Piano Concerto No. 21 — W.A. Mozart: A Review

The time between January 1784 and December 1786 was arguably the most productive period of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s career. He wrote an incalculable variety of music, from string quartets dedicated to Joseph Haydn to no fewer than 12 piano concertos and of course his celebrated ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ (‘The Marriage of Figaro’). On the 9th of March, 1785, he made an entry in his thematic catalogue, “A piano concerto”. A day later, he premiered his new piece at the Burgtheatre in Vienna himself, improvising on the cadenzas in the First and Third Movements to a riveted audience. More than two centuries later, his Piano Concerto No. 21 in C (K. 467) still draws spellbound audiences and delights them with its unique charm.

While Chopin wrote exclusively for the solo piano and Beethoven pioneered the symphony, it was the realm of the concerto in which Mozart blossomed, writing 23 for piano and 16 for other instruments. In his lifetime he almost single-handedly developed and popularised it and his successors — Beethoven included — found it impossible to break off completely from the Mozartian classical concerto.    

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The old Burgtheatre, Vienna, where K.467 was first performed. It was later demolished in 1888.

The No. 21 was composed for one of his subscription concerts, recitals he held to earn his livelihood. The accompanying orchestra had to be hired and paid by him, the hall had to be rented and money had to be spent on lighting and publicity. Keeping all this in mind, it is believed that he used not more than 20 players altogether.  The prodigious talent of Mozart is proven here, in the way he weaves together harmonies, melodies and counterpoints for the limited instruments he could afford to create an enticing, captivating whole.

Mozart’s compositions are conventional in the sense that he embodied the spirit of classical era music. However he wrote on different keys to evoke different emotions and moods. D minor, G minor and C minor were reserved for heroism and tragedy, such as his Requiem in D Minor or his G Minor symphonies, while the keys of A flat, B flat and E flat are used in the tranquil Air in A Flat or Clarinet in B Flat. Major keys such as C and D were kept to express the marital pomp of The Marriage of Figaro and the piece in question, the Piano Concerto No. 21.

Composed just four weeks after the tragedy and conflict of the Piano Concerto in D Minor, the gentleness and peace of the No. 21 showcases his versatility in composition and his willingness and ability to jump from mood to mood. Murk and storm is replaced by composure and serenity, the solemnity of the D minor is carefully excised by the sprightly C major. This was perhaps a reflection of his flexible nature, his readiness to leap from one emotion to a stark opposite sans moderation has indubitably produced some lasting works.

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The Royal Opera House’s production of The Marriage of Figaro, written in the key of D major.

The first movement — the ‘Allegro’ — was scored for strings, horns, trumpets, pairs of oboes and a flute. It has a quiet beginning and gradually grows in strength before the orchestra joins and arrests in a sparkling dialogue with the woodwind. Here, the piano enters with an extended trill and enters a solo bravura exhibition. A subsequent shift to Mozart’s usually darker, more troubled G minor is completely bereft of tragedy and a lively chromatic passage leads to the meeting between the soloist and the orchestra and a reiteration of the mood of marital exaltation.
The Allegro possesses numerous separate but identifiable themes, and there is a fluidity in the score; although the music darts from one instrument to another, there is an effortless unity to the whole, something that can be attributed to the genius of the man.

Now there is a departure from the gaiety of the Allegro. Some of Mozart’s most beautiful slow melodies are his dreamy Andantes and the appeal of the second movement lies in its simplicity. Used in the long-forgotten Swedish film ‘Elvira Madigan’, the music suggests an enchanted garden of love, a misty autumnal landscape. The key is F major and the divinity of the muted violins and violas over a pizzicato bass line gradually leads to an unexpected tension, hinting that the state of bliss is ephemeral and there is anguish and turmoil beneath. Dick Grayson writes:

“At every turn, there is a poignant reminder that happiness is transient, its promise easily revoked. And the escape to a dream world is consummated only in the imagination.”

