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.

Mozart’s Wordless Operas

MozartListening to Mozart’s symphonies, concertos and chamber music, you might get the sense that you’re hearing wordless operas. Even without a libretto, we can sense distinct characters, musical conversations and dramatic situations unfolding in the music. It’s as if the innovative and prolific composer of The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute couldn’t shut off the flood of opera arias and duets entering his mind. As a musician I have found that approaching Mozart this way makes the music come to life in exciting ways. As Tchaikovsky can be experienced through ballet and Beethoven through the symphony, Mozart’s music is rooted in opera.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]The Marriage of Figaro[/typography]

To get a sense of Mozart’s genius as an opera composer, let’s start by listening to a few excerpts from a 1999 Metropolitan Opera production of The Marriage of Figaro. We’ll begin with the opening of Act 1. Here as Figaro takes measurements for a bridal bed and Susanna, his bride-to-be, tries on her wedding bonnet, there is a hint at the comic troubles which will ensue. The somewhat clueless Figaro is delighted with their room in the palace while Susanna is troubled by its proximity to the Count, who has been making advances towards her. Consider how the overture sets the stage for this complex comedy and true “day of madness.” How does Mozart’s music provide us with insight into the characters and dramatic situation?

In his book, The Classical Style, Charles Rosen suggests that with The Marriage of Figaro Mozart begins to break down the typical aria-recitative structure in favor of something more sophisticated and closer to sonata form. Mozart’s music not only captures the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters, but also provides a sense of the arch of the drama. Here is the climactic end of the Finale of Act 2:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Sinfonia Concertante[/typography]

Now let’s hear the wordless but operatic duets of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra in E-Flat Major, K. 364. Here is a great recording with Itzhak Perlman playing the violin, Pinchas Zukerman on viola and the Israel Philharmonic conducted by Zubin Mehta. Let’s start with the second movement (Andante). What kind of a conversation is taking place here between the violin and viola? We don’t have anything literal to go on, but we still have an idea of what is being said.

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Go back and listen a few times to this emotionally powerful music. Then listen to the first and third movements. How is the tone of the conversation different in these outer movements? Pay attention to the way one voice imitates another in the back and forth dialogue.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Violin Concerto No. 5[/typography]

[quote]My Violin has just been restrung, and I`ve been playing on it every day. I`m telling you this only because Mama once wanted to know if I was still playing the violin. On at least 6 occasions I`ve had the honour of going on my own to church or to some other important function. In the meantime I`ve written 4 Italian symphonies footnote5 in addition to the arias, footnote6 of which I`ve already written 5 or 6, as well as a motet.[/quote]

-An excerpt from a letter Mozart wrote to his sister, dated August 4, 1770 

Mozart was an excellent violinist but, as the letter above suggests, he considered the violin to be a second instrument. Mozart’s violin concertos, written when he was 19, generally seem lighter and more carefree than his piano concertos. But here in the first movement of Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219, again we hear opera. What kinds of characters would be singing this music? What dramatic situations might be involved? Listen for a dialogue between voices within the single violin line.

Here is a performance by the legendary French violinist, Arthur Grumiaux with the London Symphony and Sir Colin Davis. The recording showcases Grumiaux’s elegant style of playing and golden tone. Every note seems to ring with a bell-like purity:

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Clarinet Concerto in A Major[/typography]

Here is Sabine Meyer playing the second movement of Mozart’s Clarinet Concert in A-major, K. 622. Imagine this as an aria in one of Mozart’s operas:

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