I gave a talk recently on Mozart’s final three symphonies, nos 39-41. They’re formidable works and belong to any classical listener’s library, so I thought they’d be great for this week’s Cathy list.
The first piece isn’t by Mozart, as you’ve probably spotted. It’s a zesty piece by the composer Gustav Holst for string orchestra. He was great at writing for strings and I just love the chugging energy of this, a great way to start any playlist.
So, to Mozart. He wrote his three last symphonies all in one summer, in 1788. All three, that’s quite some feat even by Mozart’s prodigious standards! And we’re not sure why he wrote them either, because there are no obvious commissions or concert opportunities attached to them.
They are seen as the culmination of his genius in writing for orchestra, each heroic in stature and vision. The 39th represents a galant hero, elegant, well dressed and outward-going. The 40th is a brooding and introspective hero, restless and urgent (I included the iconic first movement in the last Cathy List). The 41st (the ‘Jupiter’ symphony) is a mythical hero, epic in proportions.
All three symphonies have jaw-dropping moments where Mozart creates multiple dialogues in the texture: strands which are knotted together only to be marvellously untangled into a perfectly wreathed plait. Your ear is overwhelmed by all the competing lines, and then you breathe out again as, miraculously, everything is brought together in unison. It’s a model of problem solving in sound and part of the reason, I think, that listening to Mozart helps promote clear thinking (have you heard about the ‘Mozart effect’?). If you had a kitchen to redesign and have got stuck, put down the plans, go and listen to Mozart 41, et voilà, a vision for a new kitchen has curiously crystallised! The music’s exquisite formal design, patterning and intricate detail can’t help but rub off on our internal thinking, even if you’re not conscious of the musical processes themselves.
The finale from the 39th is a good example of the galant hero off on a jolly jaunt, leading from the front. Listen to the tangle-to-plait moment from 3’21.
The middle movement of the 40th starts by layering up the strings very beautifully. Everything sounds quite polite and care-free until another tangle-to-plait at 1’29. Stunning. I always look forward to that bit in the movement, everything in perfect harmony despite the complexity.
I just thought I’d put in a comparison for you at this stage between the ‘historically informed’ performance you’ve been listening to and a much more ‘romantic’ interpretation from the 1980s under the baton of Bernstein. It’s a lot slower and sounds quite indulgent, giving a different weight and complexion to the movement.
The 41st brings this playlist to a close with a movement that has been marvelled at for generations. The main reason is the bit right at the end (10’40), where Mozart juggles 5 themes for 30 bars before rounding off the symphony. It is like watching a master effortlessly juggling an assortment of bone china tea-cups before bringing them into a neat stack. A genius at work.