Mozart’s infinite riches

A single body of work, such as the piano concertos, can provide an inexhaustible spring of delight

Getreidegasse, Salzburg: The street on which Mozart was born; the city in which he wrote the “Jeunehomme” concerto (©Imagno/Getty Images)

One of the more intriguing games which music lovers play among themselves—formerly on long car journeys; now under indefinite house arrest—is to imagine a situation in which they are permitted, for the rest of their lives, to listen to the works of every composer, but restricted to one genre per composer. You can have as many composers as you like, and as many genres, but if you want Brahms’s symphonies, say, you can’t have anyone else’s. The challenge is to find, for each great composer, a format in which he was both prolific and characteristic; there is no point, however much one loves Fidelio, in choosing opera for Beethoven; it would be a waste of an opportunity to hear more (and even better) Beethoven, and deprives you of the operas of Wagner or Verdi, Janáček or Britten (albeit that you can only choose one of these). With a little thought, it soon becomes obvious that, among the great Viennese composers, you would be well advised to choose Haydn’s string quartets, Beethoven’s piano sonatas and Schubert’s songs. Each of these three excelled in those respective forms, and though it will be a wrench for some to forego Beethoven’s 16 essays in string quartet form, the 32 piano sonatas are more than a numerical compensation for their loss.

But what of Mozart? How could any connoisseur bear to be without the da Ponte operas, to say nothing of the Jupiter symphony or the chamber music? In what genre did this greatest of all composers (excepting Bach, obviously) express himself as generously and with as much inspiration as the instances given above? Here is a clue given by Professor Cuthbert Girdlestone, author of one of the most delightful books ever written on the subject of great works of music:

They are an inexhaustible spring of delight. Their diversity corresponds to our most varied moods, from the state of quiet content in which all we ask of art is entertainment, exquisite rather than deep, the exuberance of animal spirits, the consciousness of physical and moral health, to melancholy, sorrow and even revolt, and to an Olympian serenity breathing the air of the mountain tops. The comparative uniformity which we notice between them at first sight disappears with closer scrutiny. The feeling is never the same from one to the other; each one is characterised by a personality of its own and the variety of their inspiration shows itself ever greater as we travel more deeply into them.

Girdlestone originally published Mozart and his Piano Concertos in French in 1939, but it remains widely available in its successive English editions. There is no better company in which to explore a body of work which, for various reasons, may seem a little opaque at first, not least because of the “comparative uniformity” which Girdlestone acknowledges. At the most basic level, each of the concertos is the same shape and follows the same design as the others. There is also the question of numerology. There are 27 of them, in the sense that the last one is No. 27, but Mozart only wrote 23: the first four once attributed to him are juvenile arrangements of the works of other composers, probably undertaken as a pedagogic exercise under the supervision of his father. For this reason among others, the concertos are identified among musicians by their key and Köchel catalogue number. The latter is a form of identification which is off-putting to some, but which for initiates has the advantage of conferring occult meanings on otherwise unremarkable three-digit numbers.(One is reminded of the story which Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy told about his brilliant protegé Srinivasa Ramanujan: “I remember once going to see him when he was ill at Putney. I had ridden in taxi cab number 1729 and remarked that the number seemed to me rather a dull one, and that I hoped it was not an unfavourable omen. “No,” he replied, “it is a very interesting number; it is the smallest number
expressible as the sum of two cubes in two different ways.”)

A small number of the concertos, perhaps five, are widely-known. The 1967 film Elvira Madigan is now principally remembered for its use as theme music of the dreaming andante of the C major concerto, K467. The thought that this sublime piece bears the name of a Danish tightrope dancer is as vexing to the music-lover as is the nomenclature of the bellini cocktail and the tuna carpaccio to an amateur of Venetian art.

Then there is its companion piece, the D minor, K466. As a generalisation, the 19th century esteemed Mozart less than we do now, and the range of his works then known to the public was not large; even so, it had a taste for the composer in his more dramatic and stormier moods. K466, a rare excursion in this context into the minor mode, so captured the attention of subsequent Romantic composers that Alkan, Clara Schumann, Brahms and Busoni all wrote their own cadenzas (passages of solo display, most conspicuously near the conclusion of the first movement, which Mozart himself would typically have improvised in performance, and his versions of which have survived in only a few cases). So did the young Beethoven, a fact which may have helped to keep this concerto in the public eye during the period of Mozart’s relative neglect.

