Nickel for Your Thoughts: Mozart’s Jupiter

Program Spotlight, Tony Nickle

In his own words, Artistic Director Tony Nickle shares what he believes to be the high points of the program, but with a little edge and humor for good measure.

November is finally here, bringing somewhat lower temps and an end to an election that I think lasted about seven years. It also brings a Masterworks program this weekend that is one of my favorite of the season. Mozart’s last symphony, nicknamed “Jupiter,” inspires quite a bit of hyperbole for me; it may be the most perfect symphony ever written, with astounding genius at every turn. A bold statement, but I stand by it. Lucky for us, we don’t only get to hear this glorious creation, we also get a gorgeous and dramatic work by Scottish composer James MacMillan, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie. This piece brought down the house at its premiere at the BBC Proms in 1990, and I think it’s a wonderful advocate for those of us who say there is Contemporary music that both is great art and sounds awesome. One of these days I’ll share with you my thoughts as to why most people have an aversion to music written after 1900 (spoiler alert: it’s the same reason I used to hate olives but now love them), but for now let’s stick to this weekend’s program.

First up on the program is the MacMillan. This work is based on the legend of a woman accused of witchcraft in 17th-century Scotland. There’s some debate about where historical fact ends and folklore begins, but we do know that Isobel Gowdie was tried for witchcraft and provided some fantastical stories regarding her activities. While there is no record, it’s likely she was sentenced to be burned at the stake. Today, most historians are united in identifying these witch trials as a clash of significant cultural shifts during the Reformation (it’s worth noting that Scotland’s Reformation was primarily a Calvinist one) and the common folks’ age-old traditions. James MacMillan saw Isobel Gowdie’s tragic demise as representative of people who are marginalized and/or persecuted for being too different from the majority, or even just too different from those in power. He wrote this piece as an elegy; as the Requiem Isobel never had.

The piece is highly programmatic, which means the music is written to be about something, rather than music for the sake of music. MacMillan composed it as an aural narrative of the events of the trial and sentencing, and even without words or images it so evidently envisions every bit of the story. I find the opening section absolutely stunning; it begins quietly and slowly with brass and strings, gently proceeding as the strings interweave with some lines that almost sound speech-like, and ones that sound like mournful sighs. MacMillan includes chants, songs and litanies – some that come from actual Scottish music, and some that he wrote to sound that way – to leave no doubt where this story takes place. This builds in emotion and intensity for about six minutes, when the brass aggressively interrupts the strings, joined soon after by the percussion. Violence quickly replaces the beauty of the opening, giving way to a middle section intended to depict Isobel’s trial. The intensity feeds on itself, building into a furious and disturbing climax. The final section begins with sounds very similar to the opening, only with vicious remnants of the middle section unexpectedly interrupting for the first few moments. I shudder to think what those interjections represent. The piece ends in breathtaking fashion, with all instruments in unison on a single, pulsating note that crescendos into a final exclamation point. I find it nearly as dramatically compelling as a Puccini or Wagner opera.

There isn’t much that needs to be said about Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony other than to say it’s basically perfect. However, as I’ve never been accused of brevity, and see no reason to begin now, I’ll make a few brief remarks. This is one of the two or three greatest composers in history reaching new heights, which almost doesn’t seem possible. While it’s all great, the most staggering brilliance comes in the Finale, a movement that is pure, unbridled joy. This fourth and final movement has five themes or motives that Mozart introduces one at a time and then develops them masterfully. But, when it comes time to end the piece and you think you’ve heard just about all the brilliance you can stand, Mozart reveals what he was setting us up for all along: a one-minute coda (tail ending) where he weaves all five themes together over and over throughout the orchestra. I can’t easily convey how much genius this requires, so I’ll just say it’s kind of like Beth in The Queen’s Gambit envisioning the chess board on the ceiling. Oh, and he makes it sound like it was all rather effortless, like it came to him while playing billiards over his third (or eighth) glass of wine of the evening.

To think what else we could have had if he hadn’t died at the young age of 35.

By Tony Nickle, Director of Artistic Administration