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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 11 The Composer’s Voice
Richard Taruskin

When writing music out for others to perform, Mozart did occasionally provide cadenzas in advance to make the recipients look good, especially his sister Maria Anna (“Nannerl”), known in Salzburg as an excellent pianist in her own right, but not a composer. For the Concerto in G major, K. 453, composed for Barbara Ployer but also sent to Nannerl, he wrote out two different cadenzas for the first movement, and, rather unusually, for the second one as well—but that second movement is a rather unusual movement, as we shall see. The beginnings of the two first-movement cadenzas are set out for inspection in Ex. 11-3.

Like these, Mozart’s written-out cadenzas usually took the form of short fantasias based more or less consistently on themes from the exposition. In the present case the first cadenza to the opening movement exemplifies the “thematic” style (“more consistently based”), the second the “passagework” style (“less consistently based”). In the latest and biggest concertos the thematic style predominates, often broken down into motivic work that begins to resemble “development.” But whether these written cadenzas truly resemble anything Mozart would himself have played is difficult to guess. It seems unlikely that the pianist known among his fellow pianists as the greatest improviser of his time would have hewn so closely to the thematic content of the composed sections of the piece, or stayed so closely within the orbit of the original tonic. All the less likely does it seem if one considers Mozart’s predilection for infusing his instrumental works with “personality”—creating, as we have already seen, the impression of spontaneous subjective expression. This histrionic posture could only have been heightened when he was taking an active part in the performance.

So let us imagine Mozart, not Barbara Ployer, as the soloist in the slow middle movement of the Concerto in G major, K. 453. The form of the piece is unusual on two counts. First, because it has a true symphonic binary shape, rarely found in a slow movement; and second, because that shape is complemented by a striking “motto” or ritornello idea.

The piece may be broken down into four large sections, each of them introduced by a strangely off-center phrase consisting of a single five-bar idea—or half idea, since it ends inconclusively, with a half cadence. The odd phrase length is achieved by drawing out a conventional four-bar phrase with a cadential embellishment that dramatizes its nonfinality, and then really insisting on its suspenseful nature with a rest that is further enhanced by a fermata. The phrase is almost literally a question—to which the ensuing music provides a provisional answer. In contour it strikingly resembles the beginning of the lyrical second theme from the first movement (see Ex. 11-4), and can probably be regarded as a conscious derivation from it (since anything that is likely to occur to us so readily is likely to have occurred just as readily to the composer).

Performance As Self-Dramatization

ex. 11-3 W. A. Mozart, Concerto in G major, K. 453, I: beginnings of two different cadenzas

Performance As Self-Dramatization

ex. 11-3 Beginning of second candenza

Performance As Self-Dramatization

ex. 11-4a W. A. Mozart, Concerto in G major, K. 453, II, mm. 1–5

Performance As Self-Dramatization

ex. 11-4b W. A. Mozart, Concerto in G major, K. 453, I, mm. 35–38

The four sections this motto phrase so suspensefully introduces could be described as corresponding, respectively, to an opening ritornello (or nonmodulating exposition), an opening solo (or modulating exposition), a development section, and a recapitulation. The coda, or closing segment following the cadenza, begins with what sounds like another repetition of the motto; but it differs very tellingly from the others, as we shall see.

Precisely because it does not come to a full stop but demands continuation, the prefatory motto lends the material that follows it a heightened air of expressive moment. That sense of poetic gravity is more than corroborated by the emotionally demonstrative behavior of the solo part. Once past the preliminaries, the first solo starts right off with an impetuous turn to the parallel minor (Ex. 11-5a)—always a sign of emotional combustion—reinforced by a sudden loudening of the volume and a thickening of the piano texture beyond anything heard in the first movement. The modulation to the dominant is accompanied by some very purple harmonies—Neapolitan sixth, diminished seventh—of a kind also largely avoided (or rather, unwanted) in the sunny first movement.

