February 9, 1784, was an especially significant day for the 28-year-old Mozart. On that day he finished writing the E flat Piano Concerto, K. 449 (probably begun two years earlier) and made it the very first entry in a new catalog of his works. He maintained this catalog throughout most of the rest of his life, adding the titles of new works, together with the dates on which they were completed, and musical incipits of one or two measures written on two staves.
In this catalog Mozart indicated that the instrumentation for what we now list as K. 449 included 2 oboes, and 2 horns “ad libitum,” that is, with optional winds. And in a letter to his father he added that the concerto could be performed “à quattro ohne Blasinstrumenten,” with the usual four orchestral string parts (two violins viola, cello/bass) but without winds. It is this version of the piece that COFE performs this evening. “À quattro” has also been taken to mean that the piece could be performed with just four string players, as chamber music.
Three years earlier, in 1781 at age 25, Mozart realized he could no longer abide living and working in relatively provincial Salzburg. As a court employee, he felt his talent was being wasted, and he deeply resented what he considered the musical and social bondage that entailed, as well as the constraints on pursuing his career. Against his father’s wishes, he submitted his resignation, and until his death in 1791, without the financial safety net of a court appointment, his life and work were centered almost entirely on Vienna.
In 1782 he wrote a set of three piano concertos (K. 413, 414, 415), his first concertos for Viennese audiences. In these three concertos the wind parts are “ad libitum,” suggesting a possible relationship between them and the later K. 449. (All of Mozart’s concertos after this time include prominent and obligatory wind parts.) Recent scholarly investigations into the various kinds of paper Mozart used during his lifetime corroborate the idea that K. 449 was indeed begun in 1782. The beginning of the piece only is written on the same kind of paper Mozart used for some of the earlier concertos of 1782. The rest is on paper datable to 1784. For whatever reasons, Mozart seems to have abandoned work on this concerto for two years, finishing it only in time for him (and his pupil Barbara von Ployer to whom it is dedicated) to perform in Vienna. Perhaps he felt the three concertos of 1782 constituted a complete set to which K. 449 did not really belong, setting it aside until an occasion arose for completing it.
As with the Concerto K. 271 which COFE performed this past February with pianist Charles Abramovic, Mozart wrote out a first-movement cadenza for the soloist. We can assume that this was for use by Fräulein von Ployer (as it had been for K. 271’s Frau Jenomy), since he himself would certainly have improvised his own cadenzas. Otherwise the two pieces are very different. K. 449 is less overtly dramatic, more gallant, more genial, more intimate. As Mozart wrote to his father, “It is a concerto of a very special kind, written more for a small orchestra than a large one.”
Mozart clearly slipped easily back and forth between boldly asserting his musical independence from his contemporaries and predecessors, and accepting them and their basic style as models on which to build. This may have been due to his own mood at any one time, but more probably was related to the nature of the specific circumstances, audiences, performers. When he wanted to please and entertain an audience with lighter music like divertimenti, he seems to have done that with great ease and little effort. When, for especially important audiences (operas), performers (symphonies and concertos), or publications (chamber music) he wanted to make a statement about his genius and the miraculous things it could produce, he exerted himself to his fullest. It is perhaps in the last great fourteen piano concertos (K. 449 of 1784 to K. 595 of 1791) that that genius shines most clearly, for these were very public works for significant audiences, but even more important, they were invariably written with Wolfgang himself in mind, as a pianist as well as a composer. – James Freeman