In June of 1788 Mozart moved his family from his apartment in the centre of Vienna (now called the Figaro House, near St. Stephen’s Cathedral) to a more spacious suburban residence at Alsergrund 135 (today Währingerstraße 26), a seven-room apartment with a garden attached. The rooms were spacious and it is speculated that Mozart intended to use the large rooms for rehearsals of music he was about to compose.
In making this move and finding himself a bit short of cash, Mozart quickly wrote a letter to his friend and fellow Mason, Michael Puchberg on June 17, 1788, asking for a loan:
“In case you couldn’t part with such a sum [one or two thousand Gulden] at the moment, I beg you to lend me at least a couple of hundred Gulden until tomorrow, because my landlord on the Landstraße (a previous suburban rental) was so importunate that (to avoid every inconvenience) I had to pay him on the spot, which put me in a messy situation! Tonight we will sleep in our new quarters for the first time, where we will stay both summer and winter; – on the whole I don’t mind this, I even find it preferable; I haven’t much to do in the city anyway and because I’m not exposed to so many visitors, I will have more time for work; – if I have to go into the city on business, which will not often be the case anyway, any fiacre will take me there for ten Kreuzer, moreover the apartment is cheaper and more pleasant during the spring, summer and autumn, because I also have a garden.”
It was in this house that Mozart would compose his last three symphonies (Nos. 39, 40, and 41, all from 1788), and the last of the three Da Ponte operas, Cosi fan tutte, premiered in 1790.
Evidently the music for Symphony 39 was already in Mozart‘s head as he made the move to Alsergrund and he finished it on June 25; No. 40 followed on July 26 and No. 41 on August 10. That’s two months give or take a few days, a compositional speed record for such masterpieces. We have no direct evidence as to why Mozart wrote the symphonies since he had never composed music without a specific performance and specific performers in mind, but in succeeding years he made long journeys hoping to improve his fortunes: to Leipzig, Dresden, and Berlin in the spring of 1789, and to Frankfurt, Mannheim, and other German cities in 1790. The symphonies may have been shown or played then.
For many years the origin of the nickname “Jupiter” for Mozart’s last symphony was unknown. Musicologist H.C. Robbins Landon has found mention of Mozart’s symphony in the diaries of Vincent and Mary Novello, a nineteenth-century English couple who travelled widely and interviewed the composer’s widow Constanze in 1829. According to them, the name was bestowed by Johann Peter Salomon, the entrepreneur responsible for Haydn’s two visits to London in the 1790s.
The opening theme of the first movement follows one of Mozart’s favorite patterns, one he had learned from Johann Christian Bach (London Bach) and had begun using as early as his First Symphony: an energetic gesture, followed by a soft, almost pleading phrase. Also of note toward the close of the movement is Mozart’s self-quotation from an arietta he had written a year earlier to be inserted in Pasquale Anfossi’s opera Le gelosie fortunate.
The other-worldliness of the slow movement is brought about partly by the use throughout of muted strings and the absence of trumpets and timpani. It was Mendelssohn who discovered that the masterstroke of the main theme reappearing just before the final cadential section was an afterthought. Mozart had added an extra leaf in the autograph score at that point just to include it.
Mozart’s graceful minuet is almost completely derived from its opening theme, a graceful sigh, which develops a contrapuntal life of it‘s own as the movement progresses. Mozart bases the little melodic figure in the more lightly textured trio on the same figure, now slightly embellished. The loud outburst in the trio’s second half seems to preview the main motive of the finale.
The finale’s opening four-note motive (C-D-F-E), having originated in Gregorian chant, was well known in Mozart’s day as the start of the hymn Lucis creator. Mozart employed it in several earlier vocal and instrumental compositions as did numerous other composers. Mozart takes this motive along with a wealth of other ideas and combines them in a contrapuntal tour de force which at one time includes quintuple counterpoint (five tunes fit together to play simultaneously) and that concludes with a magnificent fugal coda.