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

The year 1784 was a banner year for Mozart piano concerti. In that year he composed six of them not all for his own performances. The Piano Concerto in G, K. 453 was written for one of his most accomplished students, Barbara von Ployer, to be played in a concert at her father’s house in a Viennese suburb on June 10.

Mozart wrote to his father Leopold: “Tomorrow Herr Ployer is giving a concert in the country at Döbling, where Fräulein Babette is playing her new concerto in G…” I am fetching Paisiello (a prominent Italian composer whose opera Il barbiere di Siviglia was having a very successful run in Vienna) in my carriage, as I want him to hear both my pupil and my compositions.” Wolfgang reported that he was paid very well for this concerto.

European starling

European starling

According to Mozart’s expense book, on May 27, 1784, he paid 34 Kreutzer for a pet starling adding it to his beloved personal bestiary that already included a canary, a dog, and a horse. Sturnus vulgaris, European starlings, are virtuoso mimics, and Mozart taught his to sing the variation-theme from the finale of this concerto, though he was amused to find that the bird always held the sixth note (G) too long, and always sang the ninth and tenth notes (both also G) as G-sharp. When the bird died in 1787, Mozart administered last rites, read a poem he had written in its honor, and buried it with great solemnity in his garden at Alsergrund.

The orchestral exposition of the first movement of this concerto is made of an extravagance of melodies, an elegant parody of a military march. Where a traditional classical concerto would give two contrasting themes, this exposition offers no less than six, each one evolving out of the one previous. Contemporary Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf said of Mozart: “I have never yet known any composer who possessed such an astonishing wealth of ideas. I wish he were not so lavish in using them. He does not let the listener get his breath back…” Our soloist will be playing Mozart’s own cadenzas.

The C major slow movement is harmonically dramatic with several powerful modulations and extensive chromaticism giving weight to music of great transparency. The opening statement from the piano swerves from major to minor, and from simple expression to passionate outburst.

The finale is a set of variations on the tune the starling sang. The variations grow in complexity and ingenuity until the fourth, which plunges headlong into the minor mode, laden with chromaticism. The final variation leads straight to a comic-opera finale, the official coda. Surely Paisiello, whose talent seldom ventured beyond the opera house, would have marveled at what seems to be a ready-made opera finale.