The concerto in A, K488, is also better known than most of its peers: perhaps in part due to the unique slow movement, a siciliano which is Mozart’s only composition in F sharp minor. (The key relation is echoed in Schubert’s piano sonata in A, D959). The D major concerto K537 is notorious only for its nickname (the Coronation concerto), for it is much the least interesting and inspired among the mature members of the series. Finally, the last concerto, in B flat, K595, with its actual or presumed intimations of leave-taking (Girdlestone detects a “wilting” quality to it, though he recognises that the term may be unjust), has gained a certain prominence in an age which likes to detect autobiographical resonances (especially morbidity and the intimation of approaching death) in its concert programmes. These few concertos excepted, there remains a body of at least a dozen lesser known masterpieces, and the question is where the enthusiastic listener should concentrate first in his efforts to get to know them.

There is of course no right answer to this question. It is unnecessary to approach the works chronologically, for each stands alone. However, one must start somewhere, and there is no better key in which to listen to music in dark times than E flat major. Mozart wrote some of his most sublime and rarified music in this tonality, but also some of his most joyful and majestic; it was among the handful of keys that seems to have possessed an especial significance for him, although words will inevitably struggle to convey what that significance was. He chose it for four of his piano concertos, and it is instructive to examine the first and last of these, the concertos K271 and K482. By the scale of Mozart’s short life, these concertos stand far apart, the one written in Salzburg in January 1777, when Mozart was barely 21, and the second in December 1785, composed in Vienna. The second is a mature and perhaps more polished masterpiece than the first; nonetheless, the first piece is not only exceptional on its own terms, but there are also correspondences between the two works which help to acquaint the listener with both.

The K271 concerto is generally known as the Jeunehomme concerto, after the name of its presumed dedicatee, a talented French pianist passing through Salzburg; and this is the title which Girdlestone gives. However, Michael Lorenz has convincingly demonstrated that the concerto is misnamed, and was actually written for a woman called Victoire Jenamy (née Noverre), who lived in Vienna and married a successful merchant there in 1768.  Lorenz’s description of the work itself is justifiably enthusiastic, and his endorsement of the view that Mozart never surpassed it is widely shared, albeit in the last (and pointless) analysis open to question:

If we try to describe briefly the significance of K271, we could without exaggeration call it a musical wonder and a monument of musical originality. In its mastery of orchestration and its stupendous innovations it has no predecessor. It is Mozart’s first really significant composition, “his Eroica” (as Alfred Einstein put it), “one of Mozart’s monumental works which he never surpassed”. By breaking through conventions in an unparalleled creative outburst, a sort of evolutionary leap forward, Mozart reached the level of craftsmanship that distinguishes the piano concertos of his Viennese years. Surprising formal innovations are combined with boundless melodic exuberance.

Among the most immediate and attention-grabbing innovations was Mozart’s unprecedented introduction of the piano at the very outset of the piece, in the second bar, and before the long tutti which according to convention provides the orchestral exposition of the first movement. He never repeated this effect, but Beethoven, who had done something even more unexpected at the beginning of his fourth piano concerto, may nonetheless have had K271 in mind when he wrote his Emperor concerto (in the same key), in which, after a single orchestral chord, the piano part embarks on—of all things—a cadenza at the very outset of the movement, before (as in Mozart’s case) retreating from its presumption to allow the orchestra to declare the main themes of the movement. In K271, at the point where we would normally expect the solo part to make its first entry with the main subject of the movement, Mozart substitutes instead a long, metaphorically off-stage trill, as if the piano seeks with an unwonted gesture of modesty to atone by its second appearance for the arrogance of the first. (There is a not dissimilar effect in the same point of the Emperor concerto.) However, the unconventionality of this movement is irrepressible: ignoring the custom that the piano is not heard after the cadenza, the trill breaks in once more, this time importunately, and we have the momentary impression at the end of the movement that we are to hear the main body of it all over again. Although the orchestra dispels the idea directly, the piano insists on accompanying the movement to its very close.

