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Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466

About the Work

Wolfgang Mozart
Quick Look Composer: Wolfgang Mozart
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Yakov Kreizberg, conductor/Lars Vogt, piano, plays Mozart Nov. 20 - 22, 2008
© Peter Laki

The eminent scholar H. C. Robbins Landon called Mozart's decade in Vienna (1781-1791) the composer's "golden years" in the title of one of his publications. In the first five or six years of that period, Mozart was in the center of the imperial capital's musical life. His works, pouring forth from his pen at an astonishing speed, were performed and admired. He made many friends among the influential Viennese aristocracy and high bourgeoisie, and even the emperor, Joseph II, followed his activities with interest (even though Mozart never received the court position he was hoping for). In short, as Landon writes, "Mozart's name was on every tongue."

Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 20—one of only two written in a minor key—is one of his most "Romantic" works. The minor mode had a special meaning to the Viennese classics, in whose works the choice of a minor key goes hand in hand with a heightened sense of drama and a whole set of specific harmonic, rhythmic and textural devices that we don't often encounter in compositions written in the major. It is in such works that we may perceive the first signs of musical Romanticism, before it became the dominant style of the early 1800s. The D-minor was the only Mozart concerto Beethoven ever performed (he even wrote down the cadenza he played in it). This work appealed to 19th-century ears more than any of the other concertos; it reminded listeners of Mozart's opera Don Giovanni, which shares the concerto's principal key and its dramatic intensity.

Like most of the piano concertos Mozart composed for his own use at his subscription series in Vienna (a total of 14 works), the D-minor was written in great haste and completed just a few days before the performance. Mozart's father Leopold, himself a decent composer and renowned violinist, was visiting from Salzburg at the time, and wrote to his daughter Anna Maria (Nannerl), a talented pianist, after the concert: "…Then we heard a new and very fine concerto by Wolfgang, where the copyist was still copying when we arrived, and the rondo of which your brother didn't even have time to play through, as he had to supervise the copying."

The unique character of the concerto is apparent from the start. Whereas most Mozart concertos begin either with a powerful statement for full orchestra or a soft lyrical melody, the D-minor opens with more amorphous material: a syncopated rhythm on a single repeated note that only gradually evolves into a recognizable theme. Syncopations (that is, important notes that don't fall on the strong part of the beat) and chromatic pitches (outside the ones that make up the main key) are two of the "irregular" features prominent throughout this Allegro. The entrance of the solo piano, on a new theme filled with intense pain and longing, adcdcs a new dimension to the movement's emotional range. The tension is so strong that a coda of unusual length is required after the cadenza before the music can calm down.

The second-movement "Romanza," in B-flat major, is lyrical and peaceful, or so it seems at the beginning. Its G-minor middle section, however, thrusts us right bak into the stormy atmosphere of the first movement. (In his excellent book on Mozart, Maynard Solomon memorably calls this section "trouble in Paradise.") Mozart connects this agitated passage to the return of the serene opening theme with inimitable mastery: the note values in the solo piano part become gradually longer while the harmonies smoothly shift from G minor back to the original B-flat major.

The final Rondo returns to the impassioned mood of the first movement, but moves from there to a brighter, more cheerful section in D major, representing, in the words of a previous commentator, "a victory of serenity over the tumultuous anxiety of earlier moments."