Mozart's Last Two Symphonies*
The G minor and C major symphonies, K.550 and 551, are the last two of a trilogy, including the E flat, K. 543, composed between 26 June and 10 August 1788. Not long before that, in April 1787, Mozart had taken up new lodgings in the Viennese Alsergund suburb. His recent financial reverses presumably were the cause of that move, although he tried to put a brave face on it, writing to his Masonic brother Michael Puchberg in mid-June 1788: "On the whole the change is all the same to me, in fact I prefer it. As it is, I have very little to do in town and, as I am not exposed to so many visitors, I shall have more time for work. If I have to go to town on business, which will certainly not be very often, any fiacre will take me there for ten kreuzer. Moreover our rooms are cheaper and during the spring, summer and autumn more pleasant, as I have a garden too."
Writing symphonies was an unusual summer occupation. It was not the concert season, and Mozart's compositions for the Viennese public until then had centered on the piano concerto. This constellation of circumstances soon gave rise to a perception that the symphonies were written out of an inner compulsion, Mozart's pursuit of a higher, abstract musical ideal. It was a convenient idea, not only reinforcing the calcified biographical notion that by 1788 he had withdrawn from Viennese musical life, but also accounting for the fact that the symphonies apparently were not performed during his lifetime.
Recently, however, this Romantic idea has given way to more mundane explanations. One is that Mozart composed the trilogy in response to Haydn's recently published "Paris" symphonies (Hob. I:82-84) - coincidentally also in the keys of C major, G minor and E flat major - with the hope that they too would be printed. More commonly, though, it is now believed that the works were written for a series of subscription concerts that Mozart planned for the summer, or possibly autumn, of 1788. Evidence for this assertion derives chiefly from an un-dated letter, also to Puchberg, usually assigned to June 1788: "I still owe you 8 ducats - but although at the moment I'm not in a position to pay you back, I nevertheless trust in you so much that I dare ask for your help with 100 florins until next week when my Casino academies begin. By that time I shall certainly have received my subscription money and shall then be able quite easily to pay you back 136 gulden with my warmest thanks."
The likelihood of projected performances is further borne out by a surviving manuscript copy of the G minor symphony containing the composer's autograph corrections in the parts. Produced only shortly after the summer of 1788, it offers unexpected insights into the work's genesis, showing not only that Mozart's decision to make a second version, including clarinets, was practically immediate, but that he may already have undertaken this change during the course of rehearsals. Several passages from the first version (with oboes only) are corrected directly on the performing parts, as if Mozart had heard the original and decided then and there to add clarinets.
It was also at this time that he rewrote a passage in the slow movement. The usual assumption has been that the two versions of the Andante represent alternative performing options. As Mozart's performing copy shows, however, the second version, recorded here, actually replaces the original. Even beyond the immediate performance documented by these parts, Mozart had several later opportunities to hear the works as well, on his trip to Leipzig, Berlin and Dresden in 1789, in Frankfurt in 1790, or in Vienna in 1791.
Both symphonies quickly established themselves as "classics" and - unlike many of Mozart's other works - have never disappeared from the repertory. The G minor was widely understood to be one of his most important tragic, minor-key compositions, on a par with the similarly "Romantic" D minor piano concerto K.466, the C minor piano concerto K.491 and the G minor string quintet K.516. It distinguishes itself from K.466 and K.516 by its unremittingly intense finale, which continues in the minor right up to the final chord. As early as 1805 it was dubbed "a true masterpiece" and in 1809 "Mozart's symphony of all symphonies." Not the least of its qualities is the supremely idiomatic wind writing, coupled with the harmonic audacity so evident at the beginning of the development sections of the first and last movements.
The "Jupiter," by contrast, represents the majestic, Apollonian Mozart, especially in the seemingly inevitable, teleological drive of its last movement to a magnificent double-fugue coda. The origin of the nickname "Jupiter," which arose in the early 19th-century as a description not only of the work's stateliness, but also of its contrast to the G minor, appears to be English in origin. According to Vincent Novello, it was first mooted by the London violinist and impresario Johann Peter Salomon. During a visit with Constanze Mozart in Salzburg in 1829, Novello wrote in his diary that "Mozart's son said he considered the finale to his father's sinfonia in C - which Salomon christened the Jupiter - to be the highest triumph of Instrumental Composition . . .". Certainly the nickname was in use before 1820: it appears in a program for the Edinburgh Music Festival on 20 October 1819. Its earliest known use on a music print is the cover of an arrangement by Muzio Clementi for piano, flute, violin and cello, published in England in 1822 or shortly afterwards.
Performances of Mozart's symphonies, both past and present, always represent a search for "authenticity," and it may seem that today's performing styles are fundamentally different from those of earlier periods. In a sense this is true: along with traditional, "big orchestra" performances, we are now also accustomed to hearing smaller orchestras approximating the size of Mozart's own ensembles, playing on period instruments or reproductions, at faster tempos, with cleaner articulations and more exact rhythms.
In another sense, however, little has changed. Just as the 19th-century interpreter was motivated by a fervent obligation to the spirit, rather than the letter, of a work, so too is today's historically informed approach. Only the style has changed, not the meaning. And this mod-ern "fidelity" speaks forcefully to contemporary audiences, seeming to apprehend not only the Mozartean spirit of the symphonies, but the spirit of our own time as well.
The dance music for his Munich opera seria Idomeneo
represents Mozart's most important contribution to the genre, far more substantial than Les Petits Riens
, the ballet he had written for Paris only shortly before, in 1778. No doubt he was determined by 1780 to assert greater control over his work. Even though the new opera was clearly the main attraction, Mozart insisted, as he wrote to his father, that the ballet music - customarily relegated at the time to an orchestral hack - should be "by a master." The dances in Idomeneo
, particularly the magnificent Chaconne that follows the final chorus, reveal a careful study of similar movements from Gluck's Parisian operas.