11 February 1785: the Premiere of The D minor Piano Concerto

“Heavy snows and freezing temperatures accompanied Leopold and Heinrich to Vienna. They arrived on 11 February 1785 to find the apartment a hive of activity as Mozart oversaw the copying of a new piano concerto he was to play that evening at his first Mehlgrube concert of the season. During the performance, Leopold marveled at the orchestra’s ability to cope with the “superb” concerto it had to play well at sight.” 

On a stormy evening in February 1785, the elite of Vienna gathered to hear a new work of Austria’s leading virtuoso pianist, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The importance of what lay within this masterpiece was known to only one man: Leopold Mozart, the composer’s estranged father…   

The D minor Piano Concerto was first performed by Mozart at the Mehlgrube Casino on 11 February 1785 (one day after he had entered the work in his Thematic Catalogue). This was the first of six weekly ‘Friday concerts’ given by Mozart during spring 1785. Leopold Mozart arrived in Vienna, after a very difficult trip, just in time for the Premiere of The d Minor Concert. In a long letter written between 14 and 16 February, Leopold described the event to Nannerl, Mozart’s sister:  

“On 11 February we drove to his first subscription concert, at which a great many members of the aristocracy were present. Each person pays a souverain d’or or three ducats for these Lenten concerts. Your brother is giving them at the Mehlgrube. … The concert was magnificent and the orchestra played splendidly. … we had a new and very fine concerto by Wolfgang, which the copyist was still copying as we arrived, and the rondo of which your brother did not even have time to play through, as he had to supervise the copying.”   

Mozart played The D minor Concerto again – this time in rather less haste – at a concert on 15 February in the Burgtheater, organised by the singer Elisabeth Distler. Leopold reported that on this occasion Mozart “played his new grand concerto in d minor magnificently”.   

 “We never get to bed before one o’clock and I never get up before nine. We lunch at two or half past. … Every day there are concerts (note: either Mozart’s own, or performances that he gave in concerts arranged by others); and the whole time is given up to teaching, music, composing and so forth. … If only all the concerts were over! It is impossible for me to describe the rush and bustle. Since my arrival (note: on 11 February) your brother’s fortepiano has been taken at least a dozen times to the theatre or to some other house. He has had a large fortepiano pedal made, which stands under the instrument and is about two feet longer and extremely heavy. It is taken to the Mehlgrube every Friday, and has also been taken to Count Zichy’s and Prince Kaunitz’s.” (Leopold Mozart – letter to Nannerl)  

Mozart’s piano concertos were performed in a variety of settings during his lifetime. Since relatively few halls in the eighteenth century were built expressly for presenting concerts, places originally designed for other purposes were most commonly used. Setting aside the option of outdoor concerts, Neal Zaslaw has identified three settings in which piano concertos were performed: the salon (a room intended for social gatherings of various kinds in a middle-class or aristocratic home), the hall (a large room with a high ceiling, such as might be found in palaces, stately homes, colleges, monasteries, taverns) and the theater. 

The Premiere of the Piano Concerto in D minor, K 466, took place in a hall: a large room on the second floor of the Mehlgrube, a city-owned building located on the Neuer Markt. A restaurant occupied the ground floor, and the large room on the floor above was used not only for concerts, but also for banquets and balls. In smaller adjoining rooms food and beverages were served, and gaming tables were available. According to Leopold Mozart’s reports, there were more than 150 subscribers, including “a great many members of the aristocracy”, to the concert series that Mozart presented at the Mehlgrube between 11 February and 18 March 1785. Since Leopold seemed so pleased with the attendance, we might estimate a seating capacity for the hall of around 150-200. 

If we take a look on the Subscriber List to Mozart’s Concerts of 1784, we have reason to believe that many of them were among the subscribers for the 1785 Concerts, so we can just imagine them taking their seats in the Mehlgrube Hall: Prince Kaunitz, Prince Galitsin, Therese von Trattner, Baroness Waldstatten, Count and Countess Thun, Princess Lichnowsky, Prince Lobkowitz, Prince Liechtenstein, Count Zichy, Count Esterhazy, Count Nostitz, Baron van Swieten, Councillor Greiner, Countess Waldstein, Count Zinzendorf, Baron Wetzlar, Princess Auersperg, Count Banffi, Ignatz von Born, Count Czernin, Prince Schwartzenberg, Countess Hatzfeld, Count Esterhazy… and many others, all people of importance and position in the Viennese society.  

Iconographic evidence suggests that in halls like the Mehlgrube the players would probably have occupied a low platform situated not at the end of the room, but against one of the long walls. The seating plan for K.466 would probably have been similar to the one recommended in 1802 by the piano-maker and Mozart pupil Nannette Stein Streicher: 

“In performing concertos, especially Mozart’s, one should move the fortepiano several feet nearer (the audience) than the orchestra is. Directly behind the piano leave just the violins. The bass-line and wind instruments should be further back, the latter more than the former.”  