Performance As Self-Dramatization

ex. 11-5a W. A. Mozart, Concerto no. 17 in G major, K. 453, II, mm. 35–41

Performance As Self-DramatizationPerformance As Self-Dramatization

ex. 11-5b W. A. Mozart, Concerto no. 17 in G major, K. 453, II, mm. 69–86

The temperature has cooled and the skies have lightened by the time the final cadence on the dominant is made and the next incantation of the motto begins. But as soon as the soloist returns (Ex. 11-5b), the mood becomes restless again. Another sudden shift to the parallel minor (this time on D, the root of the half cadence in the dominant) is followed by a fairly gruesome passage in which the harmony is violently forced backward along the circle of fifths through successive cadences on A minor, E minor, B minor, and even F♯ minor—all the way to C♯ minor, the tritone antipode of G, the concerto’s nominal tonic. These cadence points are all introduced by disruptive applied dominants, and the last of them is followed by an augmented sixth (A-natural vs. F-double-sharp) that sets up a half cadence on its dominant, the almost unheard-of FOP of G♯ major.

What follows now is a tour de force of harmonic legerdemain. In a mere four bars, as if solving a chess problem in four moves, the orchestra moves in (mm. 86–89) and leads the G♯ major harmony through its parallel minor (altering one note), to a dominant seventh on E (achieved by splitting the D♯, so speak, into E and D, again altering a single note), thence to a dominant seventh on G (inflecting the G♯ to G and the E to F), the whole thus functioning as an incredibly rapid yet smooth retransition to the original tonic, C major (Ex. 11-5c). Its arrival, signaled by the motto phrase, provides an appropriately dramatic “double return.” From this point to the end the accent is on progressive reconciliation and accommodation. The pianist gets one more outburst to parallel the one in m. 35; but although it still invokes a darkling minor coloration, it is the tonic minor that is invoked, and the cloud is that much more easily dispelled. Although, presumably, Mozart at the keyboard might have let loose a few more harmonic vagaries during the cadenza, the cadence thus embellished prepares the ultimate reconciliation of harmonic conflicts. Mutual adjustment and cooperation is beautifully symbolized by the final orchestral statement of the motto phrase (mm. 123 ff), which this time lacks its embellished half cadence and suspenseful fermata, but rather hooks up with a balancing phrase in the solo part to bring things back, peacefully and on harmonic schedule, to the tonic. Just as in the slow movement from Symphony no. 39 (Ex. 11-1), there are a few chromatic twinges in the closing bars to recall old aches, but the end comes quietly, with gracious resignation.

Performance As Self-Dramatization

ex. 11-5c W. A. Mozart, Concerto no. 17 in G major, K. 453, II, mm. 86–94

Again, as in the symphony, we have a kind of emotional diary in sound, but this time there is the complicating factor of the dual medium: piano plus (or, possibly, versus) orchestra. The heightened caprice and dynamism that Mozart (and before him, C. P. E. Bach) brought to the concerto genre caused a heightened awareness of its potentially symbolic or metaphorical aspect, its possible reading as a social paradigm or a venue for social commentary. Artists imbued with the individualistic spirit of Romanticism interpreted the paradigm as one of social opposition, of the One against the Many, with an outcome that could be either triumphant (if the One emerged victorious) or tragic (if the decision went the other way).

