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It seems unthinkable to leave this year, the 250th anniversary of the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), without a final salute to his genius. Although Mozart was barely appreciated in his own time, since his death we’ve come to speak of him in terms of near religious awe. While the brilliance and perfection of his operas, concertos, chamber music, serenades, and sonatas are widely hailed, perhaps the most stunning distillation of his genius comes in his last three symphonies, written in a miraculous blaze during the summer of 1788 (along with at least a half-dozen other major works). They form an extraordinary trio: Symphony No. 41 in C Major presents a dazzling summation of Mozart’s past, No. 39 in E-flat Major encapsulates the art of his present, and No. 40 in G Minor vaults into the future and the music of our own time. ART FOR ART’S SAKE Like that of Mozart’s final work, his “Requiem” ( see “Dying Notes,” March 27), the inspiration for these last symphonies is shrouded in mystery. Mozart never once mentioned them in his copious correspondence, which fosters our understanding of nearly all his other major compositions. Nor is there any evidence of a commission (nearly all of Mozart’s other work was written to order) nor a concert for which they might have been intended. In all likelihood, Mozart never heard them. Scholars still can only speculate why they were written. Perhaps the most compelling explanation is that they arose from an inner compulsion for personal expression without regard to the demands of patrons or the public. That motivation, in turn, goes far to explain the last symphonies’ extraordinary scope and ingenuity, which surely would have been lost on audiences of the time during a single hearing at a concert. Abstract creativity also would account for their internal unity and continuity. In Mozart’s day, composers wrote knowing that the performance of symphonies was routinely split in half, sandwiching two hours of unrelated arias, concertos, and even improvisations in between. Taken together, the three final symphonies explore Mozart’s personality. No. 39 is gentle, buoyant, and courtly, as if to echo the expectations of the patrons upon whom he depended for his livelihood. No. 40 is a rare foray into gravity (one of his only two symphonies in minor keys), perhaps reflecting Mozart’s depression over his waning popularity, dwindling finances, canceled concerts, indifferent publishers, few students, daughter’s death, and the numbingly dull task he faced of providing dances for royal soirees to stave off poverty. No. 41 shows the invincible spirit and optimistic aplomb that spurred him to keep creating works of inspiration that transcended his gloomy personal circumstances and far surpassed the limited horizons of his audiences. Although strikingly diverse, the three symphonies also share a common innovation: They shift emphasis from the traditionally weightiest first movements to the finales, all of which contain a bravura artistic gesture. ANYTHING YOU CAN DO . . . The first of Mozart’s final symphonies to emerge that miraculous summer was No. 39 in E-flat Major. The most modest of the three, its finale is based entirely on a single theme, as if to boast that, alone of all composers, Mozart would dare such a virtuoso feat. No. 41 in C Major is known as the “Jupiter.” Although the title was only added in the 1820s by an English publisher, it aptly conjures up the symphony’s regal demeanor and Olympian grandeur. From the outset it was the finale of No. 41 that drew notice. While its first (posthumous) publication described it as being “with fugue,” the extraordinary density and brevity of the ending hardly qualify in the established sense of that term. A proliferation of counterpoint, imitative figures, and melodies provides ample hints of what is to come, yet it’s still a surprise and delight when the last minute explodes in an astounding display of polyphony. The coda not only flaunts Mozart’s thorough mastery of his predecessors’ art, but resonates with personal significance as closure to his symphonic career. Scholar Neal Zaslow notes that the primary theme, whole notes of C-D-F-E, was not only a well-known Gregorian chant but the theme of Mozart’s very first symphony, written when he was 8. The sheer craftsmanship of the coda is breathtaking. Its five themes rotate strictly through the five string instruments every four measures, doubled by various winds, while the “rhythm section” of horns, trombones, and tympani pounds out the pulse. Entrances alternate on tonic and dominant notes, the final note of each gliding smoothly into the beginning of the next, only a whole tone apart so the interval rises and falls in a set pattern. Then just as we begin to grasp the design, Mozart signals its end by skipping a beat and disrupting the pattern with two successive tonic entrances, and then proceeds to an exultant finish of celebratory fanfares, ending with a magnificent upbeat salute to the past. IT’S THE HUMAN CONDITION Yet of the last three symphonies — indeed, of all Mozart’s symphonic output — No. 40 in G Minor is the most startling. Throughout the 19th century, its darker tone was hailed as a rare advance from the presumed superficiality of Mozart’s other work. Indeed, it is an astounding balance and blending of opposites: polished precision and spontaneous utterance, stringent formalism and heartfelt emotion, personal expression and universal humanism. It boasts an incomparable degree of internal unity in which every note seems integral and predestined and where even a minor cut, harmonic shift, or altered inflection would threaten to devastate the perfection that Mozart created. The influence of No. 40 is vast and begins with its very first moment. The unprecedented opening bar of bare quivering harmony before the melody emerges inspired everyone from Haydn (the famed inchoate opening of his “Creation” oratorio) through Beethoven (the atmospheric suspense that begins his Ninth Symphony) to much of Bruckner and Mahler. Its meticulous orchestration set a new standard for expressing mood and atmosphere through instrumental resources. (When Liszt boasted of his prowess for transcribing anything for the piano, Mendelssohn reportedly stumped him with the opening of No. 40.) Its pervasive melancholy and profound feeling elevate the symphony from a trifling concert overture to the most introspective and weighty of all musical statements, paving the way for 19th-century music. The first movement is brooding yet propulsive, striving to overcome the weight of world-weary despair. The second, although in a major key, is heartbreakingly tentative and wistful and thus winds up extending rather than relieving the overall doleful mood. The menuetto’s bass-heavy instrumentation, three-bar phrasing, syncopated clumsiness, and overall grim resolve serve to drain it of any vestige of the grace, vigor, and joyous relief that such dancelike movements typically offer. The principal theme of the tumultuous finale consists of a rising phrase followed by a gruff earthbound one, as if to suggest a series of insistent, open-ended questions, followed by perfunctory and wholly unsatisfactory answers — a strikingly efficient yet grim portrait of the human condition. FUTURE PERFECT And if all this were not enough, there remains one of the most prescient gestures in all of music. At the beginning of the development section of the finale, Mozart disrupts his rising theme with a sour note and a semi-tone, and then launches into a sequence of 10 tones of the chromatic scale. They are played in unison to avoid any distracting hint of counterpoint or conventional harmonization. At the same time, the previously steady 4/4 pulse disintegrates into syncopation. But this is not mere random scrambling — it’s structured with rigorous mathematical logic as an interlocking series of diminished fourths and diminished sevenths, the least tonally anchored of all intervals. Since each note holds its own before any is repeated or emphasized, Mozart has formed nothing less than a tone row of the very type that would be “discovered” by Schoenberg in the 1920s and that would liberate 20th-century music from the exhausted tonal system that had served Western composers for 400 years. Not satisfied to sit astride his own world, Mozart escaped it altogether. Not content to merely point the way to much of the 19th century, Mozart leapt ahead five generations to enter the 20th. Not only the complete master of the styles of his past and present, Mozart proved himself a prophet. Biographer H.C. Robbins Landon reports that, upon learning of Mozart’s untimely death, Haydn remarked that the world would not see such a talent again in 100 years, but he was wrong. It’s now been a quarter-millennium since Mozart’s birth. We’re still waiting.
Peter Gutmann is a partner in the D.C. office of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice. Recommendations on two dozen recordings of Mozart’s last three symphonies are posted on the author’s Web site.

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