When I was a young piano student, one of the things that annoyed me was the fact that none of the music I was learning had an interesting name. Everything was Sonata No. 4, or Etude in G Minor, or some such thing equally unimaginative. That’s why I was so excited whenever my teacher would give me a piece that had a nickname attached to it. However, the composers are often not the ones who initially designated those nicknames. Mozart’s piano Concerto No. 21 in C major, the “Elvira Madigan” concerto, is one such piece.
In 1967, a Swedish film was released about the tightrope walker Elvira Madigan, and the soundtrack for the film included a recording of the second movement of this concerto. The music was used during a scene where the title character takes a boat ride in a very placid lake. As the film has fallen farther and farther out of the public eye, the nickname has fallen out of its more popular use a few decades ago, but it nonetheless persists.
The first movement of this piece begins with a quiet, bouncy melody in the strings that will be transformed throughout the first movement. The second theme, which contrasts with the first, consists of somewhat longer tones, with repeated chords played underneath to sustain its motion. The orchestra plays with these themes for a bit until the pianist enters with a very abbreviated version of a cadenza that transitions into a trill sustained over the restatement of the original theme, setting up the pianist’s entrance with the second theme. Mozart’s writing here highly emphasizes the solos, and he often writes the piano part in such a way that it could stand alone without any orchestral support at all, although the orchestra makes the texture much richer. When the piano takes over the original theme, the texture suddenly shifts to a canonical treatment of the theme, so that each statement is repeated, overlapping the previous and subsequent statements. When this happens, the orchestra takes over the melody so the pianist can play arpeggio flourishes to ornament the main structure of the melody. This only lasts for a very short period of time, however, and the pianist very quickly takes over the main melody again.
As is usual for Mozart concertos, there is a wealth of cadenzas written by great composers who have performed this concerto. One of these is written by Philip Glass, one of the most popular American composers still alive today, who specializes in minimalism. I’ve not heard this cadenza, as it is very difficult to locate, and nobody I’m aware of has performed it—a professor, however, tells me that it nearly doubles the length of the first movement.
The second movement, made popular by the aforementioned film, maintains a three-against-two metrical system for its duration. The triplets in the accompaniment figures are at odds with the duple structure of the melody. This is a technique that was first used by composers around Mozart’s time, and was expanded into even more complex rhythmical contradictions in later years; the most complex of these that I have seen is a twenty-three-against-eight figuration in one of Chopin’s piano etudes. The case here, however, is a lovely example of the burgeoning technique. The triplets are usually so quiet, however, that if a listener is not specifically listening for them, and they might be easily missed. Another interesting technique Mozart uses in this concerto is that he occasionally gives the melody to the solo pianist and a solo woodwind at the same time. This foreshadows a trend that would continue in later years in which the pianist was featured far less as a soloist in piano concertos and more as an integral part of the composition as a whole—still indispensable, but only very slightly more so than any other part of the orchestra. Overall, Mozart’s writing in this movement is fairly operatic, with a great deal of emphasis on a simple melody that can be sung and elaborated upon, while supported by the accompaniment.
The third movement of the concerto is a rondo, which means that there is a main idea that comes back between sections that differ from each other, much like the chorus in a song. Like in the first movement, the pianist enters with an abbreviated cadenza figure, although this functions as a very short interruption of the orchestral introduction, rather than transitioning into the pianist’s melody as in the first movement. This movement features a lot more call-and-response style writing on Mozart’s part than in the other movements, in which the melody is traded between the piano and the orchestra. As is typical for rondos, the piano part is extremely virtuosic, consisting almost entirely of arpeggios and scales, even in portions where the piano has the melody. Unlike the second movement, Mozart’s writing here cannot be described as operatic; the purpose of this writing is almost entirely to display the technical abilities of the pianist, although the music is quite expressive.
This concerto is one that I have studied and attempted to learn myself, and I can say from personal experience that it is fiendishly difficult. The arpeggio and broken octave figurations that Mozart litters throughout the first and third movement are technically demanding, and the second movement requires the pianist to toe a very thin musical line that, when not managed carefully, will either sound hackneyed and cheesy, or boring and uninspired. This is the ultimate difficulty behind learning all of Mozart’s music: ignoring the technical demands he makes, his music makes perfect sense. There is almost never an instance in which his writing doesn’t stem perfectly from what comes before and flow naturally into what happens next. As such, performing Mozart’s music is like telling a familiar story or an old joke: everyone knows what is supposed to happen, and it’s up to you to make it interesting to the listener nonetheless. This is why I admire people who can perform Mozart convincingly, and this is why there are musicians who can build legendary names for themselves upon their interpretations of his work.