The interaction of the soloist and the orchestra in the slow movement of Concerto No. 17 has been splendid grist for such readings, including a vivid one by the feminist musicologist Susan McClary (whose social interpretation of Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto was discussed in chapter 6). She reads the piece as a narrative of increasingly fraught contention between the orchestra and the defiant soloist, with that egregious FOP on a G♯ major triad signaling an impasse. “From the point of view of tonal norms,” she writes (having already characterized tonal norms as a metaphor for social norms), “the piano has retreated to a position of the most extreme irrationality, and normal tonal logic cannot really be marshaled to salvage it.”19 And yet the orchestra, as we have already seen, succeeds in salvaging the tonic in a mere four bars. Such a quick victory, McClary argues, is itself “irrational,” defiant of “the pure pristine logic of conventional tonality.” Both the soloist and the orchestra have exhibited startling, not to say deviant, behavior—and deviance requires explanation. The explanation one chooses will reveal one’s social attitudes. Does it seem that “the collective suddenly enters and saves the day”? If so, then one has confessed one’s allegiance to the communal order. (McClary identifies this as the “Enlightened” position.) Or, conversely, does it seem that the “necessities of the individual are blatantly sacrificed to the overpowering requirements of social convention”?20 This would betray one’s identification with “the social protagonist,” and cast the orchestra’s behavior as exemplifying “the authoritarian force that social convention will draw upon if confronted by recalcitrant nonconformity.”

In such a reading, a painful irony colors the final repetition of the opening motto, in which, we recall, the piano and the orchestra finally cooperate in a way that “delivers the long-awaited consequent phrase” that answers the motto’s persistent question. The appearance of concord, McClary suggests, masks oppression and social alienation.

It is not difficult to raise objections to this reading, if one insists that a reading of a work of art directly represent or realize the author’s intentions, and that those intentions are “immanent”—that is, inherent—in the work itself. One can cite biographical counterevidence: in 1784, the year in which Mozart composed this concerto, he was at the very peak of his early Viennese prosperity and showed few signs of alienation from the public whose favor he was then so successfully courting. (A possible rejoinder: we know, nevertheless, that the success was short-lived; and while Mozart could not know that, he did know very well that his freelance activity was risky and that his affluent lifestyle was precarious. This consciousness might well indeed have colored his attitude toward the society in which he was functioning, and made him anxious or mistrustful.) One may also doubt whether either the piano’s tonal behavior or the orchestra’s can really be classified as “irrational” within the listening conventions Mozart shared with his audience. Every symphonic composition reached a FOP, sometimes a very distant one (though, admittedly, rarely so distant as here). Mozart’s techniques for achieving it in the present instance, while extreme in their result, were fully intelligible in their method. Quick chromatic or enharmonic returns to the tonic from distant points are something we have observed long ago in Scarlatti, after all, for whom it was sooner an amusing gesture than a troubling one.

Performance As Self-Dramatization

fig. 11-4 A Mozart family portrait, ca. 1780, by Johann Nepomuk della Croce. W. A. Mozart and his sister Maria Anna (“Nannerl”) are at the keyboard; their father Leopold holds a violin; the portrait on the wall shows the composer’s mother, who had died in 1778 in Paris while accompanying him on tour (Mozart House, Salzburg).

Then too, the quick resolution of a seemingly hopeless imbroglio was the hallmark of the comic opera in which Mozart so excelled, and which (as we have seen) so informed the style of his concerto writing. Another music historian, Wye J. Allanbrook, calls the device the “comic closure,” and maintains that the quicker and smoother the unexpected reconciliation, and the greater the harmonic distance covered by it, the more it reflected Mozart’s essentially optimistic outlook on the workings of his society.21 In this, Allanbrook concludes, Mozart was acting in a manner typical of eighteenth-century dramatists and, like them, expressing an ingenuous commitment to the social ideals of the Enlightenment.

Indeed, the interpretive descriptions of the concerto that have come down to us from the eighteenth century tend to place emphasis on a kind of co-participation in an expressive enterprise, rather than on social conflict. “I imagine the concerto,” wrote Koch, “to be somewhat like the tragedy of the ancients, where the actor expressed his feelings not to the audience but to the chorus, which was involved most sparingly in the action, and at the same time was entitled to participate in the expression of the feelings.”22 Thus, in Koch’s view, there is indeed an “emotive relationship” between the soloist and the orchestra. “To it,” Koch writes (meaning the orchestra), “he displays his feelings, while it now beckons approval to him with short interspersed phrases, now affirms, as it were, his expression; now it tries in the Allegro to stir up his exalted feelings still more; now it pities him in the Adagio, now it consoles him.” As Jane R. Stevens, the translator of this passage from Koch, comments, “instead of antagonists or simply cooperating partners, the solo and tutti are semi-independent, interacting elements in a sort of dramatic intercourse”—one designed not merely to represent a mode of interaction but to achieve a heightened expressive intensity for the audience to contemplate.23

