The Kennedy Center

Piano Concerto No. 13, K. 415

About the Work

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
© Robert Markow


                                             I. Allegro

                                                                                                              II. Andante

                                                                                                              III. Allegro

WOLFGANG AMADÈ MOZART: Born in Salzburg, January 27, 1756; died in Vienna, December 5, 1791

            In 1781, Mozart made the fateful decision to abandon the security of his court appointment in Salzburg for the uncharted waters of a freelance career in Vienna. There he virtually had to carve out for himself a new life of teaching, arranging, composing and performing as piano soloist, all in a manner calculated to curry favor with the fickle local populace. To this end he wrote, in the late fall and early winter of 1782-83, a trilogy of piano concertos, a genre that would eventually total seventeen for his adopted city. 

            The Concerto K. 415 is the third of this series. It received its first performance at a concert on March 23, 1783 with the composer as soloist, of course. The concerto is scored for pairs of oboes, bassoons, horns, trumpets and timpani, in addition to the usual strings. The presence of the trumpets and timpani, as well as the key of C major, are particularly apt to call forth military associations in Mozart's music. Nevertheless, in spite of the relatively large wind complement, these instruments are dispensable, delectable though they may be, precisely so that the published music upon which Mozart hoped to realize a profit would be as accessible as possible for use in the home, where just a soloist and a string quartet might be available.

            In a letter to his father, Mozart wrote of the three concertos as containing "passages here and there from which the connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction, but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why." In the first movement it was undoubtedly the martial elements and festive brilliance that appealed above all to the "less learned," while the fugal interplay and sense of harmonic daring would have captured the imagination of the "connoisseurs." Although the piano maintains its bravura profile, the orchestra too is given a role important enough to prompt one Mozart scholar (Philip Radcliff) to proclaim that "we sometimes have the impression of a potential symphony into which a part for piano solo has strayed."

            The slow movement omits the military instruments, but retains the woodwinds and horns in a pastoral movement of limpid lines and rococo elegance. As with many other Mozartian slow movements, this one is vocally inspired.

            The rondo finale sports a delightfully frisky principal theme described by Cuthbert Girdlestone as "a solo performed by a rustic who has an elf among his forebears." It is announced by the soloist and predictably taken up and developed by the orchestra. But the soloist's next entry comes as a surprise: tonality, tempo, mood and meter are all abruptly altered to a C minor adagio in 2/4 meter. This passage returns later in the movement in slightly varied form. Also a surprise is the quiet ending, one of only three among all Mozart's piano concertos.