Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Both in 1756, Mozart was the most amazing child prodigy in music history. His father gave him lessons in early childhood, so that by the age of five Mozart was composing little pieces, as well as playing the harpsichord at sight. Mozart’s infallible ear and prodigious memory served the courts of Europe. Mozart kept in constant touch with the musical life of his time, and he absorbed and transformed all music that came his way.
Although piano playing was in its infancy, Mozart probably began changing from the harpsichord to the pianoforte in 1763, when he met J.C. Bach, the best pianist in London. Mozart was influenced by his music and playing, and at eleven years old, transcribed sonata movements by J.C. Bach and several other composers into his first four piano concerti, K. 37, 39, 40, and 41. Mozart called them “pasticcio” and performed them frequently.
He preferred the piano to the harpsichord and his Concerto No. 5 in D major, K. 175, was the finest Classical piano concerto thus far composed by anyone. This 1773 score became a vehicle for his own constantly improving playing.
He came in touch with piano maker J.A. Stein whose inventions were used by all the Viennese piano builders. When Mozart declared an interest in trying out a church organ, Stein commented “Why would a man like you, such a great fortepianist, want to play an instrument on which no tenderness, no expression, no piano and no forte can take place, but which always goes the same?” This could also have been said about the harpsichord, which was, by 1780, losing ground to the popularity of the piano.
Mozart moved to Vienna and depended upon piano performance and teaching as his main sources of income. From 1782 to 1786 Mozart wrote no fewer than fifteen piano concerti, and from one concert he could earn nearly enough to cover his rent for an entire year. For each concert, Mozart paid a fee for the concert hall rental, sold the subscriptions himself, engaged copyists, and hired and rehearsed the orchestra (the Vienna Philharmonic was not yet in existence). He also had to select the program, conduct the concert, and work with the solo singers. Concerts could take place only during Lent, when public concerts were permitted.
Contemporary composer Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, when asked to compare Clementi to Mozart, remarked that “Clementi’s playing is art alone. Mozart’s is art and taste.” Mozart deplored Clementi’s work as unremarkable and contained “no striking passages except those in sixths and octaves.” Mozart’s dictum was that music “should flow like oil.” But his legato playing was probably not as smoot6h as Clementi’s and Beethoven told Czerny that Mozart still played in a clipped style. Very likely, during the 1770s and 1780s legato was still the exception, and a detached “harpsichord” style was prevalent, especially on the pedaling systems of pianos of the period.
There is no indication that Mozart was displeased with the sonorous qualities of the Viennese five-octave pianos available to him and for which his piano writing was created. Today, there have been many performances of Mozart on the fortepianos of his time. There is no doubt that his piano concerti can sound wonderful when played on a fortepiano. Today’s concert halls are much larger than those of Mozart’s day and the contemporary piano will continue to be used in the Mozart concerti, which remain the most important body of music for soloist and orchestra.
In the realm of the piano concerto, Mozart has no rival. In the nineteenth century, when played at all, he was usually treated as a frilly, Rococo doll, and performed in a mechanical style which passed for Classical “good taste.” By the 20th century, taste had changed considerably and Mozart was heard in all of his depth, passion, humor, and humanity. Artists began exposing large segments of his piano music in concert. Ultimately, pianists have become all but obsessed with this luminous literature. Writes critic Dubal, “The piano concerti constitute one of the most miraculous chapters in the history of music, and in the context of Mozart’s total work, a miracle among miracles.”
Alfred Einstein wrote: “Mozart possessed a sensitiveness to sound that has remained altogether unique and was never again to be attained, and above all an entirely different sphere of emotion, at once sensuous and non-sensuous, hovering between grace and melancholy, indeed often changing color with a lightning-like abruptness.”