Mozart piano concertos — background and overview

by Neal Zaslaw

The young Mozart at the keyboard

The Birth of the Genre
The piano concerto as a significant genre can almost be said to have been invented by Mozart. Before him, concertos for harpsichord or fortepiano and orchestra were few in number and seldom of the highest artistic quality. Exceptions are the few harpsichord concertos of the genre’s putative inventor, J. S. Bach, which Mozart almost certainly did not know, and the more-than-fifty concertos of his son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, some of which Mozart may have known, but which are different enough from his own concertos that they can hardly have been his principal models. The handful of keyboard concertos by Joseph Haydn are minor works, as are those by several other German-speaking composers. Italian music also profoundly influenced the young Mozart, but the same points can be made — that styles are distant from Mozart’s and artistic content is modest. Yet in spite of the fact that Mozart lent the genre an entirely new stature, and in spite of repeated peformances of his concertos by himself, his pupils, his sister, and his admirers, there was nothing written about them in the press or elsewhere at the time.

For Mozart’s immediate contemporaries, his concertos were not ‘classics’ but ‘popular music’ to be enjoyed, used up, and replaced by newer works. Nonetheless, by the 1780s western Europe already had its connoisseurs and collectors of ‘art for art’s sake,’ who must have recognized the extraordinary qualities of Mozart’s music, as is suggested by the outpourings of editions of his music in the decade following his death. A sort of tacit approval of Mozart’s piano concertos even by his contemporaries can perhaps be detected in the fact that, whereas only three of his more-than-fifty symphonies were published during his lifetime, some seven of his twenty-one original concertos for solo piano attained that distinction.

Mozart’s Heyday
The period from approximately 1782 to 1785 was the most prosperous and perhaps also the happiest of Mozart’s life. He was much in demand in Vienna as a composer, performer, and teacher, and he managed to make a handsome living from his freelance activities. In the early — and mid — 1780s Vienna experienced a boom in public and private concert-giving, which lasted until war and recession, and the death of Emperor Joseph II in 1790, caused a decline. Mozart not only participated in this development but was himself partly responsible for it. He seems to have been the first, for instance, to give Lenten subscription concerts, which immediately became a local custom. Indeed, his activities during Lent are scarcely to be believed, for he played somewhere every evening for many weeks running. His father, visiting him during Lent 1785, wrote to his sister Nannerl about this frenetic activity:

On the same Friday [February 11] around 6 o’clock, we drove to his first subscription concert, at which a great many members of the aristocracy were present... On Saturday evening Joseph Haydn and the two Barons Tinti came to see us and the [three] new quartets were performed... On Sunday the Italian singer, Madame Laschi, who is leaving for Italy, gave a concert in the theater, at which she sang two arias. A cello concerto was performed, a tenor and a bass each sang an aria, and your brother played a glorious concerto... When your brother left [the stage] the Emperor tipped his hat and called out ‘Bravo, Mozart!’ And when he came on to play, there was a great deal of clapping. We were not at the theater yesterday, for every day there is a concert... This evening there is again a concert in the theater, at which your brother is again playing a concerto... Yesterday, the 15th, there was again a recital in the theater given by a girl who sings charmingly.

Your brother played his great new concerto in D [minor] most magnificently. Today we are going to a concert given at the house of the Salzburg agent von Ployer...

This evening your brother is performing at a grand concert at Count Zichy’s ... but your sister-in-law and Marchand have gone to the concert at Herr von Ployer’s... As usual, it will probably be one o’clock before we get to bed... On Friday, the 18th ... we drove to your brother’s second concert at the Mehlgrube at seven o’clock. This concert too was a splendid success... The two concerts which Herr Le Brun and his wife are giving in the theater are on Wednesday, the 23rd, and Monday the 28th. By the 18th boxes for the first concert were no longer to be had. These people are going to make an enormous amount of money...

