Mozart's Piano Concerti as Operatic Character Studies

Essay response to questions posed by William Kinderman. January 13, 2005


William Kinderman:  In The Classical Style, Charles Rosen writes that “Mozart’s most signal triumphs took place where Haydn had failed:  in the dramatic forms of the opera and the concerto, which pit the individual against the sonority of the mass.”  Discuss Mozart’s handling of these two dramatic forms, and especially his treatment of the individual voice in relation to the collective.  What principles of dialogue or interaction between soloist and tutti in the concertos suggest affinities with the world of Mozart’s operas?

As a composer, Mozart’s fundamental achievements are found in the genres of the opera and the piano concerto.  Although seemingly fluid and comfortable within any genre he chose to work, it was the inherent similarities of these two in particular that afforded him the greatest opportunities to vent his creative imagination.  With great skill, Mozart was able to transfer his command of theatre (its idioms, topics and drama) to a purely instrumental art form and, likewise, utilize his mastery of instrumental music to serve his theatrical works.  It is in this versatility that we glimpse the creative facility which Mozart possessed and which allowed him to bring a heightened effectiveness and innovation to these two arenas.

Unlike the keyboard concerto of the baroque, in the classical approach the keyboard takes on a role apart from the orchestra.  This dramatization of the concerto is one of the biggest departures from the baroque model, and the role of the soloist as an opponent to the orchestra invites a logical treatment of it as though it were a ‘character’ in a theatrical work.  While Mozart wasn’t the first to view the soloist in this capacity, he certainly brought an array of theatrical skills to the compositional table.  Rosen points out that in every concerto Mozart composed after 1776, the entrance of the soloist is a theatrical event (and as such provides a convincing argument not to perform the basso continuo part notated in the scores during the orchestral ritornelli).  Not completely divorced of its baroque predecessors however, the majority of piano entrances in Mozart’s concerti consist of a restatement of the opening subject presented by the orchestra.  Although he never fully rejected this approach (he does the same with his last two concerti in fact), both the D minor and C minor concerti offer two striking examples of the soloist entering with dramatically different ideas than those articulated by the orchestra.  In both of these examples, in fact, the soloist seems to enter in recitative fashion, articulating an independence from the mood established by the orchestra in both pieces.

Returning to the dramatic relationship of soloist and orchestra momentarily, it is interesting to note that Mozart’s writing for the piano itself often employs devices of vocal music.  The continuing fascination with virtuosity in the form of fast, melismatic coloraturas, brilliant technical feats, or vocal patterns can all be identified in pianistic writing of the day.  More readily identifiable are passages in the singing style in which the piano imitates the melodic fluidity of the voice.  Perhaps the most inherently ‘operatic’ of these influences is Mozart’s use of recitative in the piano concertos.

As early as the Piano Concerto in E Flat major, K. 271, we see an aria-like approach to the slow movement.  The closing of the first ritornello features an accompanied-recitative treatment of the first violins in discourse with the remaining strings.  This passage serves as a dramatic set-up for the entrance of the piano in a lyrical obbligato, while the orchestra restates its opening, contrapuntal material.  In a sense, we see the opening of this movement as though roles are reversed:  the orchestra serving as soloist, the piano as commentator.  This recitative passage returns near the end of the movement, but this time the piano asserts itself as the ‘vocal’ model by providing a proper cadenza.  Instead of closing with a ritornello, as would be expected in the opera seria aria model, or even in first movement concerto form, the movement closes with another recitative.  This time it is the piano which retakes the vocal position, closing the movement with a syllabic recitative that sounds as though it could have been extracted, verbatim, from an opera.

Examples of later treatments include the first movement entrances of the soloist in both the D Minor and C minor concerti.  In these instances, the piano enters with thematic material not heard in the opening ritornelli.  This procedure invites a view that the soloist is acting in dramatic contrast to the orchestra by taking up a statement of individuality rather than merely commenting in agreement on the discourse established by the orchestra.  In the case of the C Minor concerto, the tragic torment and force of the orchestra’s introduction is countered by a somewhat tentative, almost fearful recitative from the soloist.  As throughout this movement, the orchestra responds with its forte restatement of its original idea, reasserting its antagonistic role against the piano.  In the D Minor concerto, the piano’s first appearance is similarly posed in contrast to the mood and material of the first ritornello.  However, the character of the piano’s recitative is perhaps more inquisitive than fearful in its reaction to the haunting and chilling atmosphere established by the orchestra.  The dramatic role of the piano in these two concerti would not have been possible had the piano merely entered with a restatement of orchestral material (Mozart used this procedure in the concerti K. 467 and K. 482, to name but two other examples).  The dramatic roles are further defined by the quasi-syllabic use of recitative in both instances.  Once the operatic allusion has been established, at the first entrance of the soloist, the theatrical design can play out in spectacular ways.

