Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 17 in G Major: A Magical Operatic Drama

Mozart wrote six piano concerti in 1784. Each distinct in atmosphere, they served as dazzling vehicles to highlight the composer’s skill as one of Vienna’s superstar keyboard players.

Among these works, Piano Concerto No. 17 in G Major, K. 453 has a special story. Mozart wrote it for his beloved student, Barbara (“Babette”) Ployer, the teenage niece of an adviser to the Salzburg imperial court, who lived outside of Vienna. Proudly, he invited the visiting Italian composer, Giovanni Paisiello, to one of the first performances. Mozart’s excitement is evident in a letter he 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 in my carriage, as I want him to hear both my pupil and my compositions.

Concerto No. 17 pulls us into to a magical drama of conversing instrumental voices. It is music which seems to have drifted out of an imaginary Mozart opera. In these musical lines, we get a sense of what is being said, even without words and a specific plot. The woodwind voices (flute, two oboes, and two bassoons) play a particularly prominent role. This expanded cast of instrumental “characters” would have surprised audiences at the time.

The first movement (Allegro) begins as a cheerful military march. A stream of melodies develop effortlessly, opening the door to a warm, charming musical conversation, punctuated with friendly interjections. The conversation takes surprising and sometimes shadowy turns, with delightful harmonic innovations. Mozart provided a written-out cadenza which is heard at the end of the movement.

Leonard Bernstein once remarked that if pressed to name an “all-time favorite piece of music,” it would be the G Major Concerto’s second movement (Andante), in which Mozart stands “at the peak of his lyrical powers, combining serenity, melancholy, and tragic intensity in one great lyric improvisation.” It begins with a tender theme in C major, introduced by the strings and then developing into a shimmering pastoral dialogue between the oboe, flute, bassoon, and horn. The solo piano enters with an intimate statement of the theme, but soon trails off. Following a pause, the music shifts suddenly to a tragic, tempestuous G minor. With wrenching harmonic surprises, we enter a serene dreamscape, filled with pathos and lament.

The final movement (Allegretto—Presto) begins with a spirited theme which anticipates the bird catcher Papageno’s aria in The Magic Flute. Rather than the customary rondo, the movement unfolds as a series of adventurous variations on this theme. Charming practical jokes abound. The final moments erupt as a joyful Presto which surges with the glittering euphoria of an operatic finale.

Perhaps Mozart’s theme was so catchy that it was hummed throughout Vienna. Soon after finishing the Concerto, Mozart entered the shop of a bird seller and heard a starling sing an approximation of the finale’s theme. The bird became a cherished pet in Mozart’s home, and when it died a few years later, he honored it with a funeral.

This 1986 recording features Mitsuko Uchida with Jeffrey Tate and the English Chamber Orchestra:

Five Great Recordings

Featured Image: “The Salzburg landscape series for Prince-Archbishop Count Hieronymus Colloredo: Hohensalzburg” (1797), Albert Christoph Dies

About Timothy Judd

A native of Upstate New York, Timothy Judd has been a member of the Richmond Symphony violin section since 2001. He is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music where he earned the degrees Bachelor of Music and Master of Music, studying with world renowned Ukrainian-American violinist Oleh Krysa.

The son of public school music educators, Timothy Judd began violin lessons at the age of four through Eastman’s Community Education Division. He was a student of Anastasia Jempelis, one of the earliest champions of the Suzuki method in the United States.

A passionate teacher, Mr. Judd has maintained a private violin studio in the Richmond area since 2002 and has been active coaching chamber music and numerous youth orchestra sectionals.

In his free time, Timothy Judd enjoys working out with Richmond’s popular SEAL Team Physical Training program.

Leave a Comment