In three concerts Herr Le Brun and his wife made, astonishingly, at the first 1,100 gulden, at the second 900 gulden, and at the third 500 gulden. Your brother made 559 gulden at his [benefit] concert, which we never expected, as he is giving six subscription concerts at the Mehlgrube to over 151; people, each of whom pays a souverain d’or for the six. Besides, as a favor he has been playing frequently at other concerts in the theater... We never get to bed before one o’clock and I never get up before nine. We lunch at two or half past. Every day there are concerts; and constant teaching, performing, composing, etc. I feel rather out of it all. If only the concerts were over! It is impossible for me to describe the rush and bustle. Since my arrival your brother’s fortepiano has been taken at least a dozen times from the house to the theater or to some other house... It is taken to the Mehlgrube every Friday and has also been taken to Count Zichy’s and to Prince Kaunitz’s... Now it is dark, and I must finish and drive to the concert in the theater... Tomorrow, and on Sunday, the 2nd, is the [benefit] concert for the widows [of musicians]...

(translations by Emily Anderson).
The Mehlgrube (left) and the Schwarzenberg palace in the Neuer Markt, Vienna. Anonymous coloured engraving c.1825.

Leopold Mozart’s letters reveal the circumstances in which, between 1782 and 1785, Wolfgang completed twelve piano concertos (along with two additional piano-concerto finales) and began two others, as well as the fact that these difficult works were usually performed without a rehearsal or, at best, with but a single run-through beforehand. From this and other evidence, we know that the orchestral musicians of Vienna must have been particularly accomplished — Leopold’s and Wolfgang’s standards were high.

Mozart’s Decline
Between 1767 and 1791 Mozart composed twenty-eight solo keyboard concertos, two additional rondo-finales, and two concertos for two or three keyboard soloists. However, these thirty-two works, far from appearing at a steady rate of one or two a year, were irregularly produced: seven in the first five years (all pastiches of works by other composers), four in the next five, in the next five only two, but then seventeen in the period from the end of 1782 to 1786. By contrast, in his last five years Mozart wrote only two piano concertos. Conditions in Vienna were probably responsible both for the exceptional number of concertos in the first half of the 1870s and for his loss of interest in the genre during the latter part of that decade. As the capital of the Austrian Empire, Vienna was the economic, political, and cultural center not just of Austria and Hungary, but for substantial portions of present-day Czechoslovakia, Germany, Italy, Yugoslavia, Poland, Russia, and Rumania. Many, noble families from those regions maintained homes in Vienna, where they lived during the ‘season.’ A surprising number of the members of these families were musically literate and demanded a steady supply of good music. The intensity of this patronage helps to explain why Gluck, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven — none of them natives — preferred Vienna to all other cities.

The early 1780s in Vienna saw the first serious flourishings of firms devoted to music publishing (especially Artaria and Co.) and to commercial music-copying (especially Johann Traeg), who dealt widely in central Europe; public concerts (especially benefit concerts and subscription series) also flourished. At the same time, the number of private concerts reached an unprecedented level, and, during Lent, Mozart performed at one noble home or another on almost every evening not already taken up with public performances. Most of these were orchestral concerts, with symphonies, arias, and concertos; and Mozart’s piano concertos became their mainstays and the principal means by which he appeared before his admiring patrons.

An advertisement in the Wiener Zeitung for February 25, 1784, captures something of the spirit of this vigorous activity:

Johann Traeg, on the first floor of the Pilate House by Saint Peter’s, has the honour to certify to the highly esteemed public that, encouraged by the success thus far granted him, he has drawn up a plan that will be most welcome to music lovers, by means of which they will be enabled at little cost to entertain themselves with the best pieces by the greatest masters. There are many families of this very city that amuse themselves with large or small musical gatherings. Many of them do not wish to be overloaded with sheet music, or at very least to have an introductory hearing of the things that they have a mind to buy. Inasmuch as I now possess a fine stock, which I endeavor daily to enlarge further, of the best and newest music of all types, I therefore offer to hire out weekly either three symphonies or six quintets, six quartets, six trios, etc. for a quarterly payment in advance of three florin. If anyone wishes to give concerts twice a week and, accordingly, requires six symphonies or twelve other pieces for that purpose, he likewise can subscribe that way and pay quarterly only five florin. However, because I must strive to serve everyone fairly, no-one should have misgivings at returning the pieces received directly the following day. Because of my broad acquaintanceship with the best local musicians, I can also provide skilled musicians for large and small concerts at a very reasonable price. In order best to be able to execute these commissions, I request that people place their orders at my establishment any time before midday.

