Mozart Piano Concertos-Later Works


When Mozart moved to Vienna, he found a city in love with the piano, which had been invented only a few years earlier. Since he'd already become a wiz on the keyboard (the harpsichord of his youth), Mozart set out to cash in on the piano craze. He arranged a series of concerts featuring works he'd write for himself and a small orchestra – the Piano Concerto, a novel idea at the time. In this Active Minds program, we'll sample the last of Mozart's gorgeous, influential Concertos.


When Mozart was a little boy, astonishing all of Europe with his remarkable musical abilities, the keyboard was the number one instrument in the continent's courts, its homes and, here and there, in its performance halls. Back then, the small-sounding harpsichord was the preferred choice, even though early versions of the piano were in full-speed development. The piano's ground-breaking concept of key-engaging-hammer-hitting-string had been introduced in the 1720s by a fellow named Bartolomeo Cristofori – decades before Mozart was born. That new instrument, which became known as the fortepiano, could produce loud notes (forte) and soft notes (piano), even if it didn't have the ability to project very far. That's probably why the idea of a keyboard concerto – a work for quiet soloist and full-voice orchestra – took a while to become popular. In Mozart's hands, it would become very popular. Early on, the pre-teen composer penned his first concertos by adapting works by others, notably J.C. Bach (son of Johann Sebastian). These were small pieces, but their possibilities clearly intrigued the boy, who would continue to write piano concertos all his life, right to the end. Naturally, most of these were created to showcase Mozart's considerable keyboard skills in concert. But not all of them. He wrote concertos for students, for talented ladies as a form of flirtation and, in one remarkable case, for a woman named Jeunehomme – about whom little else is known. That was his ninth of 27 concertos, and its mature ideas told us much about what extraordinary masterpieces would appear years later. In the mid-1780s, Mozart gained fame (and some much-needed income) from concerts he built around the concertos written for music-loving subscribers. Two centuries later, it is the final dozen of his output that continue to occupy the attention of the world's greatest pianists. Each work is different from the other – in matters of orchestral accompaniment, in approach to individual movements, in mood and profundity, in blazing virtuosity and achingly lovely melody. All are glorious to behold. One in particular stands out as perhaps one of the most significant in music history. It is the D-minor Concerto, No. 20. There is a brooding intensity and an unstoppable explosiveness, along with a perfection in construction and serene beauty that attracted the attention of young Ludwig van Beethoven, soon after he moved to Vienna in 1792 (a year after Mozart's death). A concert benefitting the widowed Constanze was organized, featuring the late composer's last opera, and including an interesting between-acts performance: Beethoven, the city's latest hotshot virtuoso, played a concerto by Mozart. He chose No. 20 – and for good reason. It thundered and roared and explored the darkest corners of our souls. In other words, it was a composition that showed Beethoven where he could lift music from its longtime place of comfortable entertainment into a new world of raw, powerful emotion. But what made that performance particularly intriguing was that Beethoven filled in the intentionally blank spaces in the first and last movements of the D-minor, where, by tradition, Mozart indicated that the orchestra should stop and the soloist should improvise on the themes just presented – a flashy solo known as a cadenza. To make sure he did right by those themes, Beethoven meticulously wrote out his solos, rather than risk embarrassing himself or Mozart by improvising. Those cadenzas survived, giving us a unique glimpse into the blending of Mozart and Beethoven, representing a dramatic shifting of musical thought that would inspire Beethoven and lead to the great works of the 19th Century. There are hours of pleasure in listening to these “late” concertos, jolly tunes in their outer movements and serenely exquisite melodies in their central slow movements (most famously, the music used in the film “Elvira Madigan”).

Exploration Questions

  • Who were some of Mozart's contemporaries who also wrote piano concertos?
  • Who was Bartolomeo Cristofori and how did his invention work?
  • Who are the great interpreters of Mozart concertos in the present day?

Reflective Questions

  • Which Mozart do you love the most: his concertos, his symphonies or his operas?
  • There are oodles of piano concertos written after Mozart – which are your favorites?
  • When you listen to Mozart's slow concerto movements, what do you think he was expressing and/or feeling?

More to Explore

Books for Further Reading

  • Gutman, Robert. Mozart – A Cultural Biography. Harcourt Brace. 1999. 839 pages. Oodles of books have been written about Mozart, but this remains one of the finest, in terms of readability and accuracy. Gutman brilliantly puts Mozart's life and music within the context of Europe at the time, while illuminating the personalities in the composer's millieu.
    Click here to order
  • Steinberg, Michael. The Concerto – A Listener's Guide. Oxford University Press. 1998. 506 pages. The late program annotator for the Boston and San Francisco Symphonies compiles hundreds of program notes here, offering a thoughtful, understandable break-down of concertos by dozens of composers, including detailed examinations of Mozart's most important piano concertos.
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  • Girdlestone, Cuthbert and Buechner, Sara Davis. Mozart and His Piano Concertos. Dover Publications. 2011. 512 pages. An authoritative and highly readable look at the Mozart 27, including hundreds of musical examples. Ignore the fact that it was written in 1948 – this is sound writing and expert scholarship that easily stands with more recent books on the subject.
    Click here to order