On the 'Jupiter' Symphony.

Mozart has always been a difficult composer to classify. For many, he exemplifies the style and grace of the classical era: refined, poised, but merely entertaining; someone to be hurried past on the royal route that leads from Haydn to Beethoven to Mahler. Yet to become acquainted with his full body of work, entirely possible in this era of complete editions, reveals quite a different and more complex story. There you will find the serene melancholy of the Masonic Funeral Music: the path from tragedy to joy in the G minor piano quartet; the wondrous Gran Partita for 12 wind instruments; the late string quartets; the clarinet quintet, and so on. And this is to leave aside his major works, above all the mature operas and piano concertos.
However, I do not wish to discuss any of these works here, but rather his last and greatest symphony: No. 41 in C major K. 551, the "Jupiter". Mozart wrote his last three symphonies in rather a short time in the summer of 1788. Probably the most popular of these is the moody No. 40 in G minor; but the best, in terms of sheer audacity of technique, is surely No. 41. If nothing else, Mozart solved the "last movement" problem that bedevils all composers in sonata form.
In Mozart's concertos and symphonies, the last movement is typically a rondo, ie rather a lightweight structure compared to the much more weighty construction of the first movement. This is particularly apparent in the piano concertos, almost all of which have marvellous first movements; but more than a couple have a rather flighty last movement. Mozart's best last movements in the concertos in fact are not rondos at all, but are in variation form (e.g. No. 24 in C minor). And of the rondo ones, the best have a more complex and knitted together structure (such as No. 19 in F). Another way of fixing the last movement (particularly popular with Haydn, e.g. in his string quartets) was to have a fugal structure; and indeed Mozart, who was not the only composer to discover Bach in his maturity, sometimes adopted this too. In the piano concertos, this was not very successful; for example in the slightly disappointing No. 13 in C major where the fugal martial rhythms of the first entry of the orchestra rather dissipate: in the later, but somewhat similar No. 21, the fugal elements are much more toned down.
The inherently problematic mix of the concerto structure plus fugue did not, however, affect Mozart in his symphonic masterpiece, the Jupiter. The last movement is broadly in sonata form, with exposition, development, recapitulation and coda; but fugal elements are interwoven all through. For example, after the first statement of the formulaic first theme, wonderfully underpinned by the oscillating strings, the whole thing is restated fugally before going into the transition and second group of subjects. Here, as elsewhere, Mozart shows his skill by how he handles the junctions between the various units of the sonata form; the transition from first to second group; the effect of the repeat after the exposition (marvellous both in the first and last movements of this symphony); the retransition to the recapitulation, and so on. And interwoven through all this is the richness of the fugal textures.
Mozart waits until the recapitulation until revealing his masterstrokes in this movement. The very restatement of the theme is embellished by soft chords in the woodwind, giving it an added depth compared to the original statement. And this is quickly followed by a remarkable cycling of suspensions through more and more distant keys until, when the discord becomes unbearable, it triumphantly resolves into the second half of the second theme. Finally, in the coda, Mozart presents the famous five part fugue where he combines and cycles almost all of the principal themes of the entire movement in one extraordinary passage - overwhelmingly complex, frustratingly brief.

Like all works of art, the Jupiter symphony is not something that can really be appreciated by just description: one needs to hear it. Furthermore, it also grows: it is something that can seem insubstantial or trivial on first hearing, but on repeated listening - when the listener does work, in other words - it draws the listener in. Many people indeed find it endlessly fascinating - a work that one can never tire of. In the most recent monograph on it (by Elaine Sisman) it is described explicitly as possessing the characteristics of the sublime: overwhelming, transitory, incomprehensible.
Why do we find such works sublime - what is it about a work without words that can make it so meaningful, a resource for life one can return to over and over again? There is something here about its complexity that exhausts our powers of comprehension; and something about its sheer emotional impact as a result: it is when our rationality fails that we glimpse once more over the edge of the world. Yet, paradoxically, our response is also a rational one: our reaction is not merely a gut one. Furthermore, we look somehow for the solution to its insoluble complexity within its sublime moments; but their necessary fleeting nature means we can never catch them resolving: if only they were to last longer, then perhaps we could understand! But by their very nature, they do not.
In cosmology, in pyschology and in art (especially music, although I would not care to argue this point strongly), we find ourselves caught in the same paradox of longing to understand, but not being able to: and yet finding that the very incomprehensibility is what attracts us. This is the power of the sublime: profoundly mysterious and thus disturbing; but at the same time compelling. It seems that it informs many of our activities, including others I have not yet turned to.


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