Traeg’s stock included an up-to-date selection of Mozart’s chamber music, arias, symphonies, and concertos.

St Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna — The venue of Mozart’s wedding and later his funeral.

Mozart’s patrons — who usually did not have to acquire his music from Traeg or Artaria and Co. but dealt directly with him, employing him to lead their concerts — came from Viennese high society. To this class belonged both the homes in which he played and the subscribers to his concerts. The subscription list survives for a series of Lenten concerts that Mozart gave on three consecutive Wednesdays in March 1784, in the hall of the casino owned by his friend Johann von Trattner. For these subscription concerts Mozart composed three concertos (K. 449, 450, 451) and also gave their premieres. A recent study shows that, of the 174 names on the list, fifty percent came from the highest nobility, forty-two percent from the lesser nobility or from wealthy commoners with purchased titles, and a mere eight percent from the bourgeoisie (H. Schuler, Die Subskribenten der Mozart’schen Mittwochs-konzert im Trattnersall zu Wien anno 1784 Neustadt a. d. Aisch, 1983). Some eighty-three percent on the list were men, in striking contrast with Parisian salon concerts of the period, which were dominated by women. Braun, Esterhazy, Fries, Galitzin (Golitsin), Harrach, Lichnowsky, Lobkowitz, Schwarzenberg, Swieten, Waldstein: what resonance these names from Mozart’s list of subscribers have as patrons of the music of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven!

In the late 1780s this demand for new concertos diminished as Austria experienced rebellion in its Netherlands territory and a war with Turkey, the resulting economic strain causing a severe recession. Then, terrified by the political developments in France, the Emperors Joseph II and Leopold II rescinded various liberalizing reforms and instituted repressive measures. The combination of these factors led to a stifling of cultural life and a decline both of public concerts and of private patronage. Many noblemen let go their private bands, opportunities for performances were drastically curtailed, and Mozart virtually stopped composing piano concertos.

K. 482 Piano Concerto in E flat major, No. 22

Origin: Vienna, December 16, 1785
Scoring: piano solo, flute, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets and timpani, strings.
Movements: Allegro, Andante, Rondo: Allegro.

Mozart dated the Concerto in E flat, K. 482, ‘Vienna, 16 December 1785,’ and on that very day performed it between the acts of Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf’s oratorio Esther. When he repeated the work at one of three Advent concerts that he presented to 120 subscribers at about the same time, the Andante received so much applause that he had to repeat it. The Concerto in A, K. 488, dated ‘Vienna, 2 March 1786,’ was intended, along with K. 482 and one other piano concerto (K. 491), for Lenten concerts of that year. None of these three concertos written for Mozart’s own use was Published in his life-time and only for K. 488 does a cadenza of his come down to us.

K. 488 Piano Concerto in A major, No. 23

Origin: Vienna, March 2, 1786
Scoring: piano solo, flute, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, strings
Movements: Allegro, Adagio, Allegro assai.

The Concerto in A, K. 488, dated ‘Vienna, 2 March 1786,’ was intended, along with K. 482 and 491, for Lenten concerts of that year. The A major concerto was one of five (with K. 451, 453, 456, and 459), copies of which Mozart offered in August of the same year to his childhood patron, the Prince von Furstenberg. In a letter Mozart claimed that, since these concertos were ‘compositions which I keep for myself or for a small circle of music-lovers and connoisseurs (who promise not to let them out of their hands),’ therefore they ‘cannot possibly be known elsewhere, as they are not even known in Vienna,’ asking the Prince likewise ‘not to let them out of his hands.’

Since its publication in 1800 by Johann Anton Andre (who purchased Mozart’s musical estate from his widow), K. 488 has been one of Mozart’s most popular piano concertos. Reasons are not hard to find. The special melodic charm of the first movement, along with its striking orchestral timbre created by the key of A, which is resonant and brilliant for the strings, and by the pair of clarinets in place of the usual oboes; the seriousness of the middle movement, Adagio in place of the usual Andante and in the rare key of F-sharp minor, which transforms a siciliano into a passionate drama; the bouyancy of the sonata-rondo Finale, in which the piano and orchestra cavort jointly and severally in an exhilarating and satisfying manner — all these features combine to create one of Mozart’s seemingly most perfect masterpieces.