WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756-1791)
Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466 (1785)
Notes by Michael-Thomas Foumai
III. Allegro assai
1785: FRAMING DISONANCE
Mozart composed 27 piano concertos in his life, a feat no other composer surpassed before or after him. The Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, composed in 1785, was a good year for the in-demand Mozart. Completing his celebrated “Dissonance” string quartet, he was commissioned to compose Lorenzo da Ponte’s scandalous The Marriage of Figaro. In the Hawaiian Islands, the 1780s represented a sea of political dissonance. With plans to conquer the island chain, Moʻi (King) Kahekili of Maui sowed distrust between Oahu’s Moʻi Kahahana and his loyal advisors. In 1783, after years of battle and political maneuvering, Kahekili took Oʻahu, killing most of the chiefs and Kahahana. By 1785, all but one island remained unconquered, Hawaiʻi Island, the year Kamehameha the great married Kaʻahumanu. Encouraging her husband to unify the islands under his name, the future monarch set eyes on O’ahu.
IN THE KEY OF DEATH
With just six years of life to live, Mozart’s in-demand popularity of 1785 showed no omen of the composer’s early demise. Mozart premiered the work as the soloist on February 11 at the Mehlgrube Casino. The work took Vienna by storm, including praise from the composer’s father, Leopold, writing to Mozart’s sister Nanneral on February 16, “we had a new and very fine concerto by Wolfgang, which the copyist was still copying when we arrived, and the rondo of which your brother did not even have time to play through, as he had to supervise the copying.” Leopold ended the letter praising his son’s magnificent player, though the circumstances of the omitted Rondo in the performance hints at the composers demanding schedule.
The Piano Concerto No. 20 is Mozart’s only concerto in D minor (and the first in a minor key). Its uniqueness is further demonstrated by its absence in the composer’s 41 symphonies. Only a handful of death-related works share the key, the unfinished Requiem and the opera Don Giovanni. Mozart isn’t the only composer to zero in on the fatality of the key; Schubert’s Death and the Maiden string quartet and the last symphonies of Beethoven, Schumann, Bruckner, and Mahler all begin in D minor.
THE DARK CONCERTO
The Allegro starts and ends with a quiet menace. Syncopated violins paired with a percussive bass motive forecast the dark operatic world of Don Giovanni. If Mozart personified himself in the solo role, the pianist enters alone in a fleeting moment of quiet melancholy before fate sweeps him into a world machine. Many of Mozart’s cadenzas were improvised and never written. Few cadenzas by the composer exist today; the one from the 20th is not among the living. Beethoven, who admired the work and perhaps saw himself in the concerto’s Sturm und Drang aesthetic, published his cadenza, which became the one of choice to close the sonata movement.
Solo piano takes the lead in the sublime Romanze. Contrary to the sweet B-flat major soliloquy (it also bookends the movement), this five-part rondo conceals an uneasy soul in the penultimate G minor episode. D minor makes a comeback with a more spirited rondo (Allegro assai). Again, the piano leads, opening with a Mannheim Rocket (a rapid ascending figure distinct from the late 18th-century style), and the orchestra follows. In a twist of fate, death is interrupted, delayed by the finale’s D major transformation.
In addition to solo piano, the 25-minute score calls for two flutes, two oboes, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets, timpani, and strings.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg, Austria, on January 27, 1756, and died in Vienna on December 5, 1791.