Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 14 in E-flat major, K.449

Concerto No. 14 in E-flat major for Piano, K.449

BORN: January 27, 1756. Salzburg, Austria
DIED: December 5, 1791. Vienna

COMPOSED: He began his E-flat major Piano Concerto (K.449) in 1782 but for some reason set it aside for two years and completed it only on February 9, 1784, in Vienna. In these performances Emanuel Ax plays the first-movement cadenza by Mozart

WORLD PREMIERE: Mozart led the premiere from the keyboard on March 17, 1784, at the private hall of the Trattnerhof, in Vienna

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—June 1967. Eugene Istomin was pianist, Peter Erös conducted. MOST RECENT—March 2002. Garrick Ohlsson was pianist, Peter Maxwell Davies conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 oboes, 2 horns, and strings (although Mozart allowed that the piece might be performed with accompaniment of strings alone)

DURATION: About 25 mins

THE BACKSTORY  In the winter of 1784, just after passing his twenty-eighth birthday, Mozart decided to get organized. By that time, he had already composed about 450 pieces, ranging from simple dance movements to full-length operas. His oeuvre was so impressive that he must have had difficulty keeping track of it all. So in February 1784 he acquired a forty-four-page notebook, placed an inscription on the front cover reading Catalogue of All My Works, and started recording an entry for every new composition he completed, including on the left-hand pages a title or other description of the piece, the date he finished it, and its orchestration, and on the facing right-hand pages (which he pre-ruled with musical staves) a short score of the opening measures, to serve as an aide-mémoire. From then until the end of his life the notebook was Mozart’s steady companion; he penned the last entry only three weeks before his death, on the twenty-ninth pair of pages. The fourteen pairs of empty pages that follow constitute the saddest reading in music history, the naked staves of the right-hand sheets standing as especially poignant laments for what might have been.

The first work Mozart entered in the book is the concerto we hear this week. Five more keyboard concertos would follow before 1784 was out, the most Mozart ever produced in a single year, and another six would enter the catalogue by the end of 1786. Mozart composed his piano concertos principally to serve as vehicles for his own considerable virtuosity at the keyboard. But he wrote this concerto with another musician in mind, his eighteen-year-old piano student Maria Anna Barbara (a.k.a. Babette) von Ployer. A native of Upper Austria (like Mozart), she had moved in 1780 to Vienna, where she lived with her father’s cousin, Gottfried Ignaz von Ployer, a civil servant who served as an agent representing Salzburg’s interests at the Imperial Court. Babette studied piano with Mozart in 1784 and was apparently quite accomplished. She was also the pianist for whom he would compose his G major Piano Concerto (K.453) a few months later, plus a short funeral march (K.453a), and for whom Haydn would write his splendid F minor Variations in 1793. Upon finishing this concerto, Mozart sent it by courier to his father back in Salzburg, along with a couple of other pieces, suggesting he have the piece copied there. “But,” he admonished his father, “have it done as quickly as possible and return it to me. Remember, do not show it to a single soul, for I composed it for Fräulein Ployer, who paid me handsomely.”

It seems, however, that Mozart himself played the concerto’s premiere, and he scored a great success. To his father he reported: “The hall was full to overflowing; and the new concerto I played won extraordinary praise. Everywhere I go I hear praises of that concert.” “That concert” took place on March 17. Babette didn’t perform the piece, at least before an audience, until March 23 at the earliest.

Mozart wrote to his father that among his piano concertos the E-flat major was “one of a quite peculiar kind, composed rather for a small orchestra than for a large one.” In fact, he allowed that this concerto, which includes pairs of oboes and horns in its scoring, could be played as a concerto for piano and strings, without winds. Sometimes one hears it offered as a piano quintet, with one player on each of the string parts, in which guise it comes across as an effective piece of chamber music. It seems clear that Mozart had this practical alteration in mind when he composed the piece, as he kept his wind parts quite in the background, essentially adding sonic reinforcement rather than carrying much thematic material on their own.

THE MUSIC  Another “peculiar” aspect of K.449 is immediately apparent when the piece begins. Mozart rarely set the opening movement of a symphony or concerto in triple time, yet this one is solidly in 3/4; in fact, it is one of only three of his piano concertos to begin in triple meter, the others being the charming F major (K.413/387a) and the hair-raising C minor (K.491). On an emotional scale, this movement falls somewhere between those two. Charm surely inhabits this movement, and at spots the delightful back-and-forth between soloist and orchestra reminds one of nothing so much as an opera buffa. On the other hand, it is a tightly constructed movement, and the concentration of its material renders it quite short. A preponderance of wide intervals, quite a few excursions into the minor mode, and even some bold chromatic modulations add a sense of seriousness and agitation to the proceedings.

The slow movement is restrained and dignified, hushed in character. It boasts beautiful writing for inner voices, particularly for the violas, and the keyboard elaboration grows strikingly elegant.

In 1784 Mozart was embarked on a phase in which he was obsessed with studying counterpoint. In the finale of this concerto we find the fruits of this interest. One might say it is relentlessly contrapuntal (to the delight of those of us who like that sort of thing), beginning with a subject in which second violins play a relatively sustained line beneath the rollicking tune of the first violins. From there we’re off on a through-composed rondo that includes episodes of considerable complexity. The rhythms slow down in what may come across as a rather dreamy section, and a cadence on the dominant seventh chord invites the interpolation of a cadenza, one the interpreter would have to supply, since Mozart provided one only for the first movement. The final pages gallop to the conclusion with an extra infusion of vigor.

James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide, published in 2011 by Oxford University Press, is also available as an e-book and an Oxford paperback. 

Recordings: Jeno Jandó with András Ligeti conducting the Concentus Hungaricus (Naxos) | Murray Perahia leading the English Chamber Orchestra (Sony) | Howard Shelley with the London Mozart Players (Chandos)

Readings: Mozart: A Musical Biography, by Konrad Küster (Oxford)  |  Mozart: A Cultural Biography, by Robert W. Gutman (Harcourt)  |  Mozart: The Golden Years, by H.C. Robbins Landon (Schirmer)  |  Mozart and His Piano Concertos, by Cuthbert Girdlestone (Dover) 

(January 2018)