Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 – 1791) | Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K. 488

In 1781, 25-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart made a momentous decision: having served for nine long, unhappy years as court musician to the Archbishop of Salzburg, Mozart decided – against the wishes of his controlling father – to give up his post and move to Vienna as a freelance musician – a highly unusual move at the time, especially for one with a young family. From then on until his death in 1791, Mozart made his living by giving music lessons, playing concerts and recitals, selling his works to publishers and writing operas for the stage.

During the winter of 1785, Mozart, his wife Constanze and their son Karl had taken up residence at No. 846 Schulerstrasse in Vienna. Mozart’s father Leopold paid them a visit in February and wrote to his daughter: “You may gather what a fine apartment your brother has from the fact that he pays four hundred and sixty florins rent (about $230) per year.” This may not have been a huge sum of money, but it was more than any member of the music-making Mozart family had been accustomed to paying for lodgings.

This was a happy time for Mozart. He was almost thirty and was approaching the height of his powers; annual Lenten concerts that he himself organized provided enough extra income to allow him a comfortable apartment and temporary relief from financial concerns; he had recently become a father; his own proud father was visiting and witnessing his son’s success and, most importantly, the fickle Viennese public were impressed by his genius and were attending his concerts.

Mozart completed the Piano Concerto No. 23 just before the first performance of his other masterwork Le Nozze di Figaro on March 2nd, 1786. Figaro would receive its première a scant two months later, on May 1st. The concerto appears to have been started in either the winter of 1784/85 or possibly even earlier, in the winter of 1783/84; this longer gestation period allowed Mozart the opportunity to incorporate significant changes to the score: for example, where early sketches show a pair of oboes, the finished score shows they had been replaced with clarinets. Through this substitution (and by omitting trumpets and timpani), Mozart creates a work with an unusually dark, mellow palette.

Structurally less complex than is customary for Mozart, the 23rd Concerto is an unending flow of melody, wavering at times on the brink between joy and sadness. The first movement, Allegro, features what is known as a double exposition: the main thematic material is presented first by the orchestra and is then reiterated by the soloist.

The second movement, an Adagio in 6/8, is a bittersweet Sicilienne in F-sharp minor and not only is it Mozart’s only piece in that key; it would be his last slow movement in any minor key.

The finale, Allegro assai is in sonata-rondo form and brings the listener out of the sublimity of the slow movement and ‘back to earth’ in a trice. The piano introduces a leaping theme which is then taken up by the orchestra, which then adds five additional themes, none of which reappears until the end. The whole movement is a non-stop adventure without a single backward glance, culminating in an unusually energetic coda.