PIANO CONCERTO #14 IN E-FLAT MAJOR, K. 449
MURRAY PERAHIA, PIANIST AND CONDUCTOR
ENGLISH CHAMBER ORCHESTRA
Some random thoughts about Mozart…
It is always so easy to project backwards in time, upon the lives of certain great composers, a 2018 sensibility—even if we have no intention of doing so. Since we cannot help but view everything—our own existence, the cosmos, everything that has gone before us—through the lens of our own time, it is inevitable that we will also do so when thinking about many of the great composers.
So I find myself, when listening to the Mozart piano concertos—or any Mozart, actually—frequently catching myself and remembering what it may have been like for him, what his orientation to his own life and time was, and how different that may have been from what we might think about it, if we simply give in to a knee-jerk reflexivity and imagine certain “modern” things about him.
My posting today of K. 449—we’re well past the half-way point in listening to the 21 solo concertos—dates from 1784. Mozart had just turned 28. He would live only another 7 years—not, of course, that he knew that. The recording of sound in the late 18th century was, of course, impossible. It may have been someone’s fantasy, but even that is not likely. Music was written for immediate consumption, and once performed, was not likely to be performed again. The age of ticketed concert series had not quite arrived—concerts were arranged by the church or by a particular court where a composer might be employed. Since Mozart had neither one of these situations during the last ten years of his life in Vienna, he had to arrange his concerts himself.
We’ve already observed how he would take his fortepiano—not yet the heavy, iron-laden thing it would ultimately become, but rather a wooden instrument with detachable legs that could be moved around from place to place via a carriage. He would take his instrument to the large home of a patron or some other important person, and perform his concertos with other musicians, serving as both conductor and piano soloist.
So, there were no concert series, no managers to secure a “booking” for performing in front a large and receptive audience. No adulation or back-slapping—no “way to go, Wolfgang, THAT was some concerto!”
There was also very little, in the minds of pre-Beethovenian composers, in terms of thinking about posterity—that is, how their creative work would fare in—and what it might mean to—future generations. In this regard, things were pretty zen in the art music world. One lived for the day, for the moment. Music playing (for the performers) and music appreciation (for the small-ish audiences that Mozart would have played for) were things that occurred in the moment, so to speak—remembered for a short time by the composer/performer, and forgotten very quickly by those in attendance.
There were no conservatories, brimming with brilliantly talented performers eager to learn your concertos. The age of the concert pianist, who performs a collection of works by other composers on a single concert program, was still decades away. If you composed, you performed. If you didn’t perform, your works would never be heard. Your very transient goal was simply to obtain that next performance of your work, to be heard by someone who might be able to make a NEXT performance of your NEXT work possible.
Although Mozart, when thinking about his operas, would have envisioned them as occurring in large theatres or halls designed for such a purpose, that would not have the case for his concertos—especially being, as he was, the first free-lance composer, someone who had to “make it” by his own ingenuity and through the people-connections that he could acquire. If he had been presented the opportunity to perform one of his concertos in a hall such as we are familiar with today—on a large proscenium stage, with 2000 or more seats, with the furthest seat being, say, 200 feet away–I imagine his first (and instinctive) thought would be that his instrument—the fortepiano—would simply not be heard very well in such an environment! His piano concertos were, musically, much more intimate affairs than we, as seasoned present-day concert-goers, might imagine.
These are some of the things I think about when listening to Mozart concertos. His world was quite removed from the world of classical music as we experience it in our century.
One of the reasons I got to thinking about this anew today is that I knew that, with K. 449, the E-flat major concerto, Mozart suddenly became quite self-conscious about his own work. From this work on, until he died, he kept a meticulous record of his works, arranging them in chronological order, marking dates of completion, writing down the themes of individual movements, and so on. We don’t know exactly why he did this. I think the likeliest guess would be that he wanted to keep a musical diary. And perhaps—perhaps—he was beginning to think that maybe, just maybe, there might be some interest in him after his life was over. As it turned out, this “musical diary” has been quite valuable to biographers and musicologists.
And just one other thing, as I ramble on…Biographers of composers seem to always want to divide a composer’s life into three parts—early, middle, and late—even if the composer in question died young. It is not the most logical way of thinking about a composer’s work. I happened to become very OCD about Mozart about 15 years ago, attempting to learn all the details, musical and historical, about each of his 626 works. I’ve probably spent more time listening to “early” Mozart—say, everything he wrote up to his late teenage years—than most people. And one thing that is very interesting—and one aspect of this concerto, K. 449—is that there are MANY little turns of phrase, many harmonic progressions here in K. 449 that are totally identical to similar passages that he wrote in his earliest works—as a child.
Obviously, this kind of thing is true in every composer’s works—one recognizes stylistic similarities among any composer’s works, from beginning to end. (Well, not so true, I admit, for Stravinsky, but he was pretty exceptional…) The only reason I am mentioning this is that there exists, in the minds of many musicians, a prejudice concerning Mozart’s early works—that they are in some way inferior to his later works. When in fact, they are all cut from the same cloth. One just has to see the cloth in its entirety.
OK enough soapboxing…
I had also wanted to suggest ways of listening to music for non-musicians who know nothing at all about musical forms, keys, and so on. This post is already lengthy, so I’ll save that for the next Mozart concerto. WAM wrote three in a row, as we’ve seen he sometimes did—and K. 450 and 451 will be next up.
K. 449 is an extremely beautiful concerto, regarded by many music lovers as their favorite. Murray Perahia’s performance is exemplary. K. 449 is considered to be the first of Mozart’s “mature” concertos—obviously, a subjective designation, but one which reflects the care that he lavished upon each movement.