It’s a little bit strange to refer to any of Mozart’s piano concertos as “one of his most popular,” as I have done before. The fact is that all Mozart piano concertos are considered standard repertoire for concert pianos, and all are performed regularly all across the globe by professional and amateur concert pianists alike. The Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat major, however, is truly one of his most popular. It is one of the few concertos that not only has a nickname, but has a nickname that was given during Mozart’s life; it has garnished praise by some of the greatest minds in recent history.
Piano Concerto No. 9is nicknamed the “Jeunhomme.” Scholars long speculated about how it got that name, generally agreeing that “Jeunhomme” was a person’s name. They thought that perhaps Jeunhomme was a French pianist for whom the piece was written. Recent scholarship, however, has showed that “Jeunhomme” is in fact something of a typo. The actual person for whom the concerto is named is Victoire Jenamy, the daughter of Jean-Georges Noverre, a dancer friend of Mozart’s, who may have been the pianist who performed the premiere performance.
Albert Einstein called this concerto “Mozart’s Eroica,” a description that requires a brief overview of another well-known composer’s body of work. Ludwig van Beethoven, arguably one of the most influential classical composers to have ever lived, effectively bridged the stylistic differences between the classical era that preceded him and the romantic era that came after him. Beethoven’s third symphony, the Eroica (originally dedicated to Napoleon, but rescinded once Beethoven learned of Napoleon’s imperial intentions) is one of the first compositions in which Beethoven really demonstrates the innovations that would later characterize his entire musical career. To refer to a piece as a composer’s Eroica means that, like Beethoven’s Eroica, the piece in question is one of the earliest notable examples of the composer’s “mature” style.
So what constitutes this “mature” style? Most composers are predominantly known for outstanding work within a particular category of music. Beethoven’s most notable contributions are his symphonies; indeed many of his other compositions are very similar in character to a symphonic style in everything but instrumentation. Conversely, Mozart’s greatest contribution to the classical canon is his operatic work. As such, it is very easy to conceptualize his other compositions in terms of the stage, and particularly in terms of operatic solos—elaborate, virtuosic solos to be sure, but music that begs to be sung.
There is a certain drama that surrounds the performance of any concerto. The David-and-Goliath combat between the soloist and the orchestra has inspired the imagination of musicians throughout the ages to different effect. Mozart, as a classical era composer, tends to elevate the soloist above the orchestra. In the ninth concerto particularly, he defies the letter of classical concerto convention by giving the pianist an entrance in the second measure of the first movement; usually the soloist in any classical concerto does not have his or her first entrance for several minutes. In doing so, however, he remains true to the spirit of classical concerto convention by drawing attention to the skill of the soloist.
After the first entrance of the pianist, the orchestra outlines the primary theme of the piece, which the pianist shortly picks up on and elaborates upon. After that, the pianist and the orchestra exchange thematic ideas in fairly quick succession for the duration of the first movement, alternating between melody and supporting harmonies. Mozart actually had the soloist and the orchestra cooperate far more than preceding composers had done. Most previous composers tended to pit the soloist against the orchestra as if the two were competing. However, even in the pianist’s most overtly soloistic passages, we hear oboes and strings ornamenting and complimenting the melody that the pianist has been given. Likewise, when the orchestra is given the primary melody, we can often hear the pianist playing supporting accompaniment figures made no less difficult and virtuosic by the fact that they are not in the foreground. The intensely collaborative nature of the first movement makes the cadenza at the end come across rather as a soliloquy, emphasizing the soloist really for the first time as a single figure apart from the ensemble as a whole.
The second movement of the 9th concerto is the first time that Mozart composed a movement of one of his piano concertos in a minor key. The operatic character of his compositions really comes out in his middle movements, because the usually slow middle movements lend themselves well to the pathos of an operatic aria. In this particular case, the soloist is given a lovely melody, which is slowly ornamented and developed in ways that bring poetry to mind. Peculiarly in Mozart’s compositions, the second movement frequently has a cadenza that is as long as the first movement’s.
True to the character of classical concertos, the third movement is styled after a spirited dance, and yet Mozart’s operatic nature is apparent even here. Mozart has the soloist and the orchestra collaborate rather than compete, much as the finale of one of his comic operas would play out. In Mozart’s Concerto No. 9, we no longer have the soul-baring spirit of a slow middle movement; we instead have the fast-paced spirited nature of an operatic finale, in which the many characters often come forth to sing a number which not only resolves the dramatic tension of the opera, but sends the audience out of the theater in high spirits with a melody they can hum.