Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 24 in C-Minor, K491

by Max Derrickson

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart     (Born January 27, 1756 in Salzburg; died December 5, 1791 in Vienna)

Piano Concerto No. 24 in C-Minor, K491
1. Allegro
2. Larghetto
3. Allegretto

Mozart’s Piano Concerto 24 is at once sublime and yet sounds years ahead of its time.  Its moody outer movements that bookend the almost naïve middle movement are elusive and yet profound in nature.  It’s a piece that’s Romantic ahead of its time in the pathos that it explores and it’s harmonically advanced, seeming at times almost modern.  And it’s unique in Mozart’s oeuvre in that he also chose to end it in a minor key.  In a Mozart catalog filled with masterpieces, the 24th Concerto is unique among them.  Audiences have delighted in it and puzzled over it for centuries since its premiere in 1786.

The 24th opens with a truly remarkable theme.  It sounds as though it might have been composed 150 years later, with, what was for Mozart’s day, an outrageously chromatic melody that uses all 12 notes of the chromatic scale.  So unique is it that in 1953 the German composer Giselher Klebe (1925 – 2009) used it as a tone row in his 12-tone Symphony for Strings.  And yet, it’s stunningly moving, hauntingly beautiful in a dark and numinous way.  After this a tumultuous opening the piano enters, flowing in solace, as a foil.   But the turbulent undercurrents are never quelled, and Mozart treats
[. . .]
of having vanished into thin air.

The slow movement gathers up the Concerto’s coat and retreats into pure simplicity.  As the Mozart scholar Alfred Einstein said of it, it “moves in regions of the purest and most affecting tranquility, and has a transcendent
[. . .]

The third movement, however, returns to that minor key.  It begins somberly, as if entering the darkness timidly after the respite of the second movement.  But the drama returns soon enough in an ingenious way.  Mozart structures this movement as
[. . .]
then both soloist and ensemble suddenly race to the end.  What’s extraordinary about this ending is how abrupt it is: it feels almost like slamming the lid on the piano keyboard – it’s as unsettling as it is extraordinary.

Several year later, Beethoven commented to a composer friend during a performance of this Concerto that they “would never be able to write anything like that,” so envious were they of its mastery and mystery.  Indeed, audiences have been as beguiled by it ever since.