MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, K.467

Concerto No. 21 in C major for Piano and Orchestra, K.467

Joannes Chrisostomus Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart, who began to call himself Wolfgango Amadeo about 1770 and Wolfgang Amadè in 1777 (but Amadeus only in jest in the combination “Wolfgangus Amadeus”), was born on January 27, 1756, in Salzburg, Austria, and died on December 5, 1791, in Vienna. He composed this concerto principally in February 1785, completing it by March 9, and he directed from the keyboard when the work was premiered on March 10 at the National Court Theatre (Burgtheater) in Vienna. William Mason introduced the work to this country on February 16, 1876, at Boston's Music Hall with the Theodore Thomas Orchestra. San Francisco Symphony audiences first heard the music in a performance by Robert Casadesus, with Enrique Jordá conducting, in January 1956. The most recent performances at our regular concerts were given in October 2006; Stephen Hough was the soloist and Herbert Blomstedt conducted. The score calls for flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings, in addition to the solo piano. No original cadenzas by Mozart survive. Among recent composers who have written cadenzas for use in this work are Alfred Schnittke and Philip Glass, but in these performances, Garrick Ohlsson employs cadenzas by Radu Lupu. Performance time: about twenty-eight minutes.

When Mozart established himself in Vienna in 1781, he did so hoping to make a name for himself as a composer and as a pianist. He was supremely equipped to do both. The obvious intersection of Mozart’s two disciplines came in the composition of piano concertos, works he composed, in most cases, to spotlight his own talents as a performer. This was nothing new to his Vienna years; by that time he had already composed six piano concertos (including his concertos for two and for three pianos), not to mention a handful of others that were essentially piano-and-orchestra arrangements of movements by other composers. But with his arrival in Vienna Mozart’s livelihood depended on such pieces to a degree it had not before. As his acclaim as a performer increased, so did his production of piano concertos.

The catalogue of his piano concertos neatly chronicles the rise and fall of Mozart’s popularity as a concert musician. During the 1782-83 season he produced three piano concertos (K.413-415). They did their trick, and in 1784 he enjoyed enough audience demand to justify the composition of six more (K.449-451, 453, 456, and 459). That was the high point of Mozart’s success on the concert platform, but in each of the following two years (1785 and 1786) he was still able to sell enough tickets for his subscription concerts to merit another three concertos (K.466, 467, and 482; K.488, 491, and 503). After that, his popularity fell off; he wrote not a single piano concerto in 1787, only one in 1788 (K.537), none in 1789 or 1790, and one last concerto in 1791, at the beginning of his final year (K.595). These statistics don’t tell the complete story of Mozart-as-pianist, to be sure, as he also appeared frequently in performances that did not include premieres of new concertos; but they do mirror the general trajectory of his popularity as a pianist in Viennese concert life.

The C major Piano Concerto No. 21, K.467, is probably the most famous of all Mozart’s piano concertos thanks to the fact that its slow movement was used extensively on the sound track for the 1967 movie Elvira Madigan, a Swedish film that details the charmed but ultimately doomed romance between a tightrope walker (Ms. Madigan) and a truant army lieutenant. The slender plot, which is based on a true story, is filled out by extended scenes in which the carefree lovers romp through fields of wildflowers, picnic unencumbered by ants or mosquitoes, and generally revel in the ecstasy of romantic infatuation—all of this being filmed through a lens infused with potentially cloying sweetness. Elvira Madigan gained a considerable following in its time, although even then some discriminating viewers dismissed it as a Hallmark card run amok. In the ensuing four decades it has receded into obscurity, but it did manage to propel Mozart’s supernal Andante to popular stardom, and during the 1970s there was a strong chance you would hear this piece—either as Mozart wrote it or in a swooning arrangement—playing to accompany you as you rode on an elevator or shopped for groceries. Celebrity breeds further celebrity, and before long this movement became a mainstay of “Greatest Hits of Classical Music” anthologies, where it continues to surface as a stand-alone item to this day. Not that we’re complaining. It is a very beautiful movement and deserves as much attention as it gets. Still, we do draw the line at calling K.467 the Elvira Madigan Concerto, as many persist in doing. The film followed the concerto by 182 years, after all, and even if Mozart had lived in the era when he might have written film scores, I doubt that this is quite the project he would have signed on to compose.

Even without the possibility of writing for the screen, Mozart was keeping busy in the winter of 1785. In the catalogue of new compositions Mozart had been keeping since he decided to get organized a year before, the C major Piano Concerto is entered on March 9, 1785, although the autograph manuscript (which resides in the Morgan Library in New York City) is dated “in February 1785.” During the weeks in which he composed the C major Concerto, Mozart had plenty on his plate. The musicologist Neal Zaslaw has described that span as “a period of twenty-seven days during which Mozart also taught private pupils, entertained his father, held a quartet party to play through with Joseph Haydn and his father some of the new quartets dedicated to Haydn, and participated in perhaps another dozen public and private concerts.”

