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Piano Concerto No. 24 in C minor, K. 491

About the Work

Wolfgang Mozart
Quick Look Composer: Wolfgang Mozart
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra David Zinman conductor/Peter Serkin, piano Feb. 17 - 19, 2005
© Richard Freed
The score of the Concerto in C minor is dated Vienna, March 24, 1786, and Mozart gave the first performance of the work exactly two weeks later. The National Symphony Orchestra first performed this work on December 17, 1952, with Paul Badura-Skoda as soloist and Howard Mitchell conducting, and presented it last on June 21, 2001, on which occasion the soloist was Andreas Haefliger and the conductor was Christopher Hogwood.

In addition to the solo piano, the score calls for flute, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, and strings. Duration, 30 minutes.

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This is the penultimate work in the series of a dozen piano concertos Mozart composed in Vienna between February 1784 (in which calendar year he produced no fewer than six) and December 1786, and the last of the three he wrote while at work on his opera The Marriage of Figaro. It is one of only two concertos he composed in minor keys, the other being the D minor, K. 466, of February 1785. The infrequency of Mozart's use of minor keys ensured particular attention to the works in which he did use them. His choices were almost always C minor, D minor or G minor, keys characterized by students of his works as "

tragic," "dramatic," and "fateful." This particular concerto, like its D minor predecessor, is unarguably one of the most overtly dramatic works of its genre, and it is remarkable in other respects as well. The orchestra specified in this score is the largest Mozart called for in any of his concertos, and this work has been regarded as the most symphonic in character of them all, with especially important roles for the winds. It is certainly the most individual in its design, and it stands out in this exalted series, even more than the D minor, as what the Mozart scholar Alfred Einstein called "an explosion of the dark, tragic, passionate emotions."

Uncharacteristically, for one of Mozart's opening Allegros, the turbulent first movement is in 3/4 time. It is dominated almost entirely by the fierce theme with which it opens, and, instead of the usual ceremonial coda, it ends with a dark minimal gesture. The movement is not only symphonic in scope to an unprecedented degree, but has more than once been compared with the first movement of Beethoven's Third Symphony, the Eroica . In any event, Beethoven is on record as having expressed his profound admiration for this work on more than one occasion, and its direct influence is inescapable in his own concerto in the same key (No. 3, Op. 37), begun in 1800.

In contrast to the storms of the opening movement, the Larghetto (in E-flat), in Einstein's words, "moves in regions of the purest and most affecting tranquility, and has a transcendent simplicity of expression." Trumpets and drums are silent here, and the woodwinds are given passages of almost soloistic prominence. This slow movement is a rondo, a form traditionally reserved to the finale, but tradition plays little part in this work. The theme, as virtually every published commentary has observed, is of "childlike simplicity." Indeed, the themes of all three movements of this concerto are rather stark in their clear lines and overall directness, and Mozart is at all times scrupulous in avoiding thematic overload in achieving his powerful effects.

The concluding Allegretto is a theme-and-variations. The theme itself, as observed by the insightful Donald Francis Tovey, "can only be called sublime," and the variations through which Mozart takes it cover a remarkable range of emotional and dramatic contrasts. "Some of these variations," Tovey continued,

are pathetic, some childlike (e.g., the cheerful episode in A-flat, and the graceful one in C major), and some majestic, as the orchestral fortes and the one in flowing four-part polyphony for the solo. But, as with Greek art, the subtle sublimity is a function of the simplicity and clearness of the surface; until at last the whole pathos of Mozart's work is summed up in the last variation, in 6/8 time.

Einstein dealt with this finale more succinctly, observing that it "is an uncanny revolutionary quick-march consisting of variations with free "episodes" (actually anything but episodes) which represent glimpses of Elysian fields—but the conclusion is a return to the inevitable."

Yet another Mozart scholar, John N. Burk, wrote of the C minor Concerto in his Mozart and His Music, "If Mozart could be said ever to have ignored his public in a concerto and followed completely his own inner promptings, it was here." To Burke, this work was Mozart's "ultimate venture, his furthest exploration of the piano concerto, for the three that were to follow were to be a further refinement of what he had done."

Mozart left no cadenzas for this concerto. Among those who did were the composers Johann Nepomuk Hummel (Mozart's pupil, who also undertook a wholesale elaboration of the concerto's solo part) and Camille Saint-Saëns, both whom were celebrated keyboard virtuosi and noted for their performance of Mozart's concertos. Many pianists, too, have supplied their own cadenzas, as they would have been expected to do in Mozart's time. In the present performances Peter Serkin plays.