Length: c. 32 minutes
Orchestration: flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: April 20, 1939, with soloist Artur Schnabel, Otto Klemperer conducting
Mozart achieved fame and wealth during his brief lifetime, legends to the contrary — created to satisfy the Romantic era’s ideal of the starving, neglected, and misunderstood artist — notwithstanding. It is, however, true that Mozart had become passé and impoverished by the late 1780s: he was a victim not of the public’s inability to keep pace with his genius, but of its fickleness and the not insubstantial factor of a series of economic crises that sorely taxed (both literally and figuratively) Mozart’s patrons, the Viennese aristocracy.
Ironically, as his fame was declining in Vienna, it was on the ascent elsewhere in Europe. But he realized little or nothing financially from his foreign performances; nothing even resembling copyright law were then in existence, and published scores could easily be pirated. Mozart was offered employment abroad during what turned out to be the end of his life. But for a variety of reasons, not the least of them his wife Constanze’s chronic “ill-health” (she died at the age of 80, in 1842!) and, relatedly, her addiction to cures at expensive spas, conspired to keep Mozart in Vienna. And certainly his own physical fragility and his pride played a part in keeping him there as well.
The last piano concerto from Mozart’s pen, the present, sublime B-flat Concerto, was begun in 1788, around the time of his last three symphonies. But unlike them, it was not accomplished in a blaze of inspiration. Rather, its initial sketches were put aside for nearly three years. The work was completed in January of 1791 and first performed, with the composer as soloist, in March. As it turned out, another soloist on the program was the soprano Aloysia Lange, who had been Mozart’s first love, before he married her sister Constanze.
Whereas Mozart’s last symphony, the “Jupiter,” is grand and jubilant, his last piano concerto is low-key, filled with harmonic and emotional subtleties. Where the two converge is in their slow movements, pages of the most profound wistfulness — music, perhaps, of tranquility recalled in sorrow. Another concerto comes to mind. Charles Rosen, in his indispensable volume The Classical Style (Norton Library) concludes his analysis of K. 595 with the following comment:
“Both the last piano concerto and the Clarinet Concerto [his last concerto for any instrument] are private statements. The form is never exploited for exterior effects. The slow movement aspires and attains to a condition of absolute simplicity: the slightest irregularity in phrase structure of their themes would have also appeared like an intrusion. The melodies accept the reduction to an almost perfect symmetry and triumph over all its dangers. It is fitting that Mozart, who perfected as he created the form of the classical concerto, should have made his last use of it so personal.”
— Herbert Glass recently completed his 16th season as English-language editor / annotator for the Salzburg Festival.