Pristine Elegance with a Fatal Destiny

Fragility. © Charles Thibo

“Such moments wait to be discovered: they are transitional, passing references to pure beauty, captured for an instant before they sink back into relatively quotidian”, writes the scholar Maynard Solomon and he explicitly refers to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G (KV 453). Pure beauty with all its fragility – Mozart’s piano concerto reminds me of the first blossoms on a tree in early spring, pristine, delicate, graceful, of exceptional elegance, promising new and abundant life, but threatened each night by the cold, wind gusts, heavy rain and thus imbued with a fatal destiny.

The piano concerto was written in 1784 and testifies of Mozart maturity on the one hand and of his lasting contribution to the genre of the piano concerto on the other hand. The contributors of a scientific discussion of the genre in Oxford Music Online emphasize “Mozart’s generous orchestral writing; the orchestra does not merely accompany en masse but also takes part in dialogue, sometimes corporately, sometimes individually – both as antagonist and co-protagonist – with the soloist. This trend is markedly expanded in the concertos from 1784 on […] In this respect Mozart’s works look forward to concerto styles of the 19th century…” They attribute to Mozart’s works no longer a general character and expressivity, but a very specific one: a reflection of Enlightenment ideals or a critical response to contemporary thought.

Elevation and occultation

Maynard writes that five-bar theme of KV 453 second movement sets a theme that “strives heroically to lift its own enormous weight and then succumbs to the imperatives of a premature modulation”. He qualifies the theme as “a brief moment of surpassing beauty (a symbiotic moment) […] whose full meaning cannot be grasped until it has been lost, forgotten, submerged, and then remembered”. The proximity of life and death, beauty and desolation – Mozart sketches an idea that will later be taken up manifold by Romantic composers. The advocate of pure beauty is gradually turning to a more philosophical view.

In spring 1784 when Mozart wrote Piano Concerto No. 7, the composer was in full swing and omnipresent in Vienna. “Well, as you may imagine, I must play some new works – and therefore I must compose”, he writes in a letter to his father Leopold with obvious pride. Three piano concertos – KV 450, KV 451 and KV 453 – saw the light between March and April. In February he had already written Piano Concerto No. 14, KV 449 that I have discussed in an earlier post.  The three pieces were immediately performed at the Trattnerhof. Mozart had moved into this large, representative house in the centre of Vienna; it had a large room open to the public that could be used for concerts.

As impressive as Mozart’s advance in maturity as a composer and his success as a musical entrepreneur may be, his yearning for approval as a driving force seems to have been at least as important as his wish to express specific ideas and pleasing his growing public. In another letter to Leopold Mozart he writes: “I’m curious to know whether your opinion coincides with the general opinion here and also with my own opinion.” Had he known that two and half centuries later people like me would still be exhilarated by this piano concerto, performed e. g. by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the pianist Maria Joao Pires or the London Symphony Orchestra with Rudolf Serkin at the piano, his doubts probably would have given way to an impish grin.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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