The opening movement of the C major Concerto lacks a tempo marking in the autograph manuscript, but when Mozart entered it in his catalogue he labeled it Allegro maestoso. At its outset the maestoso (“majestic”) indication seems strange, since the opening march music, marked piano, seems heard almost from a distance. It’s played by strings alone, though with the piano doubling the bass line, as was apparently common in the performance practice of Mozart’s time. At the theme’s repetition the full orchestra gets into the act, replete with trumpets and timpani, and finally the maestoso becomes a reality. Even so, a good deal of the writing in this concerto—certainly in the solo part, but in the orchestral writing too—tends towards what we might call “brilliant” rather than “majestic.” Pianists and commentators have engaged in a good deal of hand-wringing about how to reconcile this maestoso marking with the musical content. It’s not something I have lost sleep over, and I am happy to suppose that an eighteenth-century idea of what constituted maestoso might be less grand or pompous than the term implies in modern parlance. In any case, an indication at the head of a piece need not—indeed, rarely does—apply to absolutely everything in the piece. It would be folly to propose that this movement must come across as majestic at every turn when the music so clearly veers into such diverse terrain as the brilliant, the mysterious, the mournful, and even the rambunctious.

The soloist enters rather by the back door (not counting the bass doublings during the orchestral sections, which most modern pianists choose not to play). The exposition reaches its apparent end, but at the moment when an audience would expect the pianist to assume the spotlight, the winds—oboe first, then bassoon, then flute--instead offer quiet extensions that keep the audience on tenterhooks. Finally the piano has its say, but rather than lunge into the principal theme, the soloist serves up an unassuming “lead-in” above an orchestral chord. The piano continues to withhold its full force, but this delayed gratification can’t go on forever. Finally the pianist starts behaving like a real soloist, picking up a secondary theme the orchestra has presented in its introduction. At last the piece is set on the path of a “proper” concerto first movement, one that (as in all of Mozart’s masterpieces in the genre) plots its own course, never following a predetermined textbook scheme. In the end we are returned to the domain of the march-like opening, and as the movement concludes it seems to recede quietly into the distance, a mirror image of the opening.

Now comes the Andante, in which gently undulating triplets murmur almost throughout (three heart-stopping measures being the exception) beneath the most sustained of melodies, introduced at the outset by muted first violins. It is hard to understand how a melody that looks so simple on paper can affect us so deeply. But this was Mozart’s gift, and 250 years after he was born it reliably transports listeners much as it must have when it was new. The distinguished Mozartian Cuthbert Girdlestone referred to this movement as a nocturne, and backed up that usage by pointing out that “the rapprochement with Chopin can hardly be avoided.” He continued:

The hazy atmosphere of the mutes, the quivering calm of the ceaseless triplets, the slow, sustained song of the piano—more than all this, the veiled and sorrowfully passionate soul which this music expresses with such immediacy, do we not find them in the work of Chopin and especially in those nocturnes of which the “dream” of Mozart’s reminds us?
. . . Its perpetual instability, to which its constant modulating and its unsatisfied quest for new places bears witness; its morbid disquiet, thinly concealed now and again under an appearance of calm, breaking forth with heart-rending pathos . . . are unquestionably fundamental elements of Mozart’s nature, but they are elements which he shares with Chopin. . . .

The level of inspiration in the first two movements has been exceptionally high, even by Mozart’s standards, and that raises the challenge of how to finish the concerto. The composer’s solution is to serve dessert accompanied by champagne. Here we have an unfussy sonata-rondo movement full of witticisms worthy of an opera buffa, based on themes that delight the intellect without taxing it greatly. As much as the early movements repay analysis, this fleet finale asks for none at all; its pleasures are obvious and apparent, in no way to its detriment. “Analysis would be simple and unnecessary,” wrote Arthur Hutchings in his commentary on Mozart’s concertos, “like a lecture given to schoolboys at the entrance gate of a fair-ground, telling them how best to lay out their pennies upon the delights within.”

James M. Keller

More About the Music
Recordings: Murray Perahia as soloist and conductor, with the English Chamber Orchestra (Sony Classical)  |  Stephen Hough, with Bryden Thomson conducting the Hallé Orchestra (Classics for Pleasure)  |  Mitsuko Uchida, with Jeffrey Tate conducting the English Chamber Orchestra (Philips)  |  Malcolm Bilson, with John Eliot Gardiner conducting the English Baroque Soloists (Deutsche Grammophon)  |  Robert Casadesus with George Szell conducting the Cleveland Orchestra (CBS Great Performances)

Reading: Mozart and his Piano Concertos,by Cuthbert M. Girdlestone (Dover)  |  A Companion to Mozart’s Piano Concertos, by Arthur Hutchings (Oxford University Press)  |  The Compleat Mozart, edited by Neal Zaslaw (W.W. Norton)  |  Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 20 and 21, by David Grayson (Cambridge Music Handbooks)  |  Mozart: A Musical Biography, by Konrad Küster (Oxford University Press)  |  Mozart: A Cultural Biography, by Robert W. Gutman (Harcourt)  |  The Cambridge Mozart Encyclopedia, edited by Cliff Eisen and Simon P. Keeffe (Cambridge University Press)  |  The Mozart Compendium: A Guide to Mozart’s Life and Music, edited by H.C. Robbins Landon (Schirmer)

(April 2014)