Piano Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes

Year of Composition: 1786, Duration: 31 minutes

In 1778, the twenty-one year old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791) was in Paris, performing and peddling his own music in hopes of finding employment outside his hometown of Salzburg. In the next decade, his desire for an appointment in one of the great European courts grew desperate. He had returned home and found the working conditions unbearable. Prince-Archbishop Colloredo refused to recognize Mozart beyond his status as a standard court musician and the younger Mozart could not forget the acclaim he had received across the continent since childhood. In early 1781, the archbishop demanded that Mozart join him in Vienna, where mid-year the two finally parted ways for good. The musician resolved he would make a living as an independent artist, a very risky proposition in an age when patronage was assumed—even necessary—to make ends meet. Yet Mozart remained optimistic. He wrote to his father: “I still think I can best be of help to myself and to you by remaining in Vienna. It looks as if good fortune is about to welcome me here with open arms … I pledge myself to succeed, or I never would have taken this step.”

As a prodigious virtuoso pianist, the instrument was key to Mozart’s subsistence. In addition to commissions for operas, sales of his compositions, and teaching piano lessons, the young man’s best means of making a living was through performances of his own works. One way he assured exposure was through the organization of subscription concert series featuring his orchestral compositions, songs, and concertos, for which he was, of course, the featured performer. Mozart wrote two concertos to highlight the 1786 concert season in Vienna: Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488 and Concerto No. 24 in C Minor, K. 491. The latter was one of Mozart’s most unique concertos to that time. It was one of only two written in a minor key, and also only the second in which he concludes with a set of variations. Mozart called for his largest concerto orchestration to date, using an almost complete early-romantic woodwind section with flute, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons, enhanced by horns and trumpets, strings, timpani, and drums. Beethoven later admired the work so much that he modeled his own c minor piano concerto upon it. Mozart’s composition premiered April 7 at Vienna’s Burgtheater. The venue was built in 1741 next to the royal residence for Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, whom Mozart had charmed as a child. Her son, the next Emperor Joseph and Mozart’s main target for sponsorship in Vienna, later declared the venue the official German national theatre. In addition to the two 1786 piano concertos, three of Mozart’s most popular operas also saw their premiere on the theatre’s stage, one in that same auspicious year—a little commedia per musica called The Marriage of Figaro.

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, ©2023

Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan

Mozart is largely responsible for the creation of the “modern” piano concerto.  He wrote them primarily for himself to support his career as a performer.  His spending habits consistently placed him in financial difficulties, and he usually needed desperately to concertize.  Only his operas exceed his piano concertos in musical genius and historical significance.  Although numbered from 1 to 27, there are some twenty-three of them for solo piano and orchestra, starting about 1767. No other genre of his is so consistently high in quality and maturity. Considered by some to be his best piano concerto, K.491 was finished in the Spring of 1786, along with another masterpiece, No. 23—so typical of Mozart to toss off two masterpieces in short order!  It is one of only two piano concertos that Mozart wrote in a minor key.

While the concerto—employing a variety of solo instruments, or groups of solo instruments—had been a staple of concerts for over a hundred years by Mozart’s time, it was the advent of the piano by the late eighteenth century that enabled the genre to reach its highest expressive possibilities. Only the sonority and tonal weight of the piano really provides for an equal partner to the orchestra, and thus a foundation for the dramatic interplay between solo and accompaniment that is basic to the genre. Mozart’s contribution, other than his consummate musical genius, of course, was to “beef up” the role of the orchestra from one of simple accompaniment to that of co-protagonist in the musical drama.  He also established a clear succession of sections in the form of the first movement (there are almost always three movements in a concerto, as opposed to generally four in a symphony).  

Composed at the same time as his immortal opera, The Marriage of Figaro, Concerto No. 24 is decidedly darker in character than the sparkling opera. Interestingly, it has much fuller orchestra instrumentation than the other concertos. The addition of a pair of clarinets—relatively uncommon at the time, but beloved by Mozart—gives the score additional warm character.

The first movement is unusually long for the times, opening conventionally with the orchestra playing the main theme—quite the chromatic one, utilizing all twelve notes of the chromatic scale.  Mozart typically resorted to a denser chromatic texture when he expressed more serious feelings, and so it is in this work. As with all accomplished composers, Mozart eschews the textbook dicta, bringing the solo piano in with new material—not the main theme—picking the latter up a bit later. And it’s not over. Later, the soloist ignores the second theme, but introduces completely new themes, as do the woodwinds, later. So much for the “rules,” but it definitely entertains with fresh ideas.  The development is a complex one, but the main thrust is simply the passionate, stormy nature of the interplay between the orchestra and the soloist. The recap is a complicated affair, as well, with all of the material in the exposition to be covered. But, Mozart does it, albeit with some “telescoping” to keep it under control. Mozart didn’t compose a cadenza for the concerto, so soloists have usually provided their own. Finally, in another departure, the soloist joins the orchestra for the final drive to the end in the coda.

The slow movement is best just listened to and enjoyed, rather than analyzed, being one of Mozart’s moments of ethereal beauty. It’s in the relative major Eb, with two diversions in the middle, one to C minor and one to Ab. The themes are of the most disarmingly simple nature, obviously chosen to contrast with the heavy atmosphere and chromaticism of the first movement. The first theme heard is a convenient way to mark the transitions between the last three major sections. Throughout there are significant passages for the full wind section, often alone or with the soloist, which remind us of the composer’s elegant, magisterial writing for winds.

The last movement, unlike so many movements in the Classical period, is not a scampering rondo, but consists rather of a theme with eight variations. The orchestra alone opens with the square, straightforward theme. The soloist joins the simple accompaniment in the orchestra for the first variation. Right away you will notice two important elements from earlier in the concerto: melodic chromaticism and featured scoring for the wind section, often solo. After two more variations, the mood becomes a happier A, led by the wind section. Variation five returns to the basic C minor, with abundant chomaticism, often featuring the unaccompanied piano. The next variation brings another little respite in mood, this time in C major—again led by the winds.  The following variation is abbreviated, leading to the cadenza by the soloist. The solo piano begins the last variation, soon joined by the orchestra. But note: the sense of conclusion is heightened by a change in meter, 6/8 time, which is a common meter for the rondos that usually characterize the last movements of concerti.

With all that one has heard in this remarkable composition—from the serioso melodic chromaticism, the expansive, intricate form, the crepuscular minor key, the imaginative orchestration, and the seemingly endless store of piano figurations—it’s easy to see why so many consider this concerto the zenith of those by Mozart.

Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan, ©2023