The most obvious similarity between opera and concerti is the delineation of roles of protagonist and antagonist.  However, in Mozart’s piano concerti there appears to be more than this simple designation of relationship between soloist and orchestra that links their dramatic contexts to opera.  While Mozart does not revert to quotation or overt associations, the operatic element of the concerti are discernable if viewed as, perhaps, modest character studies.  One can ask which elements of opera influenced the concerto as well as what influence the instrumental form had upon opera.  Constanza’s aria “Marten aller Arten”, from Die Entführung aus dem Serail is a noted example of Mozart’s loading-up the seria ritornello aria with concertant treatment, in the end the voice becoming a fifth soloist after the expansive introduction.  Likewise, Mozart’s use of instrumental forms, particularly multi-movement sonata-like molds for his buffa finales is reflective of the blurring of lines between the genres of opera and purely instrumental music.  However, the most intriguing and direct correlations between the dramatic content of the operas and the piano concerti can be discerned through his use of topics.

In the opening scene of Act II of Le Nozze di Figaro, Mozart introduces us to the Countess through the aria “Porgi amour”.  This is an important aria not only because it is the first time we have seen the Countess in this story but, more importantly, because this aria reveals the nature of her character.  Although of noble birth, she is tremendously feeling in the most human terms.  Mozart cleverly reveals to us her ‘human’ side by combining two less than obvious topoi to reveal her depth of character and not simply her social status.  By juxtaposing a slow march with an expressive melody in ‘singing style’ Mozart acknowledges her nobility through the march step) while revealing her intimate and reflective nature.  Mozart likely felt that these qualities were crucial to understanding the actions and motivations of the Countess, which is why he chose to introduce her with such a lengthy ritornello.  This combination of march and singing style (both mezzo di carattere) can be found elsewhere, but with somewhat different intentions.  In Don Giovanni, the opening number features Leporello complaining of the exhaustion of working night and day, yet allowing him the fantasy of aspiring to be like his master in his conquests of women.  In this number, we again find a marriage of march and singing style topics depicting labor, romance and aspiration to an elevated social status.  To this end, it suggests an explanation to the directional charge of the very opening of the Piano Concerto in C Major, K. 467.  While these topics are not the least bit unusual in piano concerti, Mozart’s treatment of them in this particular work does seem particularly operatic.  In this instance, the orchestra opens with unison strings playing a march-like motto very similar to that which opens the first scene of Don Giovanni.  Here, however, instead of the ‘forte’, upward triplet outbursts which indicated Leporello’s growing annoyance with his situation at that moment, in the concerto the triplet figures simply cascade downward with a sense of timidity and stealth (one can also imagine the spying and tiptoeing of the Act IV finale of Figaro in these figures).  The Leporello-like march gestures are then interrupted by a ‘singing’ motif which, in turn, is disrupted by a proper military march with dotted rhythms (reminiscent of Figaro’s “Non piu andrai”).  Only after the singing style again tries to take control does the opening march assert itself in full force.  Here, unlike the usage in “Porgi amour”, the contrast of the two topics is used in dramatic, almost comic effect—playing a tug-o’-war for prominence in the course of the opening ritornello