And yet, even if it can be demonstrated conclusively that the idea of concerto as social paradigm was not the dominant view of Mozart’s time, that does not by any means preclude or invalidate social or biographical readings of his contributions to the genre. The view of the concerto as a critical social microcosm seems to have come later than Mozart’s time, but not much later. And when it came, it had surely been influenced by Mozart’s example. Koch himself is a case in point. His remarks on the expressive meaning of the concerto are from his textbook, An Essay in Composition Instruction (Versuch einer Anleitung zur Composition), published in 1793. In this book, C. P. E. Bach is named as the exemplary concerto composer; Mozart’s name is absent. Nine years later, in 1802, Koch published a Musical Dictionary, in which many of the same points are made, but now with Mozart as the prime example.

It was, in other words, only after Mozart’s death that his concertos began to circulate outside of the narrow Vienna-Salzburg corridor and have a wider resonance. By then, Romanticism was burgeoning. The meanings and feelings that were drawn out of Mozart’s music by his later interpreters probably no longer corresponded exactly with those that Mozart was aware of depositing there, so to speak. But a message received is just as much a message as a message sent. In this as in so many ways, Mozart—perhaps unwittingly, but no less powerfully—fostered the growth of musical Romanticism, and became its posthumous standard-bearer.

Whatever we may make of the closing bars of the middle movement, the finale of the Concerto in G, K. 453, like practically all of Mozart’s concerto finales, is cast in the cheerful, conciliatory spirit of an opera buffa finale. While the rondo form remained the most popular framework for such pieces, a significant minority of concertos, including this one, used the theme and variation technique. In either case, the object was the same: to put a fetchingly contrasted cast of characters on stage and finally submerge their differences in conviviality. Mozart’s stock of variational characters is replete, on the happy end, with jig rhythms for the piano and gossipy contrapuntal conversation for the winds; and, on the gloomy end, with mysterious syncopations in the parallel minor, all awaiting reconciliation in the coda.

That coda, when it comes, is even more buffa-like than most, thanks to its length and extraordinary precipitateness. With its bristling new tempo (“Presto. Finale.”), it takes the place of the strepitoso or molto stretto at the end of an operatic act, which (recalling Lorenzo Da Ponte’s words) “always closes in an uproar” with every character cavorting on stage. Here all is given up to fanfares and madcap arpeggios (as Da Ponte would put it, to “noise, noise, noise!”), the texture teeming with rapid antiphonal exchanges and with muttered Leporelloish asides like the strange minor-mode string ostinato in whole notes that frames the frenetic last statement of the theme by the piano in characteristic dialogue with the winds (Ex. 11-6). The result, in the enthusiastic words of Donald Francis Tovey, the greatest of all program annotators, is “a comic wind-up big enough for Figaro.”


(19) Susan McClary, “A Musical Dialectic from the Enlightenment: Mozart’s Piano Concerto in G Major, K. 453, Movement 2,” Cultural Critique 4 (Fall 1986): 149.

(20) McClary, “A Musical Dialectic,” p. 151.

(21) Wye J. Allanbrook, The Secular Commedia (forthcoming, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press).

(22) Koch, Versuch einer Anleitung, Vol. III, p. 332; quoted in Stevens, “An Eighteenth-Century Description,” p. 94.

(23) Stevens, “An Eighteenth-Century Description,” p. 94.

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. 16 Sep. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-11006.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 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-11006.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 16 Sep. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-11006.xml