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Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488

About the Work

Wolfgang Mozart
Quick Look Composer: Wolfgang Mozart
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Mozart & Zemlinsky Mar. 17 - 20, 2011
© Peter Laki

Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major for Piano and Orchestra, K. 488
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart


Mozart had a way with the piano concerto like no other composer before or after him. Building upon the achievements of two of J. S. Bach's sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel and Johann Christian, he gave the word "concerto" an entirely new meaning. He took over the idea of alternating orchestral and solo passages, as well as a few other basic structural elements; however, he considerably expanded on the earlier form, making it both more complex and more flexible. In his hands, the piano concerto became capable of expressing the most diverse characters, from grandiose and festive to lyrical and intimate, with innumerable shadings in between.

Of the 27 piano concertos in Mozart's catalog, 15 were written during the five years following the composer's move from Salzburg to Vienna. These were featured in a series of subscription concerts Mozart started, presenting himself as piano soloist. The concertos were also frequently heard at the homes of his patrons.The audience at these concerts was an extremely select one, privileged in both their financial means and their musical sophistication. It was a group of music-lovers who understood and appreciated subtle melodic transformations, and responded to them as true connoisseurs. It was an ideal environment in which Mozart's art could really thrive.

In Mozart's works, keys often correspond to emotional moods. Like other composers of his time, Mozart associated each tonality with specific melodic idioms and devices of orchestration. For instance, C major was a festive and jubilant key, often reinforced with trumpets and kettledrums. E-flat major was also festive but at the same time more ethereal, while A major was warm, tender, and cheerful.

Mozart used A major on numerous occasions in symphonic works, as well as in chamber and vocal music. He wrote two piano concertos in that key: No. 11 (K. 414) in 1782 and No. 23 (K. 488) in 1786. Both share the bright, sunny disposition that characterizes Mozart's A major. But the later work is significantly broader in its scope, and exemplifies Mozart's concerto style at its most mature and refined.

K. 488 does not open with a fanfare or any kind of powerful "curtain-raising" motif, as many other concertos do. It begins with a gentle melody, played piano, setting the stage for a movement with a unique blend of moods: a quiet serenity with occasional touches of wistfulness, expressed by the many lowered notes (naturals instead of sharps), as in the very first measure. In the orchestration, one notes the absence of oboes and the presence of clarinets, resulting in a special, darker-hued sound.

As in most mature concertos, the dialog of the piano and the orchestra cannot be reduced to a simple alternation of "tutti" and "solo" sections; the soloist engages in a constant exchange of ideas with smaller or larger groups from the ensemble — an exchange that becomes particularly animated in the central portion of the movement where the strings begin a new theme that is immediately embellished by the piano and elaborated on in many variations by the orchestra.

For this movement, we have an original cadenza by Mozart. This cadenza tells us a great deal about Mozart the improviser: besides virtuosic passages, it also contains expressive, singing music, and expands on the concerto's thematic material in simple yet ingenious ways.

The emotional high point in Mozart's mature piano concertos is often the second movement. The Adagio of K. 488 is, however, exceptional even among Mozart's concertos. Its dominating sentiment in many ways presages musical Romanticism. The melody moves in the quiet rhythm of a siciliano, but contains many expressive wide leaps, emphasizing chromatic half-steps and the melancholy-sounding "Neapolitan sixth" chord. The key of F-sharp minor is extremely rare in Mozart's output:in fact, this is the only time he ever used it as the main tonality of an entire movement. This unusual choice contributes to the very special poignancy of the music that is much easier to feel than to describe.

The last movement, marked "Allegro assai," is a playful romp with a multitude of spirited melodies. It is an extended "sonata-rondo," which means that a recurrent first theme alternates with a number of episodes (rondo), but also that one of those episodes also returns, as a second theme would do in a sonata recapitulation. The fusion of these two forms, popular in the late 18th century, results in a structure that allows us to enjoy the wonderful melodies over and over again, while the alternations and transformations of those melodies afford a seemingly inexhaustible diversity.

Mozart was well aware of the exceptional richness of this concerto. It was one of a select group of works he sent out to a prospective patron, Prince Fürstenberg in Donaueschingen. In an accompanying letter to Sebastian Winter, a former servant of the Mozart family who now worked for the Prince, the composer wrote that these were "compositions which I keep for myself or for a small circle of music-lovers and connoisseurs (who promise not to let them out of their hands)." He wanted the Prince to be assured that these compositions had not been circulating widely; and he did not hide his hopes that His Highness would commission symphonies, concertos and chamber works on a regular basis, for performances by the Prince's own orchestra. Mozart received a total of 143.5 florins for the scores he had sent (four symphonies, five concertos and three chamber works)—which paid for about three months' rent for his apartment on the Schulerstrasse. But the additional commissions Mozart was hoping for came to nothing.