Piano Concerto No. 17
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, strings, and solo piano
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: February 9, 1950 with pianist Rudolf Serkin, Alfred Wallenstein conducting
The April 1784 manuscript of the Concerto in G, K. 453, notes that it was written for Mozart’s student Barbara Ployer, who lived with her uncle, Salzburg’s agent at the Imperial court. We know that Ployer played it, with Mozart in attendance, at her uncle’s house on June 13 of that year.
The opening movement has an almost casual ease of expression, with an effortless progression from one idea to the next, even on the frequent occasions when it ventures into unexpected keys. The woodwinds take a large and independent role, often carrying the discourse. Modern audiences take it for granted that a wind instrument can have a major role, but in Mozart’s day it was unusual. The orchestral winds tend to be bit players in the concertos he wrote in Salzburg, where the woodwind players were not as good as those in Vienna.
The winds’ prominence is demonstrated dramatically in the second movement, which begins with a serene theme in the strings that simply stops after about 20 seconds, to be replaced by an extended episode in which the strings are the backup band for the solo flute, oboe, and bassoon. When the piano finally enters, alone, it starts with the same five-measure phrase that started the movement, before stopping in exactly the same way. This sort of dramatic pause is, of course, rooted in dramatic music; Mozart did similar things in his operas. But here the interruption becomes a structural pillar, occurring four times and followed each time with something surprising. The fourth time, in which the piano comes to rest in G major, and the orchestra resumes in E-flat, is a harmonic jolt worthy of Berlioz.
The finale offers a different formal twist: instead of the expected rondo, it offers five variations on a simple theme, then pauses and launches into what at first sounds like an entirely new movement (marked “Presto. Finale”) but soon starts sounding like a free fantasia in which the principal theme makes an occasional appearance. On May 27, 1784 Mozart bought a starling that could sing a slightly inaccurate, but recognizable, version of that theme. It is not clear whether Mozart taught the tune to the bird, or bought it because the bird already knew the tune; it is possible that Mozart played the Concerto in a concert at the end of April, and someone was going around humming it. An even more fanciful and even less likely reading, and the premise of a recent children’s book, is that Mozart got the melody from the bird in the first place.
— Howard Posner