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Orchestration: flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo piano. First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 14, 1938, with pianist Artur Schnabel, Otto Klemperer conducting.
Mozart was a famous and intermittently wealthy man during his first four years in Vienna, 1782-1785; his services as composer, pianist, and teacher were fought over by the aristocracy and haute bourgeoisie.
He was a central component of a golden age in Vienna, a city made particularly attractive to artists by the number of generous patrons available, including many from the "provinces," i.e., Hungary, Bohemia, Moravia, and Poland, who kept homes in the capital. There was also a music industry in Vienna: obviously, the composers and performers themselves, but also the requisite backup of copyists, publishers, and retailers (of scores and of instruments) on an order that existed elsewhere only in London and Paris, both much larger cities.
By the end of 1785, however, Mozart’s own fame was on the verge of decline. It was a time of burgeoning troubles for the Austrian Empire, with uprisings on its distant borders and the likelihood (soon to become a reality) of a war with Turkey which the aristocracy would have to finance. Sights, and artistic patronage, were being lowered.
The three great piano concertos of 1785 (D minor, K. 466; C major, K. 467; and E-flat major, K. 482) might not sound like the beginning of an end, but in a sense they were. There would be more piano concertos by Mozart -- five additional masterpieces in the genre would follow, but spread over five years. It was in 1785, too, that the free-spending composer’s pathetic begging letters begin, the first to his publisher, Hoffmeister, for "just a little money, since I need it very badly."
Mozart completed the present C-major Concerto on March 9, 1785, three weeks after the final notes of the tempestuous D-minor Concerto had been put to paper. A handbill advertising the new work reads as follows: "On Thursday, March 10, 1785, Kapellmeister Mozart will have the honor of giving in the Imperial and Royal Court Theater a Grand Musical Concert for his own benefit including not only a new, just finished fortepiano concerto [presumably sight-read by the orchestra] to be played by him, but also an especially large fortepiano with pedals will be used for improvisations. The remaining pieces will be announced by a large poster on the day of the concert."
The "large poster" has not been preserved and there is no record of what else was on the program, but Papa Leopold informs us that his son took in some 600 gulden (a hefty sum) that evening, and from the enthusiastic first-hand accounts we have of the premiere of the subsequent concerto, K. 482 (likewise with the composer as soloist), the Viennese were clearly still smitten with Mozart and his music.
I have been unable to find the source for the oft-quoted initial response (usually attributed to Leopold) to the Andante of K. 467, "Most of the audience was moved to tears by the beauty of the music," but there can be little doubt it had the same effect on enraptured audiences for the 1967 Swedish film Elvira Madigan. I have steadfastly refused to utter that name in connection with the score in recent years, during which the popularity of the music has far outstripped the popularity of the film. But having actually seen Elvira for the first time only a few months ago and found it affecting (against my will and my better judgement), the relationship between film and music takes on a certain inevitability. It (the music) seemed somehow to fit, and perhaps it would fit virtually any circumstances (but the comic), so compelling and unique are its attractions: "[Here] Mozart essays an entire movement of unrelieved, time-stopping beauty, blending chromatic pathos and measured tranquility, sustaining a line of overarching beauty until the distant double-bar, which is to say, for something just short of eternity," is the lovestruck description by Maynard Solomon in his invaluable Mozart, A Life (Harper Collins, 1995).
And while "chromatic pathos" has become coin of the musical realm in the ensuing two centuries, to the audience of 1785 it must have been startling -- futuristic -- what with that diminished seventh in the opening measure, an unexpected transition to the tonic minor, discordant suspensions, and a stunning false relation (B-flat against B natural)… and we’re only four measures into the movement. The Chopin of the Nocturnes seems far closer than half a century away.
That the slow movement has achieved what some might regard as disproportionate fame is easily understandable in view of its being surrounded by music that is Mozartian business as usual, in the sense that it "merely" achieves the uncanny balance of moods that we expect from Mozart at this stage of his life. The progress of the music is wonderfully effective, from the swaggering, marching extroversion of the opening Allegro, with its festive trumpets and drums, to the dreamy introspection of the Andante, whose mood is rudely dispelled by the scampering wit of the hyperactive rondo-finale.
Herbert Glass, a columnist and critic for the Los Angeles Times from 1971 through 1996, is also a frequent contributor to Gramophone and The Strad. He is English-language annotator for the Salzburg Festival.