The piano part contains considerable jumps from the top of the keyboard to almost the bottom and is usually, for dramatic effect, played as it is written without the use of any transition. There are changes in key, from F to its relative minor in D minor and then a few bars in E flat, before melting back into the home key.

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The peace and promenading tempo of the second movement finds a counterpoint in Gustav Marx’s In the Düsseldorf Court Garden.

The third movements is again on C major and there is a return to the majesty of the first movement. A vigorous theme on the violins draws the entire orchestra and a leisurely dialogue leads to the piano, playing rising notes of C, E and G in a syncopated race of notes in a typical Mozartian run. A full repetition phases into the cadenza for the soloist’s display. Like the Concerto in E flat, Mozart’s original cadenza has not been transcribed; however there is always a brisk and lively tempo to this solo sequence regardless of the interpretation, since this is the second ‘allegro’ movement (more specifically the ‘allegro vivace assai’ or allegrissimo, meant to be played faster than the first movement).  The movement ends with a joyous, triumphant recapitulation of the opening and crescendos to an animated upward flourish. Mozart’s intention was to write music that is universal.

He wrote to his father Leopold sometime in the 1780s of some of his piano concertos:

“There are passages here and there from which connoisseurs can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why.”

In this respect it must be said that he has largely succeeded.

This accessibility, of course, springs from the historical context of the classical era. The general tenor of the Age of Enlightenment of the 18th century, the spirit of sapere aude, questioned the obscurity of traditional music and yearned for simple tunes and open harmonies. These developments, however, had already been integrated with contemporary musical language in the late-Baroque era and are not to be confused with the Classical style of music.

For music of this Classical style, the element of contrast is essential. There is contrast in dynamics and expression and varying moods and keys, a divergence from the monothematicism of the Baroque style. Music is varied and differentiated even within the same movement but not incongruous.

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The ornate splendour of the first and third movements contains echoes of whimsical playfulness, something that can be seen in Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s L’Escarpolette (The Swing).

The No. 21 possess all such features of the Classical style. Certain sections and instruments are strong at some points, while others are muted and there are variations in mood from opulence and grandeur to restraint and understatement. The vivacity of the first and third movements is balanced by the lyricism and mourn of the second, thus maintaining the quick-slow-quick arrangement of movements of all of Mozart’s concertos.

Philipp Karl, an amateur musician who had heard Mozart perform the concerto in 1790, later said that when Mozart played the Andante of his concerto he embellished them

“. . . tenderly and tastefully once one way, once differently, following the momentary inspiration of his genius.”

Human knowledge, some argue nowadays, real knowledge is of the impersonal, objective sort, that which is demonstrable and proven. That certainly is knowledge, but it is not the only kind known to men. It is, for instance, very difficult to prove or define what we acquire from music.  The K. 467 can in so many words be dissected musically and appreciated from a technical point-of-view. Its chromatic sequences and chord progressions can be admired for their ingenuity, but the intrinsic value of emotion it divulges to each of us can neither be quantified nor be calculated via formulae.

Art is subjective and has different connotations for different people and just as human emotion is not just black or white but an entire palette of grey, the beauty of this piece can only be experienced through listening to it, be it through Arthur Rubinstein and Alfred Wallenstein’s Victor Symphony Orchestra or Daniel Barenboim’s Berliner Philharmoniker.


References

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1756-1791 by David Buxton
Mozart: Piano Concertos Nos. 20 and 21 by David Grayson
Mozart and his Piano Concertos by Cuthbert Girdlestone and Sara Davis Buechner

One thought on “Piano Concerto No. 21 — W.A. Mozart: A Review

  1. Reblogged this on Crafting Words and commented:
    Most teenagers listen to stuff I don’t understand. This is something I do. Number 21 kept me sane as I travelled to and fro college in Calcutta in the 90s, gritting my teeth against the diesel fumes of public buses and retreating to my private world on my Walkman. Three cheers for I’ll Tell You Later.

    Like

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