The second movement of K. 467 is often referred to as an elaborately constructed “aria” type work.  What lends particular credence to this is its presence within a particularly operatic concerto.  The associations of the first movement’s material with Figaro in particular invite certain speculation about the dramatic narrative of this Andante.  It seems that, just as the form of the movement seems somewhat elusive or disguised, that this could be seen as an allusion to the opera as a whole – a work where disguise and intrigue are the active devices of the plot.  This movement could be seen as a pastorale in disguise.  The pastorale is significant in Figaro because of various references made both by text and topic throughout.  Wye Allenbrook mentions that “twighlight” is the symbolic time of day for the pastorale and, furthermore, points up references to the increased use of the pastoral as the opera progresses.  This is a structural device on Mozart’s part, bringing us closer and closer to the very time of day at which the exploits of the Act IV finale will take place.  The letter duet between Susanna and the Countess, in which the rendezvous with the Count is planned, is a pastorale with many indicative features (6/8 meter, flat key signature, etc.).  In the case of K. 467, the second movement appears not to conform by reason of its structural complexities and by a common-time meter (although F Major is a key often associated with the pastoral [for example, Susanna’s “Deh vieni”, Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony and the pastorale of Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique]).   However, the pastoral atmosphere of this movement of the concerto cannot be denied.  This is created by the relentless accompaniment of triplets offset by a simple, on the beat pizzicato support from celli and bassi.  This accompaniment figure invites a gestural feel comparable to a 6/8 pastorale.  However, the legato style melody, which is rhythmically at odds with the triplet accompaniment, requires a notation in common-time.  In essence it is a pastorale, evocative of the twilight which allows Figaro, the Count and others to wander the garden disguised in shadows, spying on one another (as the opening of the first movement suggests), cloaked as something other than what it really is.  The character most readily imagined in this Andante is, again, the Countess:  noble, yet wearing the clothes of a servant (the melody she takes up is that first presented by the violins who disguise their voices with the use of sordini).  The music is tender and intimate, the melody relying heavily upon the same appoggiaturas that hit their expressive mark in “Porgi amour”  and “Dove sono”.

If the Countess is the presiding presence in the Andante, the third movement of K. 467 may possess much of the character of Figaro himself.  Figaro is a man of action.  Not without skills to think quickly on his feet, he is called upon to outwit the Count through the course of the opera.  However, it is impulsiveness that finds him outside the scheme of the Countess and Susanna, ultimately falling prey (to an extent) to their deceptions as well.  Although there are several “characters” identifiable in the finale of the concerto, it is Figaro’s wit and action that are most evident.  If Figaro himself were equated with the role of the piano, then the fact that the Rondo begins with the orchestra (unlike the conventional concerto rondo which begins with the soloist) can be compared to Figaro’s place in the Act IV finale where he finds himself caught up in a scheme set in motion by others.  However, once he has discerned the situation (and recognizes Susanna’s voice), he is quick to seize control and have a bit of fun.  The third movement of the concerto is about fun and games.  It is perhaps the most rambunctious of Mozart’s concerto finales, making no pretenses and largely inelegant.  It is quick-paced and quick-witted (just like Figaro) and revels in buffoonery.  While the movement is perhaps at the scurrying pace of Cherubino’s exit after “Aprite, aprite”, the movement does not feel ‘panicked.’  Rather, it is a riotous game of hide and seek exhibited through raucous dialogue (such as the melodic fragments exchanged between piano and bassoon) and vulgar chromaticism.  Although the pacing is entirely different, Figaro’s aria “Aprite un po” bears some comparison.  The topic of the aria begins as an “exalted march” (although it is notated in 4/4, the accents on beats one and three give the work a steady feeling of being in a dignified ‘two’ count).  However, despite Figaro’s attempt to adopt this air of nobility, his march breaks into patter while he makes crude jokes in the manner of a low-comic character.  In the finale of the piano concerto, after the first extended orchestral ritornello, the piano enters with a figure of a rising C Major triad in half notes that is echoed by the horns.  This figure is an attempt to pull the metrical rhythm back into an alla breve, thus elevating it to an “exalted march” of nobility.  However, just as happens in Figaro’s aria, the piano falls into “patter” of running sixteenth notes and blatant pianistic gymnastics.  The horns try again to pull the piano back into the alla breve, but the soloist is oblivious to anything but its own head-long frolicking.  The rampant and reckless play found in the concerto can be identified in the scheming, chasing and deception of the Act IV finale of Figaro;  and the crudeness of the chromatic sidestepping that occurs in the finale of the concerto can be identified in Figaro’s speech in “Aprite un po”.  In the aria, the horns “call attention” to “that which everyone already knows”, whereas in the finale of K. 467 the horn calls function to keep Figaro grounded and ‘exalted’ amongst the prevailing confusion and chaos.

