Mozart’s Last Piano Concerto

250px-Croce-Mozart-DetailLast week we stepped into the strange, mysterious world of Beethoven’s Late string quartets, music which stylistically leaves behind everything that came before and offers up profound and timeless revelations.

In its own way, Mozart’s last piano concerto (No. 27 in B flat major, KV 595) makes a similar, if more subtle departure. It still sounds like the Mozart we know, but listen carefully and you may notice something different about this music…perhaps an occasional hint of wistful sadness and even wrenching pain.

Concerto No. 27 was first performed in early 1791, the year of Mozart’s death, at a concert that may have marked Mozart’s final public appearance on the concert stage. By this time, Mozart’s performing career was already winding down. His wife, Constanze was ill and he was deeply in debt. He was treated with contempt by the new Emperor, Leopold II. The publisher, Hoffmeister, refused to continue to publish Mozart’s music unless the composer turned out simpler and more popular works, to which Mozart replied, “Then I can make no more by my pen, and I had better starve, and go to destruction at once.” But the sizable amount of music Mozart wrote in 1791 (which included a piece for glass harmonica, a string quartet, the Clarinet ConcertoThe Magic Flute, and the Requiem) transcended all of this.

Concerto No. 27 opens with a wordless conversation between two contrasting opera characters. The strings make a quietly passionate opening statement amid playfully comic interjections by the winds. At the 0:37 mark, the final movement of the “Jupiter” Symphony (completed three years earlier in 1788) briefly surfaces. (Listen here for a comparison). Similar to Jupiter, Mozart’s final concerto is filled with counterpoint (multiple musical lines happening at the same time). As you listen, notice all of the musical voices surrounding the piano line: the way they weave together, move apart, and converse. From the violins to the flute, oboe, and bassoon, each voice has a distinct persona and something to say. You can hear this in the passage beginning around 4:00, with the entrance of the flute. Or listen a few moments later when the piano and strings fade into a solitary woodwind line. Notice the way the line grows and changes shape, as the oboe, flute, and piano trade places.

Entering the first movement’s development section, we’re suddenly confronted with one of those hints of sadness I mentioned earlier. This once assured music gradually begins to falter and fade into silent pauses. When the piano enters, we’re in a new and different world. And do you remember those playful woodwind interjections from the movement’s opening? Now they are transformed into a shockingly stern interruption in the wrong key. A moment later, the piano picks up the “interruption” motive and the oboe takes the singing piano melody. Listen for all of this here and then notice the way we return safely home at the recapitulation.

The second movement is a quietly introspective aria. Amid the simple perfection of the opening melody, perhaps a lonely, solemn march, there’s a sense of lingering sadness. Again, notice the way the voices interact: the three distinct voices in the strings, joined by the singing woodwind line in this passage, the oboe joining the bassoon in a single, sustained pitch here, the winds interjecting with a repeated chord a few moments into this excerpt.

The opening melody’s final statement occurs as a shadowy whisper, the piano, flute and violins sharing the melody and creating an almost ghostly sonority. In the final moments of the second movement, there’s a sense that the music doesn’t want to let go as it shifts to a series of deceptive cadences to avoid an ultimate resolution. In the final bars, seven distinct contrapuntal voices can be heard.

The frolicking final movement dances with playful, comic interruptions. The cadenzas in the first and final movements (often improvised by the performer) were written by Mozart. At the end of this final cadenza, the solo piano pauses for a moment of brief introspection. In the final bars, the main motive is tossed around the orchestra as the piano erupts in joyful, bubbling arpeggios.

Nine days after completing Concerto No. 27, Mozart incorporated the final movement’s theme into the song, Sehnsucht nach den Frühlinge:

Come, sweet May, and turn
The trees green again,
And make the little violets
Bloom for me by the brook!

Now that we’ve touched on a few details, let’s listen to the entire piece without interruption. Here is an exceptional performance with Portuguese pianist Maria João Pires and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, conducted by Trevor Pinnock:

  • Find Maria João Pires’ recording of Mozart’s Concerto No. 27 with Claudio Abbado and Orchestra Mozart at iTunes, Amazon.

Four Musical Firsts

firsts

In celebration of the beginning of a new year, here are four pieces which qualify as musical “firsts.” Listen to the music on the list and then share your own favorite musical “firsts” in the comment thread below.

Monteverdi’s “Orfeo”

Let’s start with the birth of opera. Italian Renaissance composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) is often credited with singlehandedly inventing the art form. In reality, opera gradually evolved out of Intermedio, music and dance sequences which were performed between the acts of early seventeenth century plays. At least two fledgling operas by Jacopo Peri, Dafne (1598), and Euridice (1600), predated Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607). But with Orfeo, Monteverdi assembled all of the pre-existing building blocks (aria, recitative, chorus) to create the first mature and fully developed opera. For the first time the blending of music, libretto and staging realized its full dramatic potential. Four hundred years later, Monteverdi’s Orfeo is still regularly performed.

Listen to the haunting recitative from Act 3,  Possente spirto (“Mighty spirit and formidable god”), in which Orpheus attempts to cross the river Styx into Hades.

Learn more about the history and synopsis of Orfeo here.

Mozart’s First Symphony

Mozart was eight years old when he wrote Symphony No. 1 in E-flat major, K. 16. Although he was already known throughout Europe as a wunderkind piano sensation, he had composed little music. The First Symphony was written in London (Chelsea) during the summer of 1764 while the Mozart family was in the middle of a concert tour of Europe. A plaque marks the house today.

Listen carefully to the four note motive in the opening of the second movement (6:07). This motive returns in the final movement of Mozart’s final symphony (listen to Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter” here).

Beethoven’s First Violin Sonata

The opening of the first movement of Beethoven’s First Violin Sonata grabs your attention as if to say, “Here I am!” This opening firmly establishes the home key of D major, but listen to the way we’re pulled into increasingly distant keys as the movement progresses (especially in the development section beginning at 5:26). This opening movement is marked, Allegro con brio (with fire). Listen to the dialogue between the violin and piano.

Beethoven dedicated this sonata, written in 1798, to his contemporary, Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), the Italian composer who popular legend has erroneously accused of murdering Mozart. The final movement seems to sparkle with the light frivolity and humor of Italian opera.

Here is a great recording by violinist Pamela Frank and her father, the legendary pianist Claude Frank, who passed away last week:

Listen to the second and third movements.

 Schoenberg’s Five Piano Pieces, Op. 23

Let’s finish with a dose of atonality. In Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Piano Pieces, Op. 23, written in 1923, harmonic relationships between pitches are almost completely gone. The final piece is considered to be the first example of twelve-tone composition. This is a highly ordered technique which ensures that all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale remain equal and independent. Schoenberg described this technique, also known as Serialism, as a:

method of composing with twelve tones which are related only with one another.

Here is Glenn Gould’s recording: