Mozart’s Last Three Symphonies

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.

2 thoughts on “Mozart’s Last Three Symphonies”

  1. Mozart is nice and really wonderful in some places, but I think Beethoven’s 3rd, 5th, 6th, 7th and 9th are as good or better than any of Mozart’s. Of course, this is speaking as a non musicologist. I know that the first time I heard each of Beethoven’s symphonies the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I was simply enthralled. They each pack an emotional wallop that I don’t feel with Mozart.

    Like

  2. Thanks for the insightful comment, Bob. I suspect our difference of opinion results from preference. As a musicologist (I hold a BA in Music), I tend to favor the intellectual over the emotional. For that reason, I consider Johann Sebastian Bach the greatest composer who ever lived. Beginning with Beethoven, who for all practical purposes, introduced the Romantic Period in music, audiences gradually shifted their preference toward the emotional. And I have to admit that I am deeply moved by Beethoven and the Romantics who followed him. I am especially partial to Gustave Mahler. His “Das Lied von der Erde” (The Song of the Earth) remains one of the most moving compositions I know. The only piece that comes close to it, in my view, is Richard Strauss’s “Vier letzte Lieder” (Four last Songs). Both are emotional to the hilt. All that said, I still believe that Mozart’s last three symphonies have never been surpassed for sheer musical greatness.

    Like

Leave a Reply to Robert Headley Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: