Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12, K. 414

Mozart’s departure from his hometown Salzburg in 1781 was unhappy, acrimonious, and even bitter.  Yearning for the artistic and personal freedom he felt he would never experience in provincial Salzburg, and very much against his father’s vehement protests, he left for Vienna. It was a major turning point in his life, and very much like the classic story of the young man setting out to seek his fortune in the great world beyond.  Even though the Mozart family had famously traveled all over Europe, they had always returned home to Salzburg. Vienna now became the center of Wolfgang’s life for the next ten years until his too-early death in 1791.

Within a year-and-a-half of arriving in Vienna, he had written among other works three new piano concertos, specifically intended to introduce himself as both composer and pianist to Viennese audiences. The first of these three was K. 414, probably written in the fall of 1782. Together with K. 413 in F and K. 415 in C, they were clearly intended as a set, a self-contained group, and were later published together as the composer’s Opus 4.  Mozart indicated that all three, as well as the slightly later K. 449 concerto, could be performed without winds, as chamber music for piano and strings.  He must have wanted these new works for Vienna to reach as wide an audience as possible, offering them as either orchestral or chamber pieces.

Still another sign that he hoped for many performances of these three concertos was that he wrote out cadenzas for each of them, and in K. 414 actually gave the soloist a choice of several different cadenzas and “lead-ins” for each of the three movements.  Mozart usually improvised his own cadenzas, but here he was clearly assuming that many pianists would not have that ability and would be more likely to perform the piece if it included written-out cadenzas.

Two of the three Opus 4 concertos (almost certainly including K. 414) were performed at a subscription concert early in 1783.  K. 414 in particular sparkles magically throughout, just what Mozart felt he needed to introduce himself to everyone in this new audience.  They clearly succeeded as a contemporary report indicated: “Today the celebrated Chevalier Mozart gave a Music Academy for his own benefit at the National-Theater in which pieces of his own composition, which was already very popular, were performed. The academy was honored by the presence of an extraordinarily large audience and the two new concertos and other fantasies which Mr. Mozart played on the Forte Piano were received with the loudest approval.”

Mozart wrote to his father the following.

“These concertos are a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult. They are very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being vapid.  There are passages here and there from which the connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why.”

One of the passages that might have evoked recognition and appreciation from the connoisseurs is the principal theme of the second movement.  Mozart quotes here a theme from an orchestral overture by J.C. Bach, J.S. Bach’s youngest son and himself a famous composer at the time. J.C. Bach had befriended the eight-year-old Mozart in London in 1762, and this musical reference to a beloved older mentor, who had died only months earlier, was almost certainly intended as a con amore homage. – James Freeman

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