The formal peculiarities and devices of opera were a decisive influence upon the syntax of Haydn’s instrumental music of the mid 1780s. For Mozart, these “devices” came naturally, as a result of his deep understanding of dramatic forces and his ability to breath humanity into his operatic characters. That he was considered by many to be the greatest of living opera composers is attested to by Haydn himself. When he was asked to compose an opera for the stage in Prague, he responded: “…if I had the invaluable privilege of composing a new opera for your theatre…I should be taking a great risk, for scarcely any man could stand comparison with the great Mozart… …if only I could explain…the inimitable art of Mozart, its depth, the greatness of its emotion, and its unique musical conception, as I myself feel and understand it…”
After opera, the genre best suited to absorb and reconcile comparable dramatic forces without its psychological realizations, is the concerto, which, in the words of Charles Rosen “…pit(s) the individual voice against the sonority of the mass”.
Mozart composed 12 piano concertos during the years 1784-86, an astonishing feat given the originality and exceptional quality of these works. To a large degree, much of their originality lies in the sonority and textures resulting from the expanded role of the wind instruments. Mozart was so taken with the abundance and abilities of the wind players in Vienna, that he used them in his scores as a distinct “mass” of sound against which the voice of the piano could be pitted, or to which it could respond in an interplay of motivic and timbral dialogue. In this sense, Mozart’s woodwind writing in this series of concertos figures prominently in the articulation of their forms; the winds no longer simply double the strings but function structurally as “dramatic personas” in their own right.
Mozart completed Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491, on March 24, 1786, three weeks following the completion of the Concerto No. 23 in A, K. 488. It was the work he completed just before his opera Le nozze di Figaro, K.492, and less than a year and one half before the creation of Don Giovanni (1787).
The only other concerto written in a minor mode up to this time was the Concerto in D minor, K. 466 (1785). That concerto (K. 466), which shares the same key as Don Giovanni, was the one that Romantic composers identified with most as the embodiment of Mozartian pathos. In many ways, K. 491 projects a less dramatic, less operatic, persona; it has a more reflective, personal, almost intimate quality, more akin to chamber music.
The theme of the exposition is striking for its angularity. This theme, stated in octaves and unaccompanied, focuses our attention on the intervallic relationships that Mozart begins to develop even before the “development” section arrives. Following the orchestral exposition, the piano solo enters – unaccompanied – with new melodic material (though clearly related to earlier phrases) of an introspective nature, in contrast to the restlessness of the opening theme. There are two more subsidiary themes introduced, both in E-flat major. Following the second subsidiary theme, the harmony quickly moves to E-flat minor, at which point Mozart begins to develop the full tonal implications of the opening theme. A closing theme leads to the development proper. The recapitulation presents the themes of the exposition, but in a different order, with a coda to round out the movement.
The atmosphere of the Larghetto is, if not all sunlight, at least a relief from the pathos of the first movement. The solo piano presents the first theme, in the key of E-flat major. What follows are a series of antiphonal responses between the woodwinds (in passages reminiscent of Mozart’s sublime wind serenades) and the piano, which is accompanied by the strings. The formal architecture is a modified ABA form.
C minor returns in the Allegretto, a variation movement in which the woodwinds continue to delineate much of the material quite freely, apart from the strings. The virtuosic passages alternate between figurative and four-part contrapuntal writing. Several of the variations are in a major key but, following the cadenza, the theme returns in C minor and a meter change to 6/8, increasing the tension of the rhythmic drive to the final cadence.
Steven Lacoste is Archivist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He is also a lecturer in music theory at California State University, Long Beach.
Length: 30 minutes
Orchestration: 1 flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 10, 1946, Alfred Wallenstein conducting, with soloist Artur Schnabel