(Soundbite of Mozart)


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block. There is no argument that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a genius, a child prodigy with perfect pitch. He composed his first symphony when he was just eight years old. He went on to write more than 600 works, including operas, concertos, and chamber music. He played piano, violin, and conducted.

Today, on the 250th anniversary of his birth, NPR's Elizabeth Blair tells us about Mozart's very last symphony known as the 'Jupiter'.


Listening to the beginning of the Jupiter symphony, it's hard to know if Mozart is trying to soothe you or startle you.

(Soundbite of Jupiter symphony)

BLAIR: The Jupiter symphony is unpredictable. You often hear more than one emotion at a time. Robert Levin, a Mozart scholar and Harvard music professor, says that's in contrast to other composers, who thought audiences could only handle one mood per movement.

Mr. ROBERT LEVIN (Mozart Scholar, Harvard University): Mozart really chafed under that kind of thing because life isn't like that. And his music is teaming with depictions of the greatest varieties of human character, kind of case history and attention deficiency disorder, if you wish, that sometimes as much as every other second the characters change because that's the way we are.

(Soundbite of music)

BLAIR: Mozart wrote the Jupiter and two other symphonies in the summer of 1788, in Vienna, in just six weeks. Symphony #41 was nicknamed the Jupiter after Mozart's death. Conductor John Eliot Gardiner compares it not to the king of gods or the giant planet, but to a mountain that every symphonic musician must climb.

Mr. JOHN ELIOT GARDINER (Conductor): The challenge to any musician is these great peaks of musical creativity, and the Jupiter is one of the most difficult to climb, but one of the most rewarding if you can get to the top.

BLAIR: But by most accounts, Mozart was near the bottom when he composed it, broke and in debt. This was the same man who had recently been idolized all over Europe for his operas, like Don Giovanni, and for his spectacular performances of his own piano concertos. Robert Levin.

Mr. LEVIN: His role is very, very much like that of a rock star today. Mozart was the act in Vienna to be beat. And for two or three years, all of the nobility fell over themselves to get the scarce tickets to his concerts. But then, you know, they turned to other people, and suddenly he was in rather desperate straits.

BLAIR: Mozart wrote repeatedly to a friend, begging for money. Austria was at war with Turkey. And Mozart's newborn daughter had just died. Emil de Coup, associate conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, believes that we can hear the sadness in the second movement of the Jupiter Symphony.

Mr. EMIL DE COUP (Associate Conductor, National Symphony Orchestra): It's so tender and heart-wrenching, and you rarely get glimpses like that into Mozart's inner emotional psyche, with all of the difficulties and heartbreaks he had as an individual. And he writes this piece almost as if he's writing into a diary.

(Soundbite of Jupiter symphony)

BLAIR: Mozart may have been down that summer of 1788, but he was also determined to do something revolutionary. That comes in the final movement of the Jupiter Symphony.

(Soundbite of Jupiter symphony)

BLAIR: Many believed that Jupiter's greatest achievement is Mozart's use of counterpoint in the fourth movement. Counterpoint is playing two or more different melodies simultaneously. Robert Levin says, for Mozart, it all started when he heard the music of J.S. Bach and took it as a challenge.

Mr. LEVIN: That created a kind of tailspin for him because he realized that this guy could do something that he couldn't do. He could write some counterpoint, but the power of Bach's counterpoint, the expressive and dramatic force of Bach's counterpoint was a challenge that could not go unanswered by Mozart. He was either going to figure out how to do that, or he would have to admit defeat. And of course, a genius like Mozart does not admit defeat easily.

BLAIR: Mozart plays with five different themes in that final movement, making it a challenge for any orchestra that takes it on. About 35 of them in the U.S. have it on their program this season.

(Soundbite of Jupiter symphony)

BLAIR: We asked musicians of the Maryland Symphony Orchestra to demonstrate the different tunes. Here is some of the raw material that the final movement of the Jupiter symphony.

(Soundbite of Jupiter symphony)

BLAIR: Mozart uses these ideas throughout the fourth movement. But Robert Levin says, he saves the best for last.

Mr. LEVIN: At the very, very end, he does something absolutely unimaginable, which is that he combines all five of these tunes simultaneously, tossing them about from one instrument to the other in a display of intellectual fireworks that remains unprecedented in this symphonic domain.

(Soundbite of Jupiter symphony)

BLAIR: Some have said the 'Jupiter' sums up what had happened in symphonic music up to that point, and that it foreshadows the work of Beethoven. But more than that, it's exuberant, introspective, charming and complicated, a lot like life itself. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(Soundbite of Jupiter symphony)

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