Mozart’s Piano Year Two

10th November 2016

As Mozart’s Piano reaches its second year, Simon Heighes takes a tour through the five piano concertos of Mozart’s coming-of-age in Vienna.

From caterpillar to butterfly, Mozart’s five piano concertos – Nos. 8 to 12 – chart his transformation from court musician in provincial Salzburg to fashionable freelance in cosmopolitan Vienna. These concertos also mark the coming of age of the piano concerto itself, as Mozart emerged as the first major composer to grasp the expressive potential of the new instrument in concert with an orchestra. But Mozart himself didn’t always take centre stage. As a commercial venture, concertos were probably most lucrative when commissioned and played by wealthy amateurs and pupils.

They chart his transformation from court musician in Salzburg to fashionable freelance in cosmopolitan Vienna.

Mozart composed Concerto No. 9 K271 in January 1777 for Victoire Jenamy, the talented daughter of the celebrated French dancer and choreographer Jean-Georges Noverre. Nick-named the ‘Jeunehomme’ (a misreading of Mozart’s French spelling ‘Jenomy’), the concerto has long been popular for its emotional depth and serious virtuosity – a sudden artistic ripening marking the twenty-one-year-old Mozart’s musical coming-of-age.

Concerto No. 8 K246 was written for one of Leopold Mozart’s pupils, Countess Antonia Lützow, the niece of Mozart’s employer, Prince-Archbishop Colloredo. This concerto is one of Mozart’s least demanding but most useful. Mozart’s sister Nannerl used it with her pupils, and rescued the overambitious Mlle Villersi from public embarrassment by teaching her to play the concerto “so proficiently that she did herself great credit”, according to the hard-to-please Leopold.

But this C major concerto was a work whose deceptive simplicity could trip-up even the most experienced fingers, Mozart related in a letter to his father from Mannheim in January 1778: “Before dinner Abbé Vogler scrambled through my concerto at sight…Generally, he played the bass different from the way it was written. You may easily believe that this was beyond all endurance, because I could not venture to say to him MUCH TOO QUICK!”

As with many of Mozart’s concertos, the virtuoso element of this work was tailored to suit a variety of performers with the provision of carefully calibrated cadenzas. Three sets survive for the first two movements: the first are simple, probably intended for Countess Lützow, the second set is more challenging, perhaps written for Nannerl’s performances in the 1770s, while the third set of cadenzas are much more extended and date from Mozart’s performances of the concerto in the 1780s.

The Jeunehomme represents a sudden artistic ripening, marking Mozart’s coming-of-age.

In the 1760s during their touring years as Wunderkinder, Nannerl and Wolfgang often performed together on two harpsichords. But how much more sociable it was to share an instrument! The sight and sound of four hands at a single keyboard was a Mozartean innovation which culminated in the Concerto No. 10 K365, written in Salzburg during the mid-1770s. The practicality of such a concerto, with pupil and teacher seated side-by-side, kept the concerto alive for many more years in Vienna, where Mozart eventually beefed up the orchestration for both private and public concerts with his pupil and patron Josepha Barbara von Auernhammer in 1781-2.

There was money too in making his concertos available to a wider public. The wider the better, he hoped, when he placed an advert in the Wiener Zeitung of January 1783 promising that the first of his Viennese concertos (Nos. 11-13) could be “performed either with a large orchestra with wind instruments or merely a Quattre, that is, with two violins, one viola and violoncello”. As for the piano part, Mozart was keen to attract players and audiences of all sorts, explaining to his father that the concertos are “something between too difficult and too easy – they are very brilliant – pleasing to the ear – though of course without lapsing into triviality. Here and there only connoisseurs will derive satisfaction from them – yet in such a way that the non-connoissuers will also be pleased without knowing why.”

Mozart’s Piano is generously supported by: 

The Parabola Foundation (principal supporter)
An Anonymous Donor
Nicholas Snowman & Wartski
Aurora Orchestra’s Concerto Patrons and Friends