Mozart: Concerto No. 24 in C minor for Piano, K.491

WOLFGANG AMADÉ MOZART

BORN in Salzburg, Austria, on January 27, 1756

DIED in Vienna on December 5, 1791.

COMPOSED: 1786. Vienna

WORLD PREMIERE: April 7, 1786. Mozart led from the keyboard at the Burgtheater in Vienna

US PREMIERE: March 19, 1868. Egmont Froehlich conducted a performance of the Philharmonic Society in Saint Louis. No information available on the soloist

SFS PERFORMANCES: FIRST—March 1948. Artur Schnabel was soloist, with Pierre Monteux on the podium. MOST RECENT—November 2013. Till Fellner, with Semyon Bychkov conducting

INSTRUMENTATION: Flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings. The composer left no cadenzas for this work. In these concerts, David Fray plays cadenzas by Paul Badura Skoda

DURATION: About 31 mins

THE BACKSTORY Mozart signaled his completion of his C minor Piano Concerto by entering it into his Verzeichnüss aller meiner Werke (“Catalogue of All My Works”) on March 24, 1786. He was engaged in writing several other major pieces (in addition to numerous less imposing ones) at about the same time, including his Piano Concerto in A major (K.488, completed on March 2) and his opera Le nozze di Figaro (K.492, which would be premiered on May 1). Merely citing these works makes the point that Mozart was at the summit of his creative genius in the spring of 1786; that one could make a similar claim for other similar spans in the last decade of his life reminds us of how exorbitant his talent was, a talent that ultra-familiarity sometimes invites us to take for granted.

The C minor Piano Concerto stands a world apart from the charmed piano concerto that preceded it. Beautiful, justly loved piece that the A major Concerto is—it certainly belongs on any list of Classical masterpieces—it would not have ruffled the feathers of music lovers much. Formally, it adheres to what audiences expect of a “typical” Classical concerto, which the defiant onslaught of the C minor decidedly does not. Wrote the Mozart biographer Alfred Einstein: “It is hard to imagine the expression on the faces of the Viennese public when on 7 April 1786 Mozart played this work at one of his subscription concerts. Perhaps they contented themselves with the Larghetto, which moves in regions of the purest and most affecting tranquility, and has a transcendent simplicity of expression.” In fact, Mozart’s contemporaries left no surviving impressions of this work or of the concert at which it was most likely premiered. The evening was the last in a series of annual benefit concerts (meaning that the box-office receipts would benefit the composer) that Mozart had given in Vienna since 1783. It is possible that on that occasion he also played his A major Concerto, or maybe all three of his most recent piano concertos (that in E-flat major, K.482, would have been only a few months old), but no documentation remains to shed light on the details. Whatever other pieces were on the program, we can be sure that they could only have hoisted into greater relief the distinct character of the C minor Piano Concerto.

The brooding darkness of this work makes it unique among Mozart’s concertos. Only one other is in a minor key—the D minor (K.466, of 1785)—and that one, though a favorite of ensuing generations of emotionally susceptible Romantics, actually ends with more than a whiff of major-key merriment. Not so the C minor, whose overriding sentiment might be described as despairing. Of course, this is not raw despair that is put on display; we can depend on Mozart to temper it with a certain measure of elegance. In so doing, he renders it all the more poignant.

THE MUSIC  This is the only Mozart piano concerto to use both oboes and clarinets; in fact, it is the largest orchestra he ever used in a piano concerto. It’s clear that he planned this piece “big” from its very conception, as it is the only one of his large-scale mature works in which he set down the score on manuscript paper pre-ruled to sixteen staves, elsewhere preferring twelve-staff paper. Mozart uses his forces to splendid effect, employing the winds both as soloists and as a choir to yield a fully “symphonic” texture. The mature Mozart always made telling use of wind instruments for highlighting textures and adding irresistible bits of contrapuntal commentary. Here, especially in the second movement, the entire wind section takes on an almost concertante role, so much so that at moments one is tempted to think of this piece as falling between the cracks of solo concerto and sinfonia concertante.

The jagged principal theme of the Allegro, intoned by the strings and bassoon at the outset (with, at least in Mozart’s day, the pianist playing along on the bass line), is so harmonically rich that all twelve notes of the chromatic scale are touched on by the beginning of the eleventh measure (perhaps a dozen seconds into the piece). One could contemplate the opening at length without reaching a limit to one’s appreciation of its melodic contour, rhythmic propulsion, and overall balance. Indeed, listeners encounter this material a great deal in the course of the movement, as the secondary subjects are so slightly represented as to seem hardly even secondary: a descending minor scale typically played by wind instruments, plus two melodic ideas that are little more than brief motifs. The large dose of chromaticism administered at the beginning foreshadows the sort of tonal adventure Mozart will investigate in the course of the movement: passages sometimes slip ambiguously between the minor and the major modes, cadences prove elusive, harmonically exotic intervals such as the minor second and minor sixth take on structural importance.

Nothing about this opening movement is really “normal” in a Mozartean context. Even its 3/4 meter is highly unusual: Mozart used triple time in only two other piano concertos (the Concerto in F major, K.413/387a, from 1782, and the Concerto in E-flat major, K.449, from 1784), and on no other occasions departed from his characteristic duple-time opening movements. This movement is bound together by such a unity of mood that even several passages in E-flat major that might sound sunny in another context hold out little spirit of hope here. Despite the power of this Allegro, it ends not grandly but instead dies away in a despondent whimper, with the piano tracing arpeggios over the pianissimo exhalations of the orchestra.

Listeners familiar with Beethoven’s C minor Piano Concerto, which he began in 1800, the year Mozart’s C minor Concerto was first published, will realize to what extent the later composer was strongly influenced by this opening movement when he set pen to paper. Indeed, Beethoven went on record as a great aficionado of this piece.

After sketching a few measures of a second movement, Mozart broke off and began fresh with the music that has come down to us as a haven of repose in this troubled piece, though it is no less serious than what surrounds it. E-flat major is the Larghetto’s overriding key, but even here somber C minor creeps in from time to time. The principal melody is both simple and complex, after Mozart’s inimitable fashion, and the orchestration (as mentioned early) displays masterful integration of the piano with the winds. The rondo form, with its easy-to-follow alternation of a principal melody with contrasting episodes, was a favorite structure for high-spirited Classical finales. In yet another brave act of imagination, Mozart here plumbs the form’s possibilities by relaxing it to a slow tempo, and then rounds off the proceedings with one of his trademark codas that blithely threatens to outshine everything that has come before.

Having just used up his rondo quotient, Mozart turns to a different option for his finale: the theme-and-variations. Again, he sets himself a challenge. Though he wrote reams of theme-and-variations sets in the course of his career, he almost never used that form in the minor mode. This concluding Allegretto is cast as a theme with eight variations, and in most of the variations, woodwind instruments state the melody (or a rather free adaptation of it) before the piano does. Two of the variations are in major keys—the fourth, introduced by pairs of clarinets and bassoons, and the sixth, emphasizing the whole wind choir—but these sections lift the troubled mood only fleetingly. For his final variation, Mozart has the piano break into 6/8 meter, a last chance for a switch to the major mode and at least a token confirmation that happiness is bound to triumph in the end. But no such change is forthcoming, and what would otherwise be a rollicking race to the finish sounds embittered, with both the soloist and the orchestra maintaining their unremitting gravity to the end. —James M. Keller

This note originally appeared, in somewhat different form, in the program books of the New York Philharmonic, and is reprinted with permission. © New York Philharmonic.

(June 2019)