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An Exuberant Masterwork
Symphony No. 41 in C Major was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s (1756-1791) longest symphony and the last one he composed. It made a powerful and lasting impression and was tellingly nicknamed “Jupiter"—it conveys an allure, exuberance, and grand scale reminiscent of the most powerful Roman deity, Jupiter. While the nickname was allegedly coined by Johann Peter Saloman, the German musician, impresario, and longtime London resident, it has also been attributed to English music composer, Johann Baptist Cramer, who said that the first notes of the symphony reminded him of Jupiter and his thunderbolts.
The last three of Mozart’s symphonies were all composed in the summer of 1788 while he was living in the Viennese suburb of Alsergrund—No. 39 in June, No. 40 in July, and No. 41 in August. Some historians believe that the three symphonies were composed as a unified work. Not only were they composed close together, but the compositional structure gives evidence to this idea. Symphony 39 is the only one of the three that has an introduction—and it is a very long introduction. And the final, "Jupiter," has a very long grand finale. So the three symphonies can be viewed as all one work, so to speak, with a long introduction for the 39th, and then a long finale in 41.
The French Revolution began a year later, on July 14, 1789, with the storming of the Bastille. Sir George Grove, an English engineer and writer on music, later said that it “is the greatest orchestral work of the world which preceded the French Revolution.” Mozart died in 1791. The symphonies were not published in his lifetime, and there is no clear evidence that they were ever performed before he died.
Since its publication, however, it is one of the most played and adored symphonies in the orchestral repertoire. The first known recording of the symphony is from around the beginning of World War I. It garnered high praise from critics, theorists, composers, and biographers and came to be viewed as a canonized masterwork, known for its fugue and overall structure which exuded clarity.
The symphony has inspired many composers. Perhaps the most succinct reflection on the work’s importance is found in the critiques of German composer and journalist Robert Schumann, who wrote in 1835, “About many things in this world there is simply nothing to be said—for example, about Mozart’s C Major Symphony with the fugue, much of Shakespeare, and some of Beethoven.” For Schumann, at least, the "Jupiter" Symphony secured for Mozart an eternal position within the realm of the masters.