I had already posted about the Minnesota Orchestra’s concert coming up this week—noting the multiple plays off of Russian fairy tales. But there is another, more personal reason why I made damn sure I had tickets for this week’s concert at Orchestra Hall.
And that reason is Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20.
Let me explain.
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Back in my younger days, I had little use for Mozart. I had cut my musical teeth on the late Romantic works of Tchaikovsky, Dvořák and Sibelius—composers that spoke in Big Gestures about Big Things. With all the smug self-importance that only a twentysomething guy can muster, I had written Mozart off as a fop in a powdered wig. His was the music that my musical heroes had reacted against.
If anything, it got worse after college, when I became an ardent supporter of 20th century music and the composers who working in the trenches today. While I certainly had professional, obligatory respect for Mozart as the greatest musical genius who ever lived… his music just was not a part of life.
And then, by chance, I had an experience that mercifully smacked some sense into me.
While in grad school, I had some down time and wanted to watch a movie. For some reason, I grabbed a hold of Amadeus, which I had not seen for many years.
I thoroughly enjoyed it, and certainly enjoyed hearing the music. But what really hit me, oddly enough, was the final credits. As the scene faded to black, and I was still contemplating the tragedy of what had happened, this gentle piano music began. It perfectly—perfectly—captured the pathos of the scene, as if Mozart had been commissioned to write the music to order. There was no overt teeth-gnashing, no maudlin sobbing, just a melody that somehow managed to express… everything. And I turned into a ball of emotional goo.
And that’s how I fell in love with the 20th Piano Concerto, with its heart-stopping central movement.
It is rare to have such a powerful musical epiphany… and when you do, it’s usually comes from hearing the music live, and not via the sadly inadequate speakers of my hand-me-down TV of the time. But to paraphrase one of the movie’s characters, there it was. I was hooked.
I rewound the scene twice more to re-listen to it, and then once more to study the credits to determine which piece it was. Reasonably secure that I had found it, I went to the library the next day to give it a more proper listen….
…and so my Mozart madness began.
I didn’t stop with the concerto. Curious about the Requiem that featured so prominently in the film, I hit that piece next. And then the Mass in C minor. And then the Symphony No. 25, and the Symphony No. 40. I freely admit to being a wee bit obsessive… but it was the fire of a new convert. I remember complaining at one point, “Why didn’t someone tell me how good his music is?!?” (I think the person I was complaining to actually hit me.)
And now, Mozart is an indispensable part of my life. His music is in heavy rotation at home. A CD of his late piano concertos was one of the handful I carried when I went off to live in Costa Rica (I may not have a “desert island” music list, but I literally have a “living in the rainforest” list). But it’s not just listening; I’ve had the good fortune to perform his music many times, too. Some of my favorite performances have been collaborations with the Minnesota Orchestra, where I’ve been privileged to sing in works ranging from The Magic Flute and the Requiem to smaller pieces like the Kyrie in D and the heart-stopping Ave Verum Corpus. Good stuff.
But nothing has replaced my singular affection for the Piano Concerto No. 20, which started it all.
And I’m hardly alone—the 20th has long been one of Mozart’s best-loved concertos. After hearing the work, Joseph Haydn, the most respected musician of the time, proclaimed Mozart to be the greatest composer he knew. Beethoven adored the work and performed it often, and even wrote out his own cadenzas for it (so, too, did other composers such as Johannes Brahms and Clara Schumann). As the classical era gave way to the Romantic era, much of Mozart’s music fell out of favor, but the 20th, however, remained popular with performers and audiences alike. Even as late as 1945 Abraham Veinus pronounced in his survey of The Concerto that the 20th was really the only popular Mozart concerto. Even though Mozart’s other concertos have made a roaring return to the concert hall in the past few decades, the 20th continues to hold a place of honor.
Its popularity is easy to understand. It isn’t just that it is dark and dramatic… it seems to portray a heroic struggle that ultimately ends in triumph. But what a struggle! The tension, the back-and-forth… leading to a final coda that seems to blast in like a comet and explode across the keyboard.
There is a reason this work has captured so many hearts over so many years… it is just that good.
Hear it. This weekend. Buy your tickets here.
You will not be sorry.