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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 11 The Composer’s Voice
Richard Taruskin

It is hard to tell just what these descriptions had to do with what Mozart himself might have played at the point marked “cadenza” in his concerto scores, since like all true virtuosos in his day he was an expert improviser, and played impromptu with the same mastery as when playing prepared compositions. Nor were the two styles completely separate. When playing a previously composed piece from memory, Mozart (as many earwitnesses report) felt completely free to reembroider or even recompose it on the spot. Only when he composed his concertos for others to perform (as in Concerto no. 17) did he even write out the solo part in full. Most of the existing manuscripts contain sections of sketchy writing that served as a blueprint for impromptu realization. (Nowadays such passages are all too often rendered literally by pianists who have been trained to play only what is written.) When playing a newly finished concerto for the first time, Mozart usually “improvised” the whole piano part from blank staves or a bass line (playing it, that is, half spontaneously, half from memory). For an idea of what he could do, compare the autograph of the opening of the second movement from his “Coronation” Concerto, K. 537, with the first published edition, issued three years after Mozart’s death with a piano part supplied by an unidentified arranger (Fig. 11-3a, b).

Composing And Performing

fig. 11-3a Autograph page from Mozart, Concerto no. 26 in D, K. 537.

Nor was any public concert or salon complete without an “ex tempore” performance, often on themes submitted by the audience to make sure that what was billed as improvisation was truly that. Mozart was famous for his ability to improvise not only free fantasias or capriccios on such submitted themes but even sonatas and fugues. “Indeed,” wrote an awestruck member of one of the largest audiences Mozart ever played to (in Prague, on 19 January 1787),

we did not know what to admire the more—the extraordinary composition, or the extraordinary playing; both together made a total impression on our souls that could only be compared to sweet enchantment! But at the end of the concert, when Mozart extemporized alone for more than half an hour at the fortepiano, raising our delight to the highest degree, our enchantment dissolved into loud, overwhelming applause. And indeed, this extemporization exceeded anything normally understood by fortepiano playing, as the highest excellence in the art of composition was combined with the most perfect accomplishment in execution.17

Composing And Performing

fig. 11-3b The same passage from Mozart, Concerto no. 26 in D, K. 5, that was shown in Fig. 11-3A, as posthumously edited and printed

From accounts like this, we may conclude that for Mozart, at any rate, the acts or professions of composing and performing were not nearly as separate as they have since become in the sphere of “classical” music. They are more reminiscent of the relationship that the two phases of musical creation have in the realms of jazz and pop music today. And so is the brisk interaction Mozart enjoyed with his audiences. The spontaneity of the Prague audience’s reaction, as described in the extract above, applied not only to solo recitals, or concerto performances, but even to the performances of symphonies. After the first performance of his Symphony in D Major, K. 297 (now known as Symphony no. 31), one of his most orchestrally brilliant scores, which took place in Paris before the most sophisticated paying public in Europe in June of 1778, Mozart wrote home exultantly:

Just in the middle of the first Allegro there was a Passage I was sure would please. All the listeners went into raptures over it—applauded heartily. But as, when I wrote it, I was quite aware of its Effect, I introduced it once more towards the end—and it was applauded all over again…. I had heard that final Allegros, here, must begin in the same way as the first ones, all the instruments playing together, mostly in unison. I began mine with nothing but the 1st and 2nd violins playing softly for 8 bars—then there is a sudden forte. Consequently, the listeners (just as I had anticipated) all went “Sh!” in the soft passage—then came the sudden forte—and no sooner did they hear the forte than they all clapped their hands.18

Such behavior would be inconceivable today at any concert where Mozart’s music is played. And yet in Mozart’s day it was considered normal, as this very letter reveals. Mozart expected the audience’s spontaneous response and predicted it—or rather, knowing that it would be the sign of his success, he angled for it. Now only pop performers do that. Such reactions and such angling are now déclassé (debased, regarded as uncouth) in the “classical” concert hall. The story of how that change came about is one of the most important stories in the history of nineteenth-century music, but Mozart had no part of that.


(17) Quoted by Neal Zaslaw in “Mozart: Piano Concertos K. 456 and 459,” booklet notes accompanying Archiv Produktion CD 415 111–2 (Hamburg: Polydor International, 1986).

(18) Mozart to his father, 3 July 1778; Mozart’s Letters, pp. 107–8.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 The Composer’s Voice." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 30 Sep. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-11005.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 11 The Composer’s Voice. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 30 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-11005.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 The Composer’s Voice." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 30 Sep. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-11005.xml