The topic which most readily depicts confusion and chaos in an ‘exalted’ manner is that of ombra.  Ombra music is most often used to invoke images of the supernatural.  Birgitte Moyer defined ombra by its characteristics, including unusual instrumentation (particularly the use of trombones), exclamatory vocal line often in sustained note values, bold harmonic movements and chromatic side-slipping, unresolved syncopations, drastic and unprepared dynamic fluctuations, orchestra parts in slow, march-like rhythms, and chromatic bass lines.  The key of D Minor came to be strongly associated with ombra music, and characteristics emerged such as rising scales and arpeggios that are used to convey anger or menace.  Viewed in total, these descriptions perfectly match both the Overture to Don Giovanni and the first movement of the Piano Concerto in D Minor, K. 466.  Largely due to the similar key (and therefore similar affect), these two works can serve as the most obvious examples of ombra features.  However, the C Minor concerto is also ripe with ombra procedures – its haunting pathos and dramatic brutality would not be possible without them.

Although the instrumentation of the concerti is conventional, Don Giovanni models ombra techniques by including trombones (which are likewise used in Die Zauberflöte).  In Don Giovanni, the trombones only appear at the end, when the statue speaks to Giovanni and Leporello in the graveyard.  The trombones, in fact, only ‘speak’ when the Stone Guest does, adding their presence to the supper scene when Mozart returns to the material presented in the Overture.  In one particularly dramatic moment, after Giovanni defiantly tells Leporello to bring the dinner for his guest, the Statue commands Leporello to Stop!.  In this measure, the entire orchestra rests for half a bar while the trombones alone continue to sound.  In this moment, Mozart is using the ombra device to chilling effect as this is the moment the Guest will explain the reason for his presence.  Another notable use of trombones in ombra style is found in the Requiem.  The Rex Tremendae in particular is evocative of the C Minor concerto with its descending scale in dotted rhythm followed by a striking upward leap.  This passage is found immediately prior to the piano’s reactionary and terrified entrance in the concerto.

As Allenbrook has cited, the beginning of Don Giovanni follows a pattern of topics that takes us from the exalted style of ombra music, which opens the work, through the gallant major section of the overture and ultimately to the buffa music of Leporello’s first scene.  The opening of the D Minor Concerto follows similar suit, opening with music of ombra that gives way to an exalted march in F Major (the flute gesture which accompanies this theme draws comparison in the recapitulation, when the soloist takes over the figure in a mocking fashion, the way Giovanni savagely mocks Elvira with the word “poverina” in her first aria).  The opening ritornello remains in high style, setting the tenor of the work with the same lofty parameters described in the overture to the opera.  It is not until the soloist presents its own theme that we glimpse the buffa character in this work.  Set in the key of F Major (Leporello’s key, according to Allenbrook), this theme attempts to elevate its character from the lowly by use of the gavotte rhythm.  However, the ‘Scottish’ snap accompaniment of the violins undermines the attempted seriousness of the tune.  Taking it a step further, the soloist is answered by a restatement of this theme with the oboes accompanied, in a mocking fashion, by the bassoons.  This comic duet clearly brings the music into the realm of buffa, and tears the aspirations for something more exalted from the hands of its character.  This could serve as a depiction of Leporello’s first scene in the opera, and sets the stage for the dramatic scenario encountered in the concerto.

The second ritornello of K. 466 begins with a passage that invites a curious comparison with the actual sword-fight between Giovanni and the Commendatore, employing the same steady sixteenth-note tremble in the inner strings beneath the violent thrusts of rapid ascending gestures.  In the opera, the consequence of this duel is the central element to the plot.  In the concerto, it is a defining portrayal of the violent conflict which exists throughout the piece.

The Romanza of the concerto seems to have much in common with the character of Don Ottavio.  A seria character of seemingly implacable moral character, yet personified in a genteel, almost effeminate manner.  Allenbrook compares Ottavio’s amoroso style with that of the Countess in Figaro.  The Romanza, characterized by its amoroso qualities, begins in the same ‘sensible’ style (as described by Ratner) that we find in Ottavio’s “Il mio tesoro”.  Both share a tenderly spun melody consistent with Ottavio’s desire to console his beloved, and employ the style’s characteristic sighing figures and portrayal of tears (“pianti”) which he wishes to dry from Donna Anna’s eyes.  In addition to being in the same key (B Flat major), both the aria and the Romanza reveal a contrasting section with Sturm und Drang characteristics of impassioned rhythms and dynamics.  The G Minor outburst in the concerto is equally suggestive of Ottavio’s declaration of his determination to avenge the honour of Donna Anna.  This betrayal of composure, and exhibition of outrage, vents itself in a flurry of virtuosity before settling back into its original temperament of compassion and sympathy.  The Romanza is, ultimately, as gentle and tender as Ottavio, and the presence of a seria ‘character’ in this movement is consistent with the dramatic outline of the concerto as a whole.  The third movement ok K. 466 begins with an irregularly structured these in the piano, heavily reliant on striking accents and syncopations.  The affect is one of distress and fury, using its rhythmic irregularity to the same result as Donna Anna’s alla breve march “Fuggi, crudele fuggi”.

