Richard Wagner - Overture to Die Meistersingers
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor
Program Notes


PIANO CONCERTO in D Minor, K. 466


PREMIERED: Vienna, 1785

I: Allegro

II: Romanza

III: Allegro assai; alla breve

This curiously dark work is one of only two of Mozart’s 27 piano concerti to be written in a minor key. That the first performance could barely be heard over the background noise in the Mehlgrube Casino probably contributed to the gloom, as did the fact that Mozart had barely finished it when he took his seat at the piano. The premiere was, in fact, a scramble. As his father wrote to his daughter Nannerl:

I heard an excellent new piano concerto by Wolfgang, on which the copyist was still at work when we got there, and your brother didn't even have time to play through the rondo because he had to oversee the copying operation.

Mozart conducted frantically from the keyboard, nodding occasionally to the terrified concertmaster, whose suspicion that the only full score was still in Mozart´s head was entirely justified. There would be similar scenes nearly 150 years later, as George Gershwin nodded to Paul Whiteman to tell him the (improvised!) piano solo sections were about to end during the first performance of Rhapsody in Blue. Mozart’s audience consisted of what his obsessively class-conscious father called “a vast concourse of people of rank,” hovering between his son’s music and the gaming tables. Only the previous evening, Joseph Haydn had told Leopold that Wolfgang was “the greatest composer known to me, either personally or be reputation,” yet here he was now, struggling for attention.

A month earlier, the Mehlgrube’s star attraction had been the blind pianist Maria Theresia von Paradis (for whom Mozart wrote a concerto); the month before, there had been a conjurer. As always, the composer’s social standing teetered between very shaky popular adulation and the wow-but-so-what feeling that now (briefly) meets the denizens of American Idol. This hovering between the worlds of the courtly flunky and popular stardom (no problem at all for musicians only fifty years later) was an important factor in his ultimate impoverishment and early death. It’s therefore all the more surprising that Mozart chose an occasion like this to launch one of his darkest, most searching works.

The first movement opens with – no, not the first subject of the inevitable sonata form opener. Instead, we hear motifs – fragments that together add up to thematic material, an astonishing foreshadowing of the gigantic mosaics of Wagner, set over nagging, syncopated string chords. Instead of the usual setting out of the structural shop that we expect at the opening of a Classical concerto, we instead are offered what can only be called mood-setting. It is only when the piano enters that our old friends A and B become clearly audible. There would be nothing like this again until the concertos of Beethoven, who revered this work and played it in public several times. Indeed, it is Beethoven’s cadenzas that we are hearing this evening in the first and last movements.

Like Beethoven after him, Mozart often carried out his more outrageous formal experiments in his slow movements, and this concerto has a vivid example in its rondo structure - easily the least likely form to be expected here (not least because this movement is followed by another one). Even less likely is the dramatic lurch into G minor towards the end. Beethoven would often challenge himself (and us) with sudden plunges into distant keys, as though daring himself to find a way home; he may well have been inspired by Mozart’s leap into the tonal darkness here. The music is always civilized and precise, of course (it’s Mozart, after all), but there are the faintest cracks and shadows in the porcelain. Nor should we forget that Mozart reserved his darkest thoughts (think of the fortieth symphony) for the key of G minor.

The Finale is the rondo we might expect – but, once again, G minor lurks in the tonal forest. It is not hard to believe that Mozart looked at that Casino audience and saw, not the career-saving Fairy Godfather that his father saw that day, but the Wolf. The concerto’s optimistic D major ending barely dissipates the darkness. Only seven years later, Mozart would be in an unmarked grave barely ten blocks from the Casino.

Jean-Baptiste Breval - Cello Concerto No. 2
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Edward Elgar - Crown of India Suite

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