Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791)

Born January 27, 1756 in Salzburg, Austria.

Died December 5, 1791 in Vienna, Austria.

Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor K. 491

Completed March 24, 1786.

First Performance: Probably April 3, 1786 at the Burgtheater in Vienna in a subscription concert with Mozart as soloist.

Instrumentation: flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings.

In the last decade of his life Mozart moved to Vienna. By the mid 1780s he had become a popular performer with the Viennese public. He organized very successful subscription concerts (“Academies”) annually during the Lenten season. It was for this series of concerts that within a short span of 3 years he would produce 12 of his 27 piano concerti.

In the beginning of 1786 Mozart was completing his opera Le nozze di Figaro. He took time out in March to write two piano concerti, one in C Minor K. 491 and the other in A Major K. 488. Of all his piano concertos, only two are in minor keys. Besides K. 491, the other being the D minor concerto K. 466 from 1785.

One of the most enduring of the Mozart myths is that he wrote effortlessly; the music was complete in his mind before he picked up a pen. In the case of this concerto that is not the case. The manuscript contains a large number of corrections and revisions. In spite of a looming deadline (a performance) Mozart still took the time to ensure that each passage satisfied him.

The first movement of Mozart’s concerti is usually the weightiest and K. 491 is no exception. Instead of a tempest-tossed C minor introduction the movement begins quietly with the strings in octaves playing an unusual – for 1786 – first theme which uses all 12 pitches of the chromatic scale. (One mid-20th century composer wrote a serial symphony based on it!). We hear two distinct phrases, with both ending with a distinctive leap and the second introducing an important rhythmic motif. Since the movement is in sonata form we might guess that the orchestra (the ritornello) would introduce the second theme also in C minor before the soloist enters restating these themes and leading them to related keys. Then these themes would be treated to a development section before a cadenza where the soloist would display their virtuosity and/or improvisational abilities based on the themes before the orchestra returns with a coda to bring the movement to a brilliant finish. One thing that makes Mozart interesting is to see how he modifies sonata form to reach his own artistic aims. There are more than two themes here and sometimes the entrance of one overlaps another. The soloist doesn’t seem to notice any of the ritornello’s themes except for the first. In addition we hear new material – a long cantabile theme presented by the soloist. The ritornello returns with the first theme which is then finally elaborated by the soloist. But then we hear a series of themes one after the other. Try to count how many you hear! So much for the idea that the opening contains all of the material for the work. Our other expectation that this movement would end with a bang does not happen either. The movement ends softly to lead to the gentle middle movement.

The slow middle movement opens in the relative major (E flat) with the soloist playing a theme that is invariably described as one of child like simplicity. There are two episodes (one in C minor, the other in A flat major) between presentations of the theme. Mozart deploys the largest orchestra of all his concerti in this concerto (he had to order special 16 stave paper). He does not use the extra forces for bombast but for the subtle shading we hear in the woodwind choirs especially in this movement. Spohr went as far as describing this as a “concerto for woodwinds and piano.”

Mozart quite often employed a rondo form in his finales. Since the middle movement is a rondo (ABACA) this finale is not. Instead it is a theme with a set of 8 variations and a coda. The theme is presented without the soloist. Like the main theme from the first movement it is in two parts. There is also a distinctive leap but this time downward. The second part also has a rhythmic turn that is recognizable in the variations. The first very short variation is for the soloist with sparse accompaniment and includes a repeat. Variations 2-6 are double variations (the second half varies the variation), 7 is a single variation without repeats and for the 8th and last he changes the meter to 6/8. Except for the 4th variation which is in A flat major and the 6th variation in C major, the finale is in C minor including the ending.

Beethoven admired this concerto greatly. His own C minor concerto in some ways pays homage to the older master. He has been quoted as remarking to a friend upon hearing this concerto “Oh my dear fellow, we shall never get any idea like this”.

The Cadenza

Because Mozart was the primary performer of these concerti he did not write down cadenzas. He would just improvise them during the performance. We do have cadenzas that he did write down but these were for other pianists. He did not write one for the C minor concerto.
That doesn’t mean that there are no cadenzas available to performers. Indeed one composer after another including Mozart’s pupil Hummel, as well as Fauré, Smetana, and Schnittke, Saint-Saëns, Humperdinck, Carl Reinecke, J.B.Cramer, Reynaldo Hahn, Brahms (1861), Smetana, Busoni and Sciarrino wrote cadenzas for this concerto. Conductor George Szell wrote one which was performed by Clifford Curzon.
Of course pianists are free to play their own; we have examples set by Uchida, Ashkenazy, Brendel, and Paul Badura-Skoda just to name a few. The quality, fidelity and content of these cadenzas is all over the map. Uchida’s cadenza sounds like it belongs because it uses Mozart’s themes stylistically from the movement. On the other hand there are cadenzas that are more of a reflection on the composer rather than Mozart. There can be no confusing the style of Fauré’s cadenza with its brief excursion to F# with one written by Mozart.

Today’s performance will feature the cadenza written by Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) for pianist Marguerite Hasselmans (1876-1947). The 24 year old Hasselmans met Fauré in 1900 and quickly became the mistress and constant companion of the 55 year old composer. She was very accomplished; she spoken Russian, read Nietzsche in German, and was able to hold philosophical discussions. She was also a friend of Paul Dukas and Isaac Albeniz. In fact Albeniz dedicated Iberia to her. She premiered this new cadenza on April 15, 1902 at the Société des Concerts Hasselmans, with her brother conducting.

This cadenza is of particular local interest because the manuscript has been recently acquired by the Scheide Library. The manuscript is written in Fauré’s pen but it also contains pencil annotations presumably made by Hasselmans. Most of her annotations were performance cues such as fingerings and hand crossings which were transmitted to the 1927 publication.