In March of 1784, Mozart wrote from Vienna to his father, Leopold, in Salzburg: “On the last three Wednesdays of Lent, beginning with the 17th, I have planned three subscription concerts for Trattner’s Rooms” – the spacious home of the newly ennobled Johann Trattner, where Wolfgang and his wife Constanze rented accommodations, and which boasted a large ballroom where concerts were regularly given. “For these concerts I already have 100 subscribers and expect another 30 shortly… I shall later give academies,” that is, private concerts in aristocratic salons or in one of the city’s theaters.
Among the entries in Mozart’s just-begun catalog of his works – he waited until he had written over 400 before deciding, in his own words, “to get organized” – were such freshly-minted marvels as the Piano Concerto in E-flat, K. 449, written for his prize pupil, Babette Ployer, daughter of an imperial court councilor; the Piano Concertos K. 450 and K.451, in B-flat and D, respectively, both for himself; the “Linz” Symphony; a group of concert arias; and the Quintet in E-flat for Piano and Winds, K. 452. Of the latter he wrote to Leopold, “I consider it the best work I have ever written…” a rare pronouncement even from a composer hardly loath to praise his own creations. Shortly thereafter, he would write to his father “I have now completed another concerto, in F [K. 453], also for Babette Ployer.”
Until K. 453, whose integration of piano and winds resulted directly from the “experiment” of the Quintet, the Mozart piano concertos, beginning as early as 1779 with the splendidly deep Salzburg-composed work in E-flat, K. 271, did not as yet partake of that magical intertwining that would mark the later Vienna concertos. In fact, Mozart suggested to his first Vienna publishers that his concertos of 1782-1784 (prior to K. 450) could be performed without the written-out wind parts if that would facilitate sales. The winds merely doubled the strings anyway, he asserted, adding flecks of color and filling out the harmony, rather than adding readily discernible support, to say nothing of leading ineluctable lives – as would soon become a defining element of the Mozart concerto.
Suddenly, in the still undervalued Concerto in D, K. 451, whose completion preceded that of K. 452 by only a matter of days, the winds are unprecedentedly prominent. But they tend to stand and deliver before and after the piano delivers, only midway through the slow movement beginning subtly to intrude on the keyboard, before taking a step back again in the finale. It’s then – with the Quintet – that the composer shows his impatience to take his developing method a step further, without the distractions of all those strings, trumpets, and drums that also inhabit the D-major Concerto.
The Quintet was first presented on April 1, 1784, as part of a mammoth concert of Mozart’s works entirely new or new to Vienna, in the capital’s Burgtheater. The playbill listed a “Symphony with Trumpets and Drums” (probably the “Haffner,” K. 385), a Piano Concerto (K. 451); the “Linz” Symphony; a group of piano improvisations by Mozart; and another symphony, possibly the “Paris” (K. 297) of 1778, not previously heard in Vienna.
K. 452 is in the three movements of a concerto. The first movement is brief, with a slow, sonorous introduction, in which each of the five players is allowed to strut his/her stuff, with a powerful concluding wind tutti over the piano. A gratifying surprise comes after only 20-odd measures have passed with the succeeding allegro, a tour-de-force of variety and inspiration, each wind allotted its brief theme – with such a mixed ensemble Mozart had no choice but to keep the individual statements as compact as possible – and the piano as partner rather than master, the instruments presented in pairs, in combinations of three, four, and five. While the key of B-flat is in Mozart usually a vehicle for frivolous thoughts, in the second movement of K. 452 it is employed to convey a sadly sweet mellowness. The thematically rich rondo finale is the longest movement of the three, crowned by a long cadenza for all five instruments.
That Mozart worked assiduously at getting this “study” right is affirmed by the extensive sketches that exist for the first movement, examples of reworking hardly being common among the composer’s works. The impression of ease and spontaneity – certainly present here – is not always easily achieved, even by Mozart.
And there is an interesting bit of irony concerning the “why” of K. 452: Mozart thought that a work prominently involving winds would impress the young Prince Aloys Liechtenstein, who was in the process of forming his own “Harmonie” (wind-band) and who was scheduled to attend the work’s premiere on March 21. But the Prince chose instead to hold a musical event at his own palace on that date, which would have been attended by Mozart's presumed audience. Thus, the premiere was held as noted above, without the Prince's presence. Liechtenstein did not form his Harmonie – with which the composer hoped to be prominently involved – until early in 1792, by which time Mozart was dead.