep and at length into the public and private thoughts from the opening theme of the first movement.  Similarly, the minuet further explores the essential delicacy of the second theme of the opening movement.  It introduces much chromatic and contrapuntal writing and comes close to expanding to full sonata-form.  Mozart reveals his most complex and virtuoso writing in the finale, a movement that represents a dynamic fusion of baroque technique with the most up-to-date symphonic thinking.  Its six main ideas are woven into one of the most complex symphonic movements ever written, utilizing many fugal devices.  Its thrilling coda marries the most sophisticated of musical techniques with sheer musical exhilaration, as five of these ideas are brought together in a powerful, culminating fugato.

©2020 Keith Horner
All program notes are written by Keith Horner.  Comments welcomed: