24 March 1786: the Moving C Minor Piano Concerto

Vienna, 24 March 1786 – new entry in Mozart’s Thematic Catalogue: “A Piano Concerto. Accompaniment: 2 violins, 2 violas, 1 flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and bass.”

Mozart's Thematic Catalogue -  - Piano Concerto 24, K 481 incipit 1

The great Piano Concerto no 24, K.491, one of the two piano concerts Mozart wrote in minor key, “an explosion of dark, tragic, passionate emotions…” (Alfred Einstein), a storm of feelings bursting out from Mozart’s soul… a music full of tension and despair, of tragedy and dark expresivity, letting out a feeling of deep distress… 

Mozart's Thematic Catalogue -  Piano Concerto 24, K 481 incipit - 2

Mozart's Thematic Catalogue - Piano Concerto 24, K 481 incipit - 4

With the largest orchestra Mozart called for in any of his piano concerts, with an autograph manuscript showing corrections and symptoms of disorganization uncharacteristic to Mozart, The C Minor is powerful, moving, overwhelming, it reflects the increasing density and complexity of Mozart’s music and leaves no doubt it was not for the Viennese audience that this concert was written, but for himself. In the dramatic opening we can hear, and feel, Beethoven, and the grand music of the century to come… and we cannot help but wonder how would all of Mozart’s music have sounded if he had written it only for himself… The intensity of feeling speaks about a Mozart unleashed, liberated from conventions of any kind. As with the D Minor Piano Concerto, as with the Requiem, here, in the C Minor Piano Concerto, Mozart is free! 

C Minor, D Minor, G Minor, Mozart’s minor keys… If only we could read between the lines…

In the beginning of 1786 Mozart was working on his opera Le nozze di Figaro. In-between he composed two of his most beautiful piano concerts: the  A Major (K. 488) and the C Minor (K. 491).  

“The concerto was written for a concert Mozart gave in the Burgtheater on 7 April 1786. Not one of his contemporaries recorded his impressions of Mozart’s C Minor Concerto; or rather, no such recorded impressions have survived. We are thus unable to reconstruct the effect created by this work, especially since we do not discuss music in the same terms Mozart’s contemporaries used. Yet it is certainly clear that this music represents an uncompromising attitude, a refusal to employ conventional formulas or indulge in gratuitous virtuosity. This piano concerto was not intended for the salon, where there was often chatter or card playing during concerts and the piano, in a manner of speaking, “socialized” with the other guests, taking part in the brilliant conversation and commanding attention through wit, elaborate artistry and scintillating invention. Rather, the C Minor Concerto is like a speech that silences a crowd through sheer earnestness and gravity of expression. There is something unrelenting and defiant about the music. It shows no traces of frivolity and does not seek shallow approval; it is neither questioning nor diffident, but powerful and declarative.” (Volkmar Braunbehrens)

Ludwig van Beethoven has more than once expressed his profound admiration for Mozart’s C Minor Piano Concerto, just as he did for the D Minor. And in Beethoven’s own C Minor (Piano Concerto no 3) we can feel Mozart!

The dramatic, stormy, impetuous first movement Allegro is symphonic to an unprecedented degree, but surprisingly it doesn’t end with a bang, instead it calms down in a gentle way, softly leading to the middle movement: the Larghetto, which “moves in regions of the purest and most affecting tranquility, and has a transcendent simplicity of expression.” (Alfred Einstein) The theme is of “childlike simplicity.” But in such case, of “child Mozart’s simplicity”! The concluding Allegretto’s theme “can only be called sublime” (Donald Francis Tovey), and the variations through which Mozart takes the theme cover a remarkable range of emotional and dramatic contrasts. Alfred Einstein called this finale “an uncanny revolutionary quick-march consisting of variations with free “episodes” which represent glimpses of Elysian fields—but the conclusion is a return to the inevitable.”  

Mozart - Piano Concerto 24 - 1

Mozart - Piano Concerto 24 - 2

Mozart - Piano Concerto 24 - 3

“If Mozart could be said ever to have ignored his public in a concerto and followed completely his own inner promptings, it was here. This work is Mozart’s ultimate venture, his furthest exploration of the piano concerto, for the three that were to follow were to be a further refinement of what he had done.”  (John N. Burke) 

Mozart - Piano Concerto 24 - 4

Mozart - Piano Concerto 24 - 5

 Photos of Mozart’s Thematic Catalogue ©The British Library – Turning the Pages