In March 1781 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart arrived in Vienna. At first his performances were very successfull, but the composer soon discovered that the public in that city was capricious and fickle, and no artist could hold its attention for long. In a letter of December 1782, he complained to his father: ‘To be honoured with the applause of this “happy community” – since perfection no longer exists or is valued anywhere – you must write music either so simple that it can be sung by a coachman, or so incomprehensible that the public only like it because no one could understand it’.
Mozart relied heavily on public performances to provide him with a livelihood, and so he devoted much of his energy to organising so-called ‘music academies’. These concerts, which combined the performance of symphonies, instrumental concertos, chamber and vocal music, and in addition had ‘good luck’ programmes, aimed to promote his talent as a composer and performer. It was probably at one of these ‘academies’ in 1784 that the Piano Concerto No. 19 was first performed. Elegant and jewel-like, it is one of six works in this genre composed in the year in question – a testament to the Herculean efforts the composer made to remain in the public eye.
The Piano Concerto No. 19 (like the 26th) is entitled Coronation . Not because Mozart composed it specifically for a coronation, but because he performed it at the coronation of Emperor Leopold II in Frankfurt am Main, six years later, in 1790.The concerto is for solo piano, flute, 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 French horns and strings . It lies midway between the simple and the incomprehensible, which goes some way to explaining why it was met with increasing difficulty in performance in the early 1780s. The richness of the orchestral part and its soloist-independent development, as well as the chamber nature of the score, all define the F major concerto (and the other five ones written in 1784) as an important moment in Mozart’s development as an artist.
The first movement, the Allegro Vivace, begins with a simple opening theme and moments of contrapuntal dialogue between the instruments of the orchestra and between orchestra and soloist, immediately marking the innovative nature of the work. The second movement – a fresh and relaxed Allegretto – engages the soloist in a dialogue with the woodwinds, the sort of elegant back and forth movement so characteristic of the slow movements of most of Mozart’s concertos written in 1784. And the finale, the Allegro assai, is a straight glove thrown down to the listeners, for if the first two movements failed to make the coachmen whistle, or were sufficiently unintelligible to confuse the Viennese audience and garner their applause, the finale certainly does both. The opening theme – entrusted to piano and winds – is like a finger pointing (if such a thing was even done in those days) , and the fugue excerpt that follows, noble and baroque, takes us back to Bach and the Rococo style. Incidentally, Mozart spent every Saturday afternoon at the Viennese home of Baron van Swieten, where he and fellow composers and other musicians played scores by Bach and his contemporaries, so here he manoeuvres freely between the two styles without any problem in what is perhaps the most complex finale to a piano concerto he ever composed.