Since childhood, when I first became enraptured with music, I have been in love with the last three symphonies that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote: number 39 in E♭ (KV 543), number 40 in G Minor (KV 550), and number 41 in C (KV 551, posthumously named Jupiter). I acquired 78 RPM recordings of each, later to be replaced with long-playing (LP) records, tape recordings, and, most recently, compact disks (CDs).
Each of the three is magical in its own way. Number 39, when it was written, was the apogee of symphonies, fulfilling the symphony form invented by Mozart’s contemporary Franz Joseph Haydn. The finale (last movement) is in the tempo of a rapid country dance and is the most “Haydn-like” movement.
The 40th is in a class by itself. Written in a minor key, it rebels against Haydn’s habit of sending the audience home happy by ending a minor symphony in the major. Mozart finishes the 40th firmly in the minor, mournful and severe.
The 41st is arguably the greatest symphony ever written. Its central key, C major, is the simplest with no sharps or flats in the key signature. The symphony’s themes are notable for their plainness. And yet, as writer Anna Bulycheva explains, “the finale [of the 41st] was to be the most important movement for the first time in the history of symphony music. Here Mozart demonstrates his skill of polyphony, endlessly blending the finale’s various themes in newer and newer combinations until, in the coda, all the individual elements eventually come together.”
Even though I have lived my entire life listening to these three symphonies, they continue to reveal new aspects of themselves with repeated hearings. Like Johann Sebastian Bach, who brought counterpoint (polyphony) to its acme, Mozart perfected the sonata form invented by Haydn. His use of that form in his last three symphonies remains unparalleled.