Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 17 in G Major, K.453

COMPOSER: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

BORN: January 27, 1756, Salzburg

DIED: December 5, 1791, Vienna

COMPOSED: 1784 for his piano student, Barbara Ployer

WORLD PREMIERE: April 29, 1784 or June 13, 1784, Vienna

INSTRUMENTATION: piano, flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, strings

ABOUT THE COMPOSER: Today, we know Mozart as the foremost composer of the Age of Enlightenment because—on the surface, at least—his music is classically simple, orderly, and logical. But in 1784, he was regarded as the best pianist and music teacher in Vienna. He taught at least four hours a day, and would sometimes “upsell” by writing music for his more talented pupils, an activity which, he said, “paid handsomely.” Barbara Ployer, the teenage niece of a wealthy court functionary, received two of his piano concertos. Since his own schedule that spring included twenty-two concerts in six weeks, he probably also played her concertos himself, along with two others designed to “make the performer sweat.”


At the end of the concert season, Mozart sent all four concertos to his father and sister in Salzburg. He teased them by asking which one they liked best but refusing to tell them “the general opinion in Vienna” and his own preference. The evidence that he favored the one we hear tonight comes in an unusual form: a day after he sent the letter, he heard a bird in a pet store whistling the opening motif of the final movement. He bought the little starling, which lived with him for three years and received a formal funeral when it died.

Piano concertos are often a battle between the individual soloist and the mighty orchestra, and a battle was no place for a girl in the eighteenth century. Mozart crafted an extraordinarily feminine piece for young Barbara. The first movement opens with a delicate melody, decorated with a trill, twittering woodwinds, and a subdominant chord that reduces, rather than builds, tension. The second theme is feminine in a different way: sighs (descending half-steps) and colorful harmonies that grew out of Mozart’s experience writing for operatic sopranos. When the piano enters, “she” inserts an unexpected third theme between the two that are usual in sonata-allegro form. The music slides gracefully into a chromatic development section without the usual crashing halt, much as a lady of the time was trained to enter a room. As was usual in works composed for his mostly female students, Mozart wrote a cadenza, rather than trusting the performer to improvise.

The slow movement is deceptively demure; nothing pushes it forward. Its subtlety lies in the interplay between the piano, strings, and winds, the quietly adventurous harmonies; and the fact that, instead of a simple song structure, it is a cleverly concealed sonata-allegro form, complete with cadenza.

It is the jolly finale, however, that probably imprinted itself in the minds of the fun-loving Viennese, who may have hummed or whistled it within hearing of Mozart’s starling. It is a variation set, with a somewhat-silly contredanse in AABB form as its theme. The first two variations go to the piano, with orchestral accompaniment; the solo woodwinds get the melody in variation 3, and the orchestra gets it in a minor key in variation 4, with the piano taking the repeats in each case. In variation 5, the piano leads and the orchestra does the repeats, then everything comes to a dramatic stop. Mozart-the-Jokester of the film Amadeus suddenly pops up with a noisy Presto finale that has several false buildups, like Haydn’s “Joke” quartet, before the real ending.