Brussels Philharmonic | Mozart: Jupiter | Programme Notes

Mozart: Jupiter

programme notes


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Die Zauberflöte: Ouverture, KV 620 (1786)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, KV 219 (1775)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Symphony No. 41 in C major, KV 551 ‘Jupiter’ (1788)

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My mother Muse, begin my song with Jupiter, for all things yield to Jupiter’s power (...)

– Ovid, The Metamorphoses, X, 148-149


Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, known as the ‘Jupiter’, is one of the absolute pinnacles of the genre. To be clear, this is no subjective opinion or individual judgment. Musicologists, musicians and critics are all fully in agreement on the qualities of the work. It has been described in colourful adjectives and superlatives: “the overpoweringly great, fiery, artistic, pathetic, sublime Symphony in C”, said the composer’s contemporary and author of reference works about music, Ernst Ludwig Gerber. “[We] should already consider [Mozart] as one of the first geniuses of the modern era and the past century.”

Johannes Brahms esteemed Mozart’s last three symphonies – of which the Jupiter Symphony is one – higher than the ground-breaking work of Beethoven, and the journalists of the Algemeine musikalische Zeitung likewise did not shy away from comparing him to Ludwig in 1864.

“How pure and clear are all the images in it! [... ] The work reveals how the master first gathers his material individually, and then examines how everything can come out of it, and then proceeds to build and work it out. It appears from Beethoven’s notebooks that he, too, worked in this way.”

That this symphony is a indubitable milestone was beyond question for these three connoisseurs, at any rate. And yet the greatest prestige enjoyed by this work appears to come mainly from a clever ‘sales pitch’. It was likely the London impresario Johann Peter Salomon – who was also the most important promoter of the music of Joseph Haydn – who gave the work this name after Mozart’s death. The thundering opening chords are reminiscent of the heavenly rumble of the king of the Roman gods. This certainly deserves some comment. It was not so unusual for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was at the time known mostly as an opera composer, to depict theatrical characters.


And yet the quality of Mozart’s work transcends the purely imagistic nature of the music. The unquestionable strength of the Symphony No. 41 lies in its sophisticated structure. In the opening movement, the composer is able, thanks to the contrasting motif (first the bombastic tutti, followed by the singing violin part), to make masterly use of the sonata form; in the third movement, he turns the conventions of the menuet dance upside down by constantly shifting the accents, and thus sending the listeners off in the wrong direction.

Nevertheless, it is mainly in the final movement of the work that Mozart shows us what makes this work so exceptional. An interplay of five different themes. A fugue that is built up layer by layer. This contrapuntal style was very popular mainly in the Baroque period, and was seen at the time chiefly as the domain of solo instrumentalists. Bach, Sweelinck, Buxtehude… for them, a fugue was a simple form. The fact that Mozart uses the full orchestra lends the fugue an unprecedented grandeur.

However, this complex form is woven out of just four notes: C, D, F and E, played by the violins at the beginning of the finale. It seems deceptively simple, but it is precisely beneath that simplicity that lies an entire story. For these notes not only engage in a round dance with each other, but also with the whole of music history. The motif goes back centuries, to the music written by the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, who used the same melody in his hymn ‘Pange lingua gloriosi corporis mysterium’.

It is even more important, however, to see how Mozart uses this motif to refer to Johann Joseph Fux, one of the most important music teachers of the Baroque period. Hi Gradus ad Parnassum is considered one of the most important textbooks for composers of counterpoint. In it, Fux takes likewise takes as one of his exercises the same C-D-F-E-line. It seems as if Mozart was tweaking his nose at his future colleagues. Quite an accomplishment! This is what a true composer does with such a challenge.

And the allusions don’t stop there. Mozart borrowed the idea of a five-part fugue as a finale of a symphony from Michael Haydn. In the final movement, Mozart once again reused his own music, namely, the theme with which the whole Symphony No. 41 had begun. Like a sort of double meta-analysis, for in the first movement, Mozart also concealed an obscure allusion to his own concert aria Un Bacio di Mano. Are you still with us?


This could be considered precisely the chief quality of Mozart’s music. The fact that his Jupiter Symphony, despite all that intertextuality, does not for a moment come across as academic or mannered. Each melody, each motif, each reference serves the hole and fits in perfectly with the fugue structure.

“It is for the finale that Mozart has reserved all the resources of his science, and all of the power, which no one seems to have possessed in the same degree with himself, of concealing that science and making it the vehicle for music as pleasing as it is learned.” – Sir George Grove, The Musical Times

No matter how grand and majestic Symphony No. 41 may be, Mozart apparently had even greater plans. He wrote his other two final symphonies, at the same time as this work, in a period of barely a month and a half. There have been speculations, therefore, that Mozart had conceived of them as a single whole.

There are a number of musical elements that support this hypothesis. The final movement (‘Allegro’) of Symphony No. 39 can easily flow into the opening movement (‘Molto allegro’) of Symphony No. 40. This assumption would also explain why ‘Jupiter’ begins so abruptly, without any introduction. If you see these works as one unit, this brusque start is a bit less astonishing. Another reason for this speculation: Mozart wrote most of his works on commission. Only this ‘trinity’ (or not) of works did he write at his own initiative…

Although the orchestra has placed only one of the three symphonies on this programme, yet the superstructure does plan a modest role. By opening with the overture to Die Zauberflöte, followed by the Fifth Violin Concerto, the symphony is given a worthy introduction. A well thought-through decision to use the first two works to illustrate, respectively, the operatic theatricality and the stately thematic skill (it is no accident that the violin concerto begins with the previously unheard-of tempo indication ‘aperto’, or open) of the Jupiter Symphony.