Mozart here demonstrates the paradox that true freedom by its nature requires constraints; his deviations from “correct” form show the composer utterly emancipated, the master of his medium. The whole piece exemplifies what is so winning about these concertos—the collaboration and contest between the colour and power of the orchestra and the virtuosity and expressiveness of the piano, an effect which Mozart here perfects for the first time. The dialogue between the two forces, the way in which ideas are exchanged, shared—or not shared—and even stolen, is exploited with limitless ingenuity and variety through the canon.

The second movement, an andantino in C minor with muted violins, is Mozart’s first concerto movement in a minor key. Girdlestone calls it a “fragment of a nameless tragedy”. It is no criticism of the piece, which achieves a level of emotional intensity which the composer had never before expressed, that it presents us with tragedy in its youthful, even self-absorbed aspect. It has often been observed that the piece resembles an operatic scene by Gluck, in which Mozart turns the piano into a heroine for whom are scored the most beautiful vocal embellishments. Indeed, the concerto is the first in which Mozart may be said to write operatically; for it is the consistent happy experience of listeners to all the concertos from here onwards, as we will see, to be reminded of the composer in operatic mode. (This is not to say that the operatic medium was uppermost in his mind; it is merely that Mozart’s music always tends in the direction of song, and towards human characterisation).

The main subject in the rondo third movement anticipates Monostatos’s aria “Alles fühlt der Liebe Freuden” in Die Zauberflöte, but the humour in this breakneck finale invites our complicity in a jest that here is at no one’s expense. Of all the felicities of this infectious and virtuosic movement (Frau Jenamy must have been an excellent pianist), the pinnacle comes at the point where we would expect the second episode (following the usual architecture of a rondo). A series of unusual modulations of key warns us that something is afoot, and the presto is then interrupted by, of all things a menuetto cantabile; the breathless two in a bar of the main tempo becomes a gracious and stately triple time, and the piano unfurls an A flat episode in a totally new character, which is prolonged by variations, the orchestra accompanying with enchanted pizzicati and muted strings. The audacity of this coup must have appealed to Mozart, for he used the same effect in two later concertos. Its impact on the listener hearing the concerto for the first time is one of pure delight.

The next solo piano concerto in E flat, K449, stands at the head of the series of 12 such works composed between February 1784 and December 1786. During this period, the genre was numerically predominant among his compositions, which also included the Prague symphony and Le Nozze di Figaro. Despite its inventiveness, we must pass over K449, for it is the E flat concerto, K482 that is the apt comparator to the 1777 work supposedly written for Mme Jeunehomme. The later work falls within the golden period of Mozart’s full maturity and self-assurance. Girdlestone calls it the queenliest of the 23 concertos: “combining grace and majesty, the music unfolds like a sovereign in progress”. Less purely original than some of the works of the previous year, it is nonetheless the culmination of an ”ideal song” which the composer had uttered repeatedly from his youth (including in K271) but which is here rendered in its consummate form, once for all.

The most obvious formal parallels between K482 and K271 are perhaps threefold. Both are works of magnificent self-confidence; both have an emotionally freighted slow movement in C minor; and in the later as well as the earlier work, Mozart repeats the conjuring trick of interrupting the rondo finale with a contrasting, slower section in A flat. The greatest difference between the works, apart from an inexpressible increase in ingenuity, variety and subtlety, is the treatment of the orchestra. There are fine orchestral effects in K271, but the band is generally treated conventionally. By 1785, however, Mozart had met Anton Stadler, and his love affair with the clarinet had begun. He had already embarked on a body of chamber music for wind which makes him the greatest composer of woodwind music of all. (The finest of these pieces is the so-called Gran Partita K361/370a, the piece which Peter Schaffer imagined in Amadeus finally bringing home to Salieri the heaven-sent genius of his “rival”.) With K482, clarinets make their first appearance in the piano concertos, replacing oboes. The listener does not experience the absent oboes as a loss, for the bassoons provide the necessary double-reeded tang; meanwhile the mellifluous sensuality of the clarinets is an incalculable gain, and their presence seems to inspire Mozart to a gorgeousness of wind scoring which is one of the principal appeals of the work.

