Thursday, July 19, 2007

Reading Mozart's 41st

Wolfgang Mozart's last symphony, No. 41 in C major, was dubbed "Jupiter" after the composer's death. The name would be as appropriate for a last and greatest demonstration of his all-but-Olympian powers, as for music of big-boned masculinity and jovial confidence. The Jupiter Symphony is all that and more.

Movement I shows us not two, but three themes, then develops them in detail. The first theme carries an internal conflict between its fanfarelike opening figure and a delicate phrase that alternates with it; after arriving quite soon at an absurdly conclusive cadence, Mozart continues to play with these motives before moving along to his second theme: a graceful melody starting with a couple of rising half-steps. The third theme emerges in the codetta and mainly exists to give individual character to what might have been a paint-by-the-numbers wrapping-up passage.

Movement II, another slow sonata, does the first movement one better: with four distinct themes, it is a long-limbed, graceful outpouring of melody. Nor does Mozart stint on development, though without ever breaking the mood of serenity that makes this movement one of the most relaxing (though never boring) pieces of fine-art music.

Movement III, the minuet, is dominated by a languidly descending figure (the opposite, as it were, of the second theme of Movement I). The Trio is rather negligible until its second part, which leads off with a very emphatic series of chords that may be regarded as the dramatic peak of the movement.

Movement IV, Mozart's final symphonic finale, is also a sonata, but one with an unusually extensive and sophisticated development section. In fact, the development goes pretty much all the way to the end of the movement, which culminates in a fugato combining all the themes. And there are something like four themes in this movement, each of which appears in several different characters, some of them flipped upside down (inversion). A tour-de-force of contrapuntal techniques, it all grows out of a four note subject heard at the beginning of the movement: do-re-fa-mi. The more one studies this movement, the more one must admire it as a creation of genius; but one need not look so closely to enjoy its vibrant energy and good-humored strength.

IMAGES: Mozart; Mozart's piano. EDIT: The video below shows the Jovian Jeffrey Tate and his English Chamber Orchestra performing the finale of this symphony.

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