Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ Symphony No. 41 (K551)
This is a piece of music that I listened to recently for the very first time and which, based on what I now know, seems to me to be the perfect piece of classical music. I have listened to a lot of classical music recently, but this particular work has enthralled me. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (b. 1758) was the child star of his age and was a brilliant pianist and composer. Sadly, he only lived until he was 35, but he still managed to write a huge volume of music – including 41 symphonies. These are orchestral pieces that usually have 4-5 movements and can take up to an hour to play.
The last symphony he wrote (no. 41), after he had died, was later nicknamed the ‘Jupiter’ – no one knows why. It was his longest and probably his most famous work (apart from the operas); it was as if everything he’d ever known about composition was written into this one piece. It was written at the end of a seven-week spell in the summer of 1788 when he wrote two more symphonies (nos. 39 and 40) and it was just a few years before he died.
The ‘Jupiter’ symphony was written at a time when, by all accounts, when Mozart was near the bottom – he was broke and seriously in debt; his newborn daughter had just died, and people were losing interest in him and his music. But somehow, despite this, he created a piece that was as revolutionary as anything he’d ever written, and which heralded a new age for the symphony to be taken to the next level by Ludwig van Beethoven. In the final movement, he employed counterpoint – the weaving of two or more tunes together – and incredibly used five different melodies simultaneously. Listening to the piece you can hear them all.
It was if he was trying to summarise everything that had happened with the symphony up to that point. Listening to the piece for the first time, it is as if we know what is going to happen and it does! There are no ugly surprises, and we’re not given time to get bored; we get carried along with the brilliance of the melodies. I didn’t think it possible for a piece of music to do this to me.
So what does this piece say about my appreciation of classical music? We’re told over and over that classical music is important and that Mozart was genius, but for the ordinary person, this is hard to understand because we don’t undertand what he did. Yes, so he lived at a time when there were lots of classical musicians, and he was deemed to be the best of them; yes, we’re told that his compositions are important for the development of classical (serious) music. But, even without knowing much about it all, to the untrained ear, the ‘Jupiter’ symphony seems to be one of those pieces of classical music that just sounds right. Is this what they mean by genius?