Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in G Major K. 453

I. Allegro II. Andante III. Allegretto, Finale: Presto


“Pet starling, 37 farthings”, noted Mozart on May 27th, 1784 in his inventory of personal expenses. This unusual pet became famous in the 19th century Mozart literature because the great composer allegedly learned the theme of the final variation movement of his G major piano concerto (K. 453) from his avian friend. But as Mozart carefully recorded having completed the concerto on April 12th, we now know that this is just yet another Mozart myth. Indeed, the relationship between Mozart's melody and the bird is actually reversed: gifted with mimicry that would have beggared a parrot, this specimen of sturnus vulgaris (as all ornithologists know) learned the theme of the G major piano concerto from Mozart, although we know from another Mozartean annotation that the errant bird sang the ninth note of the melody a semi-tone higher than the original, warbling a G sharp instead of a G natural. The starling seems to have been just as important to Mozart as his piano concertos, but music historians see the situation reversed in spades: indeed the concertos are regarded as being of even greater importance than much of Mozart's already outrageously rich oeuvre.


This is not just because, thanks to Mozart, the piano concerto was transformed from a vulgar personal display in light music clothing to a genre at the highest level, on a par with the symphony, but because the concerto, together with opera (and not entirely independent of it), became Mozart's most personal musical “affair”. Beyond the excitement of the form, in so far as the dramatic confrontation between soloist and orchestra makes it similar to opera, the piano concerto was of immense importance to Mozart because it enabled him to earn a much needed crust. Mozart's income derived from five sources and of these: aristocratic patronage, opera commissions, publications, teaching and concertising, the latter was not only the most profitable, it brought the greatest all-round benefits. According to the customs of the day, at his own subscription series and at concerts organised by others, Mozart could show his talents to the aristocratic Viennese audience as both composer and pianist. Successes as a composer led to further commissions, while his piano playing led to teaching assignments: the concert income also enabled him to make ends meet. After he left his employment with the Archbishop of Salzburg amid rather stormy circumstances, his move to Vienna left Mozart needing to stand on his own two feet financially. So he had little choice.


The G major concerto (K. 453) was written during one of the most fecund periods of Mozart's life, in the spring of 1784. Exploiting his burgeoning career and ever greater successes, he gave an astounding number of concerts during Lent: between February 26th and April 3rd 1784, he gave twenty two concerts in just over thirty days – every Thursday at Prince Gallicin's abode, every Monday and Friday at Count János Eszterházy's, and on three Wednesdays he gave his own subscription series concerts. In addition to these he played in theatres and other venues. If we consider that during this period he also composed and taught, we have to pinch ourselves to remember that for Mozart, the day still contained only twenty four hours and a single night. Although Mozart did perform the G major concerto, he did not compose it for the Lent concerts, writing it for one of his most talented pupils Barbara Ployer, who performed it for the first time on June 13th at a private concert with an orchestra rented by her father. Mozart was present. Mozart brought as his own guest one of the most popular operatic composers of this era, Giovanni Paisiello, whose latest success, The Barber of Seville introduced the character of Figaro to Viennese audiences years before Mozart and Rossini were to do. At the concert, Mozart played the piano in his quintet for piano and wind instruments, K 452, as well as his superb D major sonata for two pianos, K 448, in tandem with Barbara Ployer. The evening was a musical celebration in the spirit of Mozart's piano concertos. As he wrote in one of his letters: “The piano concertos tread the middle ground between being too difficult or too light – they are truly sparkling and pleasant on the ear, without become bogged down in vacuity. Here and there, only connoisseurs will find them to their taste, but in such a way that non-connoisseurs must see joys in it without knowing why.”


Of Mozart's 27 piano concertos, the G major concerto is one of the most sensitive and witty – it seems that Mozart was no less generous with his talents when writing for others to perform. The guests of the Ployer family gave the work a tremendous reception and it later scored successes with Viennese audiences: it was one of only six concertos published during his life time. The opening movement is built upon a stylised good natured military march, imbued with unique harmonic modulations, the C major slow movement employs some astounding dissonances alternating with major-minor switches, while the closing final movement is a witty set of variations in the mood of comic opera; combined, they amount to a peak in Mozart's music which the later “great” concertos emulate but never surpass.


Finally, a few words about the starling. The bird lived for three years with its owners (the Mozart family took it with them when they moved into their flat behind the St Stephens Cathedral, the “birthplace” of Figaro), it saw the birth of Mozart's second son, and was present at the historic moment when Haydn listened to the Mozart quartets dedicated to him. He was still present at the birth and also the death of Mozart's third son and was an eye witness to the composer's most active and successful years. The starling finally died on June 4th 1787, causing Mozart to write a verse, and it was even granted a small burial service. He then bought a canary which lived in his room until literally days before the composer's death.

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