Wednesday, 1 January 2020

Jupiter and the Death of a Composer


The dire circumstances surrounding the composition of Mozart’s final works were soon to be followed by the composer’s enigmatic death.

The Scene

The year, 1788, the place, a house in a suburb of Vienna, Herr Mozart’s new home. The events of that time: London’s Daily Universal Register becomes The Times; the First Fleet carrying 736 convicts from England to Australia arrives at Botany Bay to set up a penal colony; Lord Gordon is found guilty of libelling the Queen of France; the 1st US steamboat patent is issued by the state of Georgia to Briggs & Longstreet; Austria declares war on Russia.

Meanwhile, Mozart, at his desk, head in his hands, has reached rock bottom. His source of income has dried up, he has been forced to move out of the centre of Vienna, debtors are at his door and his mental state is one of vacillation between thoughts of suicide and manic bouts of creativity. From out of this fog of despair emerged the ‘Jupiter’ symphony, one of the greatest and most joyful orchestral works ever written.

The Music

Mozart’s 41st symphony in C Major, K551, is composed in four sublime movements:

         Allegro vivace, 4/4
Andante cantabile, 3/4 in F major
Menuetto: Allegretto – Trio, 3/4
Molto allegro, 2/2

The third of three symphonies written in quick succession, the Jupiter was written at the furthest edges of the possible for Mozart, and contains many different expressive and compositional contrasts moulded into a single symphony. Hence, the result is of unusually grand scale for a classical period symphony. It is characterised by joy, good humour and exuberant energy throughout. These qualities belie a great contrast with his crushing domestic situation - and his death just three years later in agonising circumstances of great mental and physical pain.

The nickname, ‘Jupiter’, was probably attached by German musician, impresario and long-time London resident Johann Peter Saloman and was perhaps first used in print in a London concert program in 1821. Jupiter, the Roman equivalent of the Greek Zeus, chief of all the gods on Mount Olympus, was a massively exuberant immortal of prodigious sexual energy and unlimited power. Familiarity with the symphony brings no argument with its title.

The beautiful second movement contains one of the longest themes Mozart would ever write - eleven bars. Furthermore, it is unusual in that the strings play with mutes throughout, Mozart requesting the purest of restrained string sound possible. The expansive, stately minuet that follows could easily function as a posh dance in an imperial ballroom. But it is the final movement that stands out as one of the most stunning symphonic movements achieved by any composer.

It begins with a simple four-note theme that could have been taken from a church work. What follows is strict sonata form, but with so much use of fugal imitation that early 19th-century German musicians referred to the entire work as the ‘symphony with the fugal finale’. The final movement has also been described as Mozart’s most learned piece of music. The effect is, however, far from highbrow but a pure, unadulterated, joyful romp. If there might have been the 19th-century equivalent of a rock festival, it would have been played to an audience jumping in ecstasy, out of their heads, so to speak. In the final coda, all five, yes, five, major thematic elements are played simultaneously, yet the overall effect is not a lesson in counterpoint but an Olympian conclusion to a dramatic symphonic movement.

The Decline

Toward the end of the 1780s, Mozart’s fortunes worsened. He was performing less and his income shrank. Austria was at war and both the affluence of the nation and the ability of the aristocracy to support the arts had declined.

To give a flavour of the situation, one Habsburg possession that had escaped reforms during the reign of Maria Theresa and Emperor Joseph II was the Austrian Netherlands, which ruled itself under its own laws. In January and March 1787 Joseph simply swept away the constitution of the Austrian Netherlands and announced that from then on it would be ruled according to absolutist principles, just like the other provinces of the monarchy. Resistance simmered in the Austrian Netherlands until 1789, when it boiled over into open revolt, forcing the administration there to flee to safety in the duchy of Luxembourg. By that time there were rumours of rebellion in Hungary and in Galicia, and for a period it appeared as if revolution might erupt in many parts of the monarchy. Joseph therefore had his own problems and little time for the fripperies of court life and music. And then came war with Russia.

Living in this period of political turmoil, Mozart had been able rarely to compose on a whim. Generally, he wrote on commission or for his own concerts, or he created new pieces as gifts for friends. Such transactions were usually catalogued in the composer’s letters and writings, which have survived in large number. However, in the case of his last three symphonies dating from the summer of 1788, the historical record is silent. Music scholars have found no indication of a commission, so perhaps Mozart composed the works in hope of selling them or presenting them in a concert in Vienna.

By mid-1788, Mozart moved his family from central Vienna to the suburb of Alsergrund, as a way of reducing living costs. But in reality, his family expenses remained high and the new dwelling only provided more room. Mozart began to borrow money from friends, though he was almost always able to repay promptly when a commission or concert came his way.

During this miserable low period, he wrote those final three symphonies the last of the three so-called Da Ponte operas (after librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte), Cosi Fan Tutte, which premiered in 1790. Mozart ventured long distances from Vienna to Leipzig, Berlin, and Frankfurt, and other German cities hoping to revive his once great success and the family’s financial situation but did neither. The two-year period of 1788-9 was unbearable for him, experiencing in his own words ‘black thoughts’ and deep depression. Listen to the Jupiter with this in mind.

In doing a little research into the nature of the Jupiter symphony, I became aware that this compositional event was not long followed by his death a mere three years later. In my mind, the first event became connected with the second, not, of course, in a causal way, but simply by association. The Jupiter is a crowning orchestral achievement; his death comes after a rapid decline in fortune, both financial and health-wise. It’s the extreme qualities of this juxtaposition that makes their association compelling.

… and Death

Mozart died on December 5, 1791, at the age of 35. The cause of death is uncertain, owing to the limits of post mortem diagnosis. Officially, the record lists the cause as severe miliary fever, referring to a symptomatic skin rash that looks like millet seeds. Since then, many hypotheses have circulated regarding Mozart's death. Some have attributed it to rheumatic fever, a disease he suffered from repeatedly throughout his life.

During the intervening centuries, numerous causes of his untimely demise have been offered, ranging from assassination by his rival, Italian composer Antonio Salieri, to kidney failure and rheumatic fever. In fact, about 150 different theories, both plausible and implausible, have circulated. None can ever be proven with certainty.

One of the more bizarre but distinctly plausible explanations that popped up in recent times was that Mozart had consumed an undercooked pork chop that ultimately killed him.

According to Jan Hirschmann, a physician at the VA Puget Sound Health Care System in Seattle and an amateur medical sleuth, there is a compelling piece of evidence pointing to the pork chop as the culprit. While searching for clues, Dr Hirschmann came across a letter Mozart penned to his wife, Constanze, in which the composer reported that a servant was bringing him dinner. “And what do I smell?” he wrote. “Pork cutlets! Che gusto. I eat to your health.”

Mozart might have indeed eaten to Constanze’s health but, it would seem, to the detriment of his own. Hirschmann discovered that Mozart passed away a month and a half after the letter had been written. It typically takes that long for trichinosis, an intestinal parasite resulting from eating undercooked or tainted meat, to appear. The reported repulsive symptoms were similarly consistent with this diagnosis.

It was documented that his funeral drew few mourners and Mozart was buried in a common grave. Contrary to the popular notion of it being a travesty that the great man suffered a pauper’s burial, both funeral and burial were in accord with the Viennese custom of the time that only aristocrats and nobility enjoyed public mourning and were allowed to be buried in marked graves. Mozart’s subsequent memorial services and concerts in Vienna and Prague were, however, gratifyingly well attended and his music, thereafter, like the Olympians, became immortal.

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