Program Notes

Concerto No. 17 in G major for Piano and Orchestra, K.453

Joannes Chrisostomus Wolfgang Gottlieb Mozart  (He began to call himself Wolfgango Amadeo about 1770 and Wolfgang Amadè in 1777)
BORN: January 27, 1756. Salzburg, Austria
DIED: December 5, 1791. Vienna

COMPOSED: On or by April 10, 1784, the date he entered it into his catalogue of his works. Piotr Anderszewski plays Mozart’s own cadenzas

WORLD PREMIERE: The first performance of which we have certain record is the one given on June 13 that year by Mozart’s student Barbara Ployer at her father’s house in Döbling, a suburb of Vienna; it is likely, however, that K.453 was what Mozart played at his Kärntnertor Theater concert in the presence of the Emperor on April 29

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—January 1974. John Browning was soloist, Michael Tilson Thomas conducted. MOST RECENT—January 2004. Peter Serkin was soloist, Hugh Wolff conducted

INSTRUMENTATION: Flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, and strings

DURATION: About 34 mins

THE BACKSTORY  On May 27, 1784, Mozart paid thirty‑four kreuzer—roughly $10 in today’s money—for a starling who could whistle the beginning of the finale of his G major Piano Concerto, or at least something very close to it. Mozart jotted down the musical notation in his account book with the comment Das war schön—“That was fine!”—even though the bird insisted on a fermata at the end of the first full measure and on sharping the G’s in the next bar.

Understandably, the editor of the Sixth Edition of the Köchel catalogue wonders where the bird got his education—not, that is, who taught him K.453 wrong, but who taught it to him at all. Barbara Ployer’s performance on June 13 occurred more than two weeks after Mozart acquired the starling. The bird (who died and was buried with full honors in the Mozarts’ garden on June 4, 1787, the occasion being commemorated with a poem by the composer) seems to provide evidence that the otherwise unidentified concerto that Mozart played at a concert given before the Emperor in the Kärntnertor Theater on April 29, 1784 was indeed the brand‑new G major.

1784 was the apogee of Mozart’s popularity in Vienna. In March alone he gave thirteen concerts there, followed by another four in April. Several of these involved the composition of new works. The new concertos were, moreover, as Mozart reported gleefully to his family in Salzburg, works to make one sweat. Outlining his schedule for his father he added, “At least this way I can’t get out of practice.” K.453 is music in which that most characteristically Mozartian mixture of gaiety and melancholy is especially delicate.

THE MUSIC  You need wait no longer than the fourth measure for that ambiguity to show up. The F-natural in the violins says it all. The comments in that measure by the flute and the oboe are no less surprising, and these turns are the more telling because the marchlike theme, so spruce, in every way suggests “normal” music. Mozart likes to erase traces of “indiscretions” to create in us a feeling of “Wait—did I really hear that?” And so he does here: no more Fnaturals, no more disturbing shadows. At least not for a while. The music then moves along in high good humor, even including a good bassoon joke.

That very detail, though—the bassoon joke—turns into a classic instance of Mozartian ambiguity. The humor lies in the bassoon’s inability to stop playing the little fanfare with which the orchestra ends the first large paragraph of the exposition. But the flute sees the possibility of pathos and beauty in the bassoon’s delighted selfabsorption, and together the two instruments gently shift the music into a sweetly shaded place, to a melody full of sighs, exquisitely harmonized. And, one might add, Fnatural is readmitted. A deceptive cadence drops the music into the remoteness of Eflat major, the effect of this shift being the greater because nothing comparably abrupt has happened thus far. Again we encounter one of Mozart’s “erasures”: with only a fleeting, wistful shadow here and there, this exposition is completed, smilingly. Mozart’s own entrance—or at these performances, Mr. Anderszewski's—is prepared.

The piano assumes the privilege of contributing a new theme on the way to the formal cadence with the bassoon joke, and of course a whole new vocabulary based on solo‑orchestra dialogue is now available. The dramatic deceptive cadence, we learn, was more than a local event. Its effect, if not its detail, is re‑experienced to powerful effect at the beginning of the development. Shadows, “millions of strange shadows,” darken and color this movement, though it ends in brightness.

Now, to begin the Andante, Mozart reverses the harmonic process with which he had opened the first movement. There F‑naturals had unexpectedly darkened the G major beginning. This time Mozart starts plainly enough in C major, but within a few seconds, certainly before we have had a chance to register a sense of harmonic “place,” piquant and startling F‑sharps cast doubt. It is as though the C major harmony of the first measure were just a subsidiary event in what is really to be a movement in G major. The opening phrase—an asymmetrical one of five measures!—makes a cadence on G, and, further to blur any certainty we might feel, Mozart follows it with an immeasured silence. Only after the music resumes with an exquisite choreography for intertwined woodwinds do we feel sure that what we first heard—C major—was right after all.

The orchestral music—emphatically not an introduction but substance—at the beginning of this Andante is long and uncommonly filled with adventure and event. The piano entrance is normal, that is, it corresponds to the opening bars of orchestral music; but what follows the unmeasured silence is a powerful departure indeed. Surprising harmonic leaps as we experienced them at the first movement’s dramatic deceptive cadence are central to the vocabulary of this concerto. The unmeasured silence will generate some manner of surprise at each recurrence. From moment to wonderful moment, this tender Andante, so vocal, so replete with pathos, is one of the most richly inspired pages in all of Mozart.

And so we come to what the starling sang. To be sure, the emotional weight here is slighter, but the musical inspiration is no less amazing. There are five variations. In the theme and the first variation each half is repeated exactly, but in the other four variations each of these repeats is itself varied. Humor, lyricism, and pathos all come to the fore. Most amazing, though, is what happens after this set of formal variations has run its delightful course. Mozart moves the speed up from Allegretto to Presto and begins what he labels as the “Finale.” It has often been remarked that Mozart’s piano concertos are transposed opera. Nowhere can we hear and sense this more clearly than here. This operatic “finale‑within‑a‑finale” accounts for fully half the movement, and it is Mozart at his greatest and funniest.

Michael Steinberg

Michael Steinberg, the San Francisco Symphony’s Program Annotator from 1979 to 1999 and a contributing writer to our program book until his death in 2009, was one of the nation’s pre-eminent writers on music. We are privileged to continue publishing his program notes. His books are available at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall.

Recordings: Piotr Anderszewski leading from the keyboard with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Erato Disques)  |  Murray Perahia as soloist and conductor with the English Chamber Orchestra (Sony)  

Reading: Mozart and his Piano Concertos, by Cuthbert M. Girdlestone (Dover)  |  A Companion to Mozart’s Piano Concertos, by Arthur Hutchings (Oxford University Press) 

(October 2017)

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