The Kennedy Center

Piano Concerto No. 25 in C major, K. 503

About the Work

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
© Richard Freed

The early part of December 1786 was an especially busy time for Mozart, who was by then planning his visit to Prague the following month for performances of The Marriage of Figaro. He apparently performed this concerto in Vienna on December 5, 1786, the day after he completed the score, and on the day following that premiere he wrote the final double bar in the score of his Symphony No. 38 in D major (K. 504, the first symphony he had composed in more than three years), which he probably introduced a week or two later. He took the symphony to Prague, where he arrived as a hero and enjoyed the greatest success of his life. By the time he arrived there, on January 11, 1787, Figaro was already in production and its tunes had been taken up by the public and turned into dances. Mozart not only attended performances of his wildly popular opera, but conducted one of them himself, and on January 19 he gave a concert in which he conducted his new symphony, which became known as the "Prague" Symphony. While that symphony and has figured in the concert repertory ever since then, the concerto composed at the same time fell into an incredibly prolonged neglect following Mozart's death. There is no record of his performing any of his concertos during that famous visit to Prague; he played K. 503 again in Vienna on April 7, 1787, and again in Leipzig on May 12, but when Artur Schnabel performed the work with the Vienna Philharmonic under George Szell in 1934, the event was noted as the first performance of this work in that city since Mozart's own, some 147 years earlier. It was not until after the Second World War that this concerto took its place in the repertory, and was recognized as one of the very greatest works of its kind.

The last three concertos Mozart composed before this one—No. 22 in E-flat (K. 482), No. 23 in A major (K. 488), No. 24 in C minor (K. 491)—are associated with Figaro. All three of them were written more or less concurrently with the opera, and there are reminders of this in Mozart's use of the orchestra, particularly the expressive writing for the winds. Don Giovanni, commissioned during that triumphal visit to Prague, was produced there in October 1787, and Così fan tute did not materialize until 1790, but it is with Così that this Concerto in C major shares its most striking features. The parallel here, as the distinguished Mozart and Haydn authority H.C. Robbins Landon has suggested, is one between "the stage work in which Mozart most brilliantly and perfectly solved the structural, dramatic and musical problems which had occupied so much of his best operatic efforts" and the concerto that "contains the essence of Mozart's approach to the sonata form: unity within diversity." In his discussion of the piano concertos, Mr. Landon did not hesitate to designate this one "the grandest, most difficult and most symphonic of them all," while noting also "the complete negation of any deliberate virtuoso elements."

The opening of this concerto has been compared frequently with that of Mozart's final symphony, the "Jupiter" (No. 41, also in C major, K. 551): it is not merely festive, as so many big C-major concert works of its period are, but more specifically majestic (and, needless to add, Mozart knew how to achieve this quality on a very persuasive level, without any huffing-and-puffing or any sort of self-conscious gesture). This distinction was emphasized by Cuthbert Girdlestone in his book on the Mozart concertos; he cited the marking for the opening movement—Allegro maestoso, rather than brillante—and observed, "Few of Mozart's compositions show themselves to the world with so original a frontispiece and none opens in such bold tones. Its heroic nature is apparent in its first bars—not the sham heroism of an overture for which a few impersonal formulas suffice, but that which expresses greatness of spirit."

Beyond that, however, and despite the work's symphonic character, for Girdlestone the parallel was not with the "Jupiter" Symphony, and not with any of the stage works, but with yet another towering work in C major from roughly the same period, the String Quintet, K. 515. In the concerto's opening tutti, elaborate as well as majestic, is a four-note motif whose rhythmic pattern is more or less the same as that of the famous opening theme of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (21 years in the future when this concerto was composed). The other themes in this movement are related to this motif, and one of these, formed by joining a "second half" to it, comes close to being a far more striking anticipation of the Marseillaise (composed five months after Mozart's death). But once the piano enters, the entire question of resemblances or "pre-echoes" simply evaporates under the sheer breadth and variety in Mozart's exploration of his fairly modest basic materials.

(This concerto is one of the several by Mozart for which his own cadenzas have not survived. Garrick Ohlsson plays one written by his colleague Alfred Brendel.)

The middle movement, although marked Andante, has the character of a long-breathed adagio. Its relative simplicity and serenity make it both an effective foil for the preceding movement and an effective transition to what Girdlestone described as "one of Mozart's most serious-minded rondos."

The very substantial finale exhibits a remarkable balance between animation and subtlety, and also a borrowing from one of Mozart's own earlier works: the theme is clearly recognizable as an adaptation of the gavotte that stands at the penultimate position in the sequence of ballet music for Idomeneo. (That opera seria, introduced in Munich in 1781, was in fact given its first Viennese performance at the beginning of the year in which this concerto was composed, but the premiere of Figaro and the composition of three other piano concertos came between these two events.) The gavotte tune no longer has its soft contours here, and there are also witty passages that do indeed seem to look ahead to Così fan tute, passing episodes of affecting tenderness, and overall an impression as aristocratic and majestic, in its way, as that created by the opening movement. The difference between the two outer movements, to quote Girdlestone once more, "is the absence of heroic accents" in the finale, but the same writer observed that an episode in the middle of the rondo "attains a degree of passion which has no counterpart in the [opening movement]."