You’ll see Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s music programmed on Minnesota Orchestra concerts sparingly–not because works by the Classical period's most famous aren't sublime or because we’re over it, but because his orchestral music is written for a smaller ensemble. The Minnesota Orchestra is a large ensemble with enough members to power heftier works by Romantic composers like Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and the many, many composers who came after them and continue to write for the symphony orchestra today. Composers have dreamed ever-bigger over the years, and the orchestras of Mozart's time were simply not as large as today's.
Though you’ll often hear Mozart’s music in smaller concert halls, performances of his symphonic works by the Minnesota Orchestra musicians are a treat for audiences and the artists alike: “As a player, I find Mozart's music to be a great joy to perform because his music is always revealing new details,” says Associate Principal Flute Greg Milliren. “He was such a clever and inventive composer, and I think the joy he found in music shines through even though he wasn't really writing music that was about him or his personal experiences at all (this is quite a contrast to pretty much all music written from Beethoven's time to today). It was always about the music, about the craft and about connecting with his audience.”
1. Mozart never knew the nickname of his Symphony No. 41.
The nickname was given after Mozart’s untimely death by Johann Peter Salomon, a German-born, London-based impresario who is famed in music history for bringing Franz Joseph Haydn to London. Though the symphony’s moniker wasn’t given intentionally by its creator, it is fitting: the work’s grandeur mirrors the characteristics of the work’s namesake, the Roman sky god Jupiter.
2. In Mozart’s day, the symphony served a different function in the concert structure.
Today, when you come to an orchestra concert, you will typically see an opening work–an overture or short concert piece–followed by a performance from a featured soloist, then a full symphony after intermission. In the late 18th century, when Jupiter was written, a symphony functioned as a call to the audience to alert them that the concert was about to begin. It was also far more common for the movements of a symphony to be split up and performed throughout the concert with other works between.
3. Mozart’s final three symphonies–Symphonies 39, 40 and 41–were composed in the span of nine weeks.
Mozart had a lot to balance toward the end of his life: tending to a sick wife, coping with the death of a child, moving out of Vienna into a nearby suburb and struggling through mounting debts. After his opera Don Giovanni premiered in Vienna in 1787 to unenthused audiences, the composer found his previous financial successes out of reach. Even Emperor Joseph II, who had been Mozart’s employer and patron for years, couldn’t be bothered to spell the composer’s name correctly when complained that “Mozard’s [sic] music is certainly too difficult to be sung” and was generally too academic to appeal to wider audiences. It’s quite interesting to note the timeline upon which the works were written, either spurred by or in spite of the personal, professional and financial pressures Mozart was under.
The very thing that many critics complained about in Mozart’s time is what many love about his works now. “He knew the rules of composition, so he also knew how to bend the rules to make things fresh for the listeners and players,” explains Minnesota Orchestra second violinist Michael Sutton. “A brilliant feat in [Mozart’s Symphony No. 41] happens about three minutes from the end. Good composers can weave together two musical themes. Great composers can present three ideas simultaneously. Mozart manages to give us four different themes. At the same time. It’s mind-blowing.”
4. The impetus for Mozart’s final three symphonies, including his Symphony No. 41, are lost to history.
Mozart was a true working musician–and as such, typically worked on commission. That's why it's a surprise that, for his final three, and as many music historians argue, most inventive symphonic works, there was no commission or patron involved. Some think that perhaps Mozart’s final three works—written at a blazing speed—were set to be sold for a London tour, but this has not been confirmed.
5. Excerpts from Mozart’s 41st Symphony appear as standard orchestral audition material for several instruments.
Violinists, oboists and bassoonists will undoubtedly come across this work as they make their audition rounds. Mozart symphonies are known by orchestral players today for their particular requirements of technical precision and musical phrasing. The orchestras Mozart wrote for were smaller than the orchestra used for Romantic works by even Beethoven’s middle and late periods–meaning that the virtuosic passages written by the composer are often quite exposed within the greater texture.
Minnesota Orchestra Principal Bassoon Fei Xie is particularly looking forward to performing the work, as “it has some of the most frequently asked orchestral excerpts in bassoon auditions.” He continues, “I especially love the lyricism and energy he puts in the symphony, and there are special moments in every movement for me. After practicing hours and hours on these excerpts when one prepares for auditions, it’s very rewarding to play the entire symphony.”
Principal Oboe Nathan Hughes, who joined the Orchestra at the beginning of the year, is also anticipating upcoming performances: "When Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony comes around, you really need to be in tip-top shape,” he explains. “At around 45 minutes, this symphony can be an endurance challenge for the woodwinds which are often in the foreground. I try to remind myself to save something for the treacherous fast-tonguing sections in the energetic last movement (which can fly like a bat out of hell depending on the conductor’s mood)!"
Bonus Mozart facts:
Mozart’s middle name was not really Amadeus.
Mozart was baptized Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart–and back in late 18th-century Europe, it was fairly common to translate one’s name into Latin, Italian, French or other languages depending upon where one was traveling. It might, then, be more accurate to say that Mozart’s middle name is actually Theophilus, a Greek name which translates to the German “Gottlieb” and the Latin “Amade,” but Mozart, with his signature sense of humor, would often sign letters in mock Latin with “Wolfgangus Amadeus Mozartus”—he was rather fond of the nickname, and it stuck.
Michael Sutton wanted you to know.
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