One does not have to wait long to hear this. Right at the outset, after an orchestral statement built, as with the earlier concerto, around the notes of the E flat major triad, there is a delicately-scored answer on bassoons and horns. The orchestral statement is repeated in identical terms, but the answer is now played by clarinet and violins, whereupon a new phrase is given successively on the flute, by clarinets in thirds, and then by bassoons in sixths. This is exquisite indeed—and we are still on the first page of the score. The music which follows is better enjoyed than analysed, but there is a particular moment in the development section of this movement worth noting, where Mozart again departs from convention—developments, as the name suggests, are supposed to confine themselves to exploring the implications of what has already been heard—by offering us what appears to be a new and melting subject in the subdominant key of A flat major. The pedant may point out that this is merely a refinement of the second subject which appeared in the exposition, but that is not what the ear hears or is intended to hear; and what Mozart is doing is setting down a marker in A flat that will return in the last movement. Those familiar with K271 can ready guess what this will be.

The C minor andante in K482 is a member of the same family as the slow movement of the earlier concerto, though perhaps its suffering is more objective, less theatrical. It moved Girdlestone, meditating on Mozart’s general reputation in the 19th century, to observe that though he is “a great poet of sorrow”, the fact “could not be perceived by a century for whom sorrow did not express itself without shouting, for whom the violence with which an emotion proclaimed itself was the measure of its depth and intensity”. Although the form initially appears to be that of a theme and variations, the second and fourth “variations” are woodwind passages written in contrasting major keys, so different in subject-matter and tone from the grief-laden general ambience of the piece (which is heightened in the poignant coda) that one is put in mind of the sequential episodes of a rondo. It is as if the wind ensemble at the composer’s disposal has actually dictated the form of the piece. Mozart had to repeat this andante at the Vienna premiere of this concerto, because the audience—musical enough to appreciate the greatness of this least spectacular of movements—loved it so much.

The dancing finale once more highlights the wind instruments, and seems to proceed along predictable enough lines, if such an adjective can ever be used about music written with such ingeniousness and subtlety when, at the same point at which the finale of K271 interrupted itself with a spacious minuet in A flat, the same thing happens here. It is a curious example of the way in which Mozart’s musical ideas seem to have been associated with particular keys. (Girdlestone calls the A flat section in K482 a minuet, but it is actually more in the character of a serenade.) Whilst the similarity between the two interpolations is striking, they have differing internal structures. There is, however a greater point of difference, and it is one which takes us to the heart of Mozart’s genius.

We can only understand the emotional richness in the later episode if we think of the music which Mozart wrote for two of his supreme operatic moments—both scenes about human fallibility and the need for forgiveness. The mood is that of the culmination of Figaro, which is not the reconciliation between Figaro and Susanna, who we might suppose will live happily ever after, but between the Count and Countess, who we know will not. Even closer in atmosphere to this passage, and also set in the key of A flat, is a scene towards the end of act 2 of Così fan tutte, an opera not written until four years later. We are at the height of the human folly which that opera anatomises, as three of the “wrong” lovers sing a rapt toast to each other ahead of their imminent marriages, while the fourth stands apart in isolated disgust. If ever foolishness required absolution, it is now, but the music takes itself wholly seriously and, as the lovers’ pledges are exchanged in intoxicated terms, time itself seems to pause. Thus, we come to see that the destiny of the lovely K482 serenade is to have been realised in an ideal form in these two heart-stopping moments of operatic stillness. And on a different plane, the two clarinets, whose thirds and sixths are such an integral part of the character of the concerto, in due course acquire the human characters of two silly and sensual sisters, Fiordiligi and Dorabella, much of whose music is indeed written for that instrument.

Our present self-isolation encourages unrealistic ambitions. For many, the long-envisaged conquest of Ulysses, War and Peace, or even volume one of The World as Will and Representation may never take place. Lock-down may prove to be like a long-haul flight: simultaneously tedious and over too soon. Many more people know Mozart’s operas and other celebrated pieces than his piano concertos. Not only can knowledge of each enhance the other, but the concertos—no longer than half-an hour apiece—are a manageable object of study and like all great music confer, for as long as they last, a blessed forgetfulness of self and the world, which is the true meaning of ecstasy.


This article is taken from the May/June 2020 issue of Standpoint. To subscribe to the print and digital editions, including a full digital archive, click here.