The Development of Mozart’s Piano Concerti from No. 1 to No. 24
The concerto is a form of classical music that arose during the late Baroque period. It typically includes a solo instrument and accompaniment by an orchestra, usually composed of three movements. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote concerti for piano, violin, horn, bassoon, flute, oboe, clarinet, and harp. Mozart was arguably one of the greatest composers of piano concerti recognizing and utilizing the potential of the most powerful characteristic of the form—the dynamic and unbalanced interplay between the single voice of one instrument and the collective voice of an entire orchestra. But Mozart was not a static, isolated object in time outputting a collection of music without external influence or development; he himself lived a life comparable to a good concerto—a dynamic interplay between a fascinating, constantly developing individual and his social context and tradition accompanying like an orchestral collective voice. Through exploring Mozart’s piano concertos chronologically, we can get insight into the composer’s development and his context to give us an understanding of meaning to these pieces and to the human mind that created them over 200 years ago.Mozart lived only 35 years but had an enormous output of musical compositions including 27 piano concerti. This is partly due to his prolificacy, but also due to the fact that he started composing at the age of five. Mozart’s prodigiousness was already apparent as a child. His first known piece was probably his Andante in C which is pretty simple and not that remarkable– until one remembers that the composer was only five years old and that the small range of the song was because of his tiny hands.. With the help of his father Leopold, who was a music teacher and also a composer, he began to hone his composition skills, and by the time he composed his first concerto for piano at age eleven his compositional talent was already beginning to be notable.
Mozart’s first four piano concerti, all composed within one year, are orchestrations of sonatas by other composers. Through working on these, Mozart began to develop his skill and understanding of the piano concerto form. In his Piano Concerto No. 1, Mozart used a standard form for the three movements: fast, slow, fast (Allegro, Andante, Allegro). The concerto is not really that impressive without taking his age into account; they are pretty standard for the time period and lack much thematic depth. The first and third movements are based on sonatas by Hermann Friedrich Raupach and Leontzi Honauer, respectively, but the second movement is not known to be based on another composer and may have in fact been an original. It is this movement that I find most interesting. In the final third partof this movement, one can see the subtle brilliance of the young Mozart in the piano playing unaccompanied as the orchestra drops out until the very end. As he composed this and his next three piano concerti, Mozart was still trying to figure out how to ideally work with the concerto form. He had not yet mastered the balancing act between the piano and orchestra, and the role of the piano is often not perfectly clear.
However, his fifth piano concerto (and first fully original piano concerto) built on what he had learned and already shows signs of a better grasp of the form. He composed this concerto when he was 17, and because of the popularity of the work and Mozart’s own love of it, he played it for crowds until his death. The beautiful interplay between the piano and the orchestra is especially apparent in the second movement with parts flowing easily and naturally from each other. His subsequent concerti (especially No. 8) show continued development and mastery.
Having a great grasp at the form of balancing piano and orchestra at this point, Mozart tackled another interplay issue. He wrote three concerti (Nos. 11, 12, and 13) with this balancing act in mind; he wrote in a letter to his father, “These concerti are a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult… There are 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.” Mozart began to try to find an ideal middle point between these two types of people in his audience with these three concerti. It is often forgotten that Mozart, a real person, had to make a living somehow (and was often broke) and he had to entertain a broad enough range of people to make enough money.
Mozart was largely met with success with these and having mastered this aspect of concerto composition, he went on to use his experience in a new period of great productivity to write one masterpiece after another. With a good foundation in the concerto traditions of his predecessors, he started innovating with his new concerti by adding influence from other forms such as opera (No. 14) and galant (No. 15). It is by this time through to his last concerto that Mozart can be said to be the greatest of concerto composers of his time, and arguably not surpassed to this day. I personally believe the crowning climax of his piano concerto compositions is his 24th concerto—a piece with a huge orchestra masterfully balanced with a piano part filled with both genius variation and expressive novelty. The work has parts ranging from quiet and dark to full and triumphant with quick volume changes, clever use of instrumentation, and ingenious blending of classical sensibility with baroque elements, and the piano and orchestra perfectly complement each other. This concerto is the concerto done right. From the age of eleven to age thirty, Mozart had mastered the interplay.
This essay was much more difficult to write than I expected. There is so much more depth, subtlety, and genius in Mozart’s piano concerti and so much more fascinating context about the young composer’s life that adds so much to the appreciation of his works than what could fit in this essay. So I encourage you to listen and learn more about Mozart, his concerti, and any of his works. The beauty of Mozart and all western art music lies not in simply listening, but in involving one’s entire mind in finding meaning in patterns of sound, expression in innovation (often by breaking the patterns’ rules), and in understanding and knowing the composer as a human—seeing our own humanity reflected in the sounds of the piano and strings in his creation. And through the use of our minds like this, we too can grow as Mozart did, finding our own dynamic interplay between our individuality and collectivity, our own concerto.