“For concerts like Mozart’s, for which the featured artist actually hired the orchestra, it was usual to have only a single rehearsal, the morning of the performance. For the Premiere of The d Minor Concerto, on 11 February 1785, there was not even time to read through the finale, since Mozart was busy supervising the copying of the parts. Leopold’s report that “the orchestra played splendidly” is hard to believe, given the circumstances. (In contrast, when Leopold’s seventeen-year-old pupil Heinrich Marchand rehearsed the concerto for a performance in Salzburg on 22 March 1786, it took three playings of the finale to get the orchestra to play together and keep up with the soloist.) Adalbert Gyrowetz, one of whose symphonies was programmed in Mozart’s Mehlgrube series, noted in his presumed autobiography that Mozart had hired a “full theater orchestra” for these concerts. This was most likely the orchestra of the Burgtheater, where, four days later, on 15 February 1785, Mozart again played The D-minor Piano Concerto, in a concert given by the singer Elisabeth Distler.”   

The next day, Joseph Haydn, visiting Mozart’s apartment on Domgasse for a celebration that included a reading of Mozart’s last three quartets, met Leopold and remarked to him: “Before God and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name…”, gratifying praise from the master Europe now acknowledged as supreme. The following evening at the Burgtheater Leopold sat in a box near that of “the very beautiful” Princess of Wurttemberg. “Your brother”, he reported to Nannerl, “played a glorious concerto, which he composed for Mlle Paradis to perform in Paris… Tears of sheer delight came to my eyes… When your brother made his exit, the Emperor saluted him with his hat and called out: “Bravo, Mozart!”  

Mozart sent Leopold his autograph score of the work (along with that of K 467, the 21st Concerto, and engraved copies of the six string quartets dedicated to Haydn) at the end of November 1785. The solo part of The d Minor Concerto was sent to Nannerl (in St Gilgen) early in 1786. Describing a subsequent performance in Salzburg by Heinrich Wilhelm Marchand on 22 March 1786, Leopold remarked that:

“As you have the clavier part, he (Marchand) played it from the score and (Michael) Haydn turned over the pages for him and at the same time had the pleasure of seeing with what art it is composed, how delightfully the parts are interwoven and what a difficult concerto it is… We rehearsed it in the morning and had to practise the rondo three times before the orchestra could manage it, for Marchand took it rather quickly.” 

A rather later performance of The D minor Concerto is recorded by Thomas Attwood in a letter to an unnamed correspondent, probably dating from 1828-1830 (Eisen). According to Attwood’s recollection of events occurring some forty years previously, Mozart “was very kind to all of Talent who came to Vienna and generally played at their Benefit Concerts with the Pianofortes … The last time I heard him, He play’d his concerto in D minor & ‘Non temere’ (…) at Storace’s Benefit (concert).” This was probably Nancy Storace’s farewell concert at the Karntnerthortheater on 23 February 1787 (Erich Deutsch).”  

The autograph of The D minor Piano Concerto (on 12-stave ‘Querformat’ paper) is in the collection of the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde, Vienna . It bears, on the first music-page, the legend ‘Concerto Di Amadeo Wolfgango Mozart’. Previously, it was owned by Mozart’s colleague, the Abbé Maximilian von Stadler (1748-1833). After Mozart’s death, Stadler, at Constanze’s request, began to put the remaining autograph manuscripts in order, completing a few fragmentary compositions, and cataloguing others. The first edition was published by André (Mozart, 1796), that is, three years before he purchased from Constanze a large quantity of autographs upon which his early editions of Mozart’s works were based (the exemplar for this print is not known). The autograph of The D minor Concerto was not among those autographs purchased by André in November 1799. Possibly it had already been given to Stadler by this time. A set of playing parts survives at St Peter’s, Salzburg, in which detailed instructions for ‘ripieno’ performance appear in the violin parts. Although no cadenzas to this work by Mozart are known, Beethoven composed examples for the first movement and finale. Beethoven performed the work at a benefit concert for Mozart’s widow (also attended by Count Zinzendorf) in the Karntnerthortheater, Vienna, on 31 March 1795. 

(Excerpts from Robert W. Gutman – Mozart: A Cultural Biography, John Irving: Mozart’s Piano Concertos,  David Grayson: Mozart’s Piano Concertos nos. 20 and 21

On the site where Mozart premiered some of his most beautiful piano concertos, the Mehlgrube has turned into Hotel Ambassador. A timeline of this change can be seen on the History page of the Ambassador Hotel.  

In the evening of 11 February 1785, at the Mehlgrube, this is how it must have sounded like… 

2 Comments

  1. A single rehearsal? OMG !


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