The commanding character of the first movement of the Piano Concerto in C Minor, K. 491 is the one conspicuously absent from the D Minor:  that of the Commendatore.  If we see the protagonist Giovanni in the solo of the C Minor Concerto, we recognize the dominance the orchestra carries throughout the work.  Despite the soloist’s best efforts, in the end the orchestra’s brutality succeeds in subordinating this character.  Just as the frail Commendatore, who was dispatched by Giovanni in the opening scene of the opera, returns in the powerful and superhuman form of the Stone Guest, the orchestra exacts its most powerful statement, and final blow to the soloist, with its terrifying return at the head of the recapitulation.  Here, the material first presented at the start of the movement in a ‘piano’ dynamic, asserts itself conclusively as the dominant figure, as if to deliver justice to the unrepentant Don.  To that end, Mozart employs many of the same ombra devices found in the opera, particularly associated with the music of the Stone Guests, including scalar figures, menacing passagework and heightened chromaticism.  In his article on the narrative design of the C Minor Concerto, William Kinderman addresses these same issues, even noting that the development contains a passage of ascending and descending scales (delivered by the soloist) enticingly similar to the ominous music found in the ombra beginning of Don Giovanni (also found when this music returns during the supper scene).  This passage is clearly evocative of ombra in its scalar shape of ascent and descent, and its chromatic ascension.  Kinderman also notes, however, that in the concerto this passage does not act to disrupt the sense of tonal stability as it does in the opera, but rather remains grounded to its dominant pedal and function.  Considering that, in this instance, the material of the Commendatore’s domain is being presented by the soloist; it is consistent with the Don’s character that this material remains defiant and unrepentant.  In the concerto, just as in the opera, his submission must be forced.  It has been noted that the soloist, through the rest of the concerto, seems beaten and weary after its agility in the development.  Even after the cadenza, in the final ritornello, the piano remains chained to the orchestra in haunting figurations that do not impose their presence but, rather, seem to be emblematic of the soloist’s giving up his ghost.

It is this brute force which most distinguishes this concerto from the D Minor, K. 466.  Although ripe with ombra influences and heightened drama, it is ultimately more refined in its presentation of material.  The D Minor is founded on the flirtations of major, vs. minor, often giving us its themes in both.  Ultimately, the D Minor concerto follows the anticipated process of the ‘finale lieto’, concluding in the major key as does Don Giovanni.  The C Minor concerto, on the other hand, refuses to relinquish its pathetic and tragic affects right up to the end.  This gives the work a sense of gravity which is not present in the D Minor.  The opening theme is not presented in major, and despite the soloists exhibition of independence by entering with its own material, the orchestra’s response is an unforgiving reassertion of its principal thematic idea in ‘forte’. 

This is a different relationship than we find in the D Minor Concerto.  In the development of K. 466, we encounter forceful outbursts from the orchestra (with characteristic ombra devices such as syncopation, chromatic side-slipping and abrupt dynamic shifts).  However, the sense of conflict here is not the overpowering type encountered in K. 491.  Instead, the development begins with the soloist flirting between major and minor in its opening musical material.  The orchestra wrenches us from one key to the next in its brief interludes while the pianist recites three versions of its opening recitative.  In the end, the major appears to prevail and the thematic references give way to fantasy (indicative of the prominent ombra affect) in a sequence of pianistic figurations coupled with a bass that ascends, stepwise, to the dominant.  Unlike the C Minor concerto, here it is the soloist who makes the transition into the recapitulation in a brusque manner.  A chromatic ascent, by the soloist, ‘forte’, from A to D leads us into the quiet entrance of the orchestra returning to its opening material.

The piano concerti of Mozart are often viewed as ‘dramatic’ in nature.  The sense of dialogue perceived between soloist and orchestra is often referred to as an operatic treatment of an instrumental form.  However, the operatic link between Mozart’s concertos and his operas is not merely to be found in the simple pairing of soloist with the mass.  Instead, Mozart’s treatment of musical materials, particularly his use of vocal devices such as recitative and his imaginative combination of topoi, reveal so much about his operatic characters, as well as the dramatic narrative within the concerti.