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A Music Post

By  Nick Kasprak  on June 13, 2012 8:00 PM

I've been re-listening to a lot of Mozart piano concertos recently, which are, along with his operas, his best work. I'm always a little bit surprised that stereotypical, "popular" Mozart consists, by and large, of music that is relatively boring and plain in comparison (things like Eine Kleine Nachtmusic and so forth - essentially composed as background music). Even most Mozart symphonies, except for the latest few, are pretty light and unremarkable. His piano concertos, by far, show the greatest depth, yet most of them (except for a handful of popular movements) are essentially unknown to the vast majority of people who aren't classical music nerds, and it's a real shame. When I tell people my favorite composer is Mozart, I can almost understand why they might think "Well, okay, but isn't he kind of boring?" Sure, if you've never actually heard his best work.

I think the main reason his piano concertos stand out is because he composed most of them for himself to play - they're much more personal works. They also gain a lot from their formal and structural requirements - the first movement is always in a modified sonata form specific to instrumental concertos, whereas a symphony or string quartet is usually in standard, unmodified sonata form. The main difference is that in a symphony, you simply hear the expository material played through twice, exactly the same; in a concerto, the orchestra plays an abbreviated exposition by itself, and the soloist doesn't enter until the second run through, in which new material is introduced and there's a sort of dialogue between the soloist and the orchestra - it all gives the piece a more elegant and melancholy character.

In my view, the hardest problem that a composer has to solve when writing music of any appreciable length is how to balance two contradictory goals: one, having enough variety to hold the audience's interest, and two, writing in such a way that all that variety still sounds like it belongs together in the same piece. Mozart's piano concertos are probably the most successful pieces of music ever written in that regard. Every Mozart concerto movement has an astonishing range of emotion and quantity of thematic material, which is true of many 19th century pieces as well, but Mozart's strength is to keep all of that range unified as part of what is clearly the same piece of music throughout. Lots of 19th century music sounds sort of "stitched together" - there's a lot of emotional range covered, but the music is constantly changing speeds and textures and so sounds inelegant. Not so with Mozart.

Here are a few of my favorites:

This is the first movement of No. 24 in C Minor. I think it shows, probably more than any other work could, the degree to which Ludwig van Beethoven didn't just simply burst onto the musical scene at the turn of the century and single-handedly change the course of music - there's a lot of precedent in Mozart for the direction he took. Who knows - if Mozart had lived past the age of 35, maybe he'd have out-Beethovened Beethoven.

Next is No. 25 in C Major:

This one has a sort of martial character to it. The main melodies are musically very simple, and I think the fact that Mozart was able to do so much with them is a testament to both his genius and the strength of the piano concerto as a genre. The "B" theme that is first introduced by the violins at 1:35 is a very simple idea, and it's a real joy to listen to Mozart build on it throughout the movement, particular its final formal statement much later during the recapitulation from 11:00 to 11:15 or so - who would think that such a basic melody could sound that inspiring?

Finally, here's one that you've probably heard before: 

This is probably the most boundlessly optimistic piece ever written. It's the 3rd movement of the 23rd concerto in A Major. To some extent, it's an exception to the idea of balancing variety and thematic unity as the key strength of the concerto, since it's so consistently happy throughout.  However, there's one particularly beautiful passage from 5:30 to around 5:50 which I think is a perfect example of this - listen to how effortlessly Mozart slides from a relatively melancholy section back into the optimistic mood that characterizes the rest of the piece.