The Kennedy Center

Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major, K. 595

About the Work

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
© Richard Freed

Mozart completed this final piano concerto on January 5, 1791, three weeks before his 35th birthday, and exactly eleven months before his death. On March 4, in Vienna, he gave the first performance of the work, serving as both soloist and conductor, in a concert that was not one of his own "academies," but one given for the benefit of the clarinetist Joseph Bähr. This great work stands alone in a sense, not only because it is separated by three years from its nearest predecessor, and longer still from the cycle of splendid concertos he produced in Vienna between 1783 and 1786, but because its character and content define it as unique among his works in this form. It is the most deeply personal of them all, the overt drama of the two concertos in minor keys—No. 20 in D minor, K. 466; No. 24 in C minor, K. 491—replaced here by what has been described variously as "a more personal and notably resigned accent" and a feeling of "subdued gravity." In keeping with those descriptions, the trumpets and drums of the two minor-key concertos, and the clarinets of K. 491 as well, are dispensed with here: the orchestra comprises only a flute, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, and strings.

Understandably enough, given the advantage of hindsight, several commentators have found a valedictory character in this music. One of them, the distinguished Viennese musicologist Alfred Orel (1889-1967), wrote:

"The contrasts which Mozart had previously striven to overcome, here yield to an overall unity. This concerto … is the measure of all that the artist had now laid aside. He had left behind the great inner and outward struggles which had so long filled his life, and found satisfaction in offering himself in the calm accomplishment of his mission as an artist. The 'liberated' style is almost that of chamber music; it no longer aims at reaching the general public; it is without any noisy virtuosity; it is lifted above all conflict—only an occasional echo can be felt, as from a distance, throwing a personal light on the musical development."

If Mozart indeed had any valedictory thoughts in composing this concerto, he definitely did not choose a dramatic or ceremonial frame for them. The character of the work is predominantly lyric—songful, in fact, to the extent of alluding to some of his vocal music in both of the outer movements. The modestly constituted orchestra is the same as the one he specified for the Symphony No. 40, in the emphatically dramatic key of G minor, before he decided to add clarinets to that score, and the concerto's first movement, like that of the 40th Symphony, is prefaced by a single bar which immediately sets the mood. It is not contrast, but rather consistency of character, that calls attention to itself among the four themes presented in the opening tutti. Orel cited references to Osmin's "O, wie will ich triumphieren," from the earliest of Mozart's Viennese opera's, the 1782 Entführung aus dem Serail (the woodwind figures marking the phrases of the initial statement of the theme), and to the finale of the "Jupiter" Symphony (his last work in that form, 1788), suggesting that these allusions "serve, the first to contrast the theme's resignation with the old hope of victory, the second to recall past battles."

The Larghetto (in E-flat, alla breve), which achieves and sustains a pervasive serenity with the simplest of means, might be said to convey another aspect of resignation. The theme itself is simpler and more straightforward than the somewhat similar one in the corresponding movement of the D-minor Concerto; the entire movement is of a clearly passive character, deceptively childlike in its directness. Here the pianist is not given flowing legato passages, but a rather spare line in which each note is a little event. No stark contrasts, but a touching deepening of mood comes in the second part of the movement, more darkly colored (in G-flat) than the first. "There is no place here for pianistic virtuosity," Orel remarked; "the effect is produced only by pure musicality and feeling. A universe of 'noble simplicity and calm grandeur' envelops us and allows nothing to break in which might snatch us from this contemplative serenity."

In its opening measures the concluding rondo might suggest one of the "hunting" rondos that were in vogue at the time (rondos such as Mozart wrote for his horn concertos and other works in the 1780s), but the true, songlike character of the theme asserts itself within a few bars. It is one which, barely a week after completing this concerto (and thus nearly two months before introducing it to the public), Mozart used for his song Sehnsucht nach dem Frühling ("Longing for Spring," K. 596), to words by Christian Adolf Overbeck:

Komm, lieber Mai, und mache
Die Bäume wieder grün

("Come, lovely May, and make
The trees green again…)

Both the words and the tune itself have led to the song's identification with the world of childhood, and this thought is very much in keeping with the peculiar poignancy of this concerto, as Orel noted while at the same time acknowledging the technique that went into it:

"Particular attention should be paid to the breadth of the harmonic and tonal structure: in the development section the main theme is made to appear in a number of minor variants. The object of this is not so much to produce an inner variety as to give free play to the imagination, the more so since it allows recourse to a greater range of tone color."

The hall in which the Concerto was first performed was in a building that had been an old flour warehouse on the Himmelpfortgasse. The Mozart scholar Alfred Einstein found that address—"Gate-of-Heaven Road"—touchingly apt, and remarked that "it was not in the Requiem that Mozart said his last word…but in this work, which belongs to the species in which he also said his greatest.