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2. Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, II. Adagio

February 14, 2011

Listen here on youtube (But don’t get distracted by the painting of the kid who looks eerily like Macaualy Culkin)

Today, the 2nd movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto #23, marked “Adagio,” which means slow, but specifically meaning “at ease” in Italian. The concerto as a whole follows the usual pattern of the 3 movements being respectively fast, slow, and fast (Just about 100% of concertos in this era followed this pattern)

Admittedly, second movements are generally more difficult to grasp. They’re usually slower, less action-packed than first movements, more about subtleties, maybe less “fun” overall. I admit, I myself have often listened to first movements, skipped the second, and moved onto the third movement (the concluding fast movement). But let’s give this a shot. If not to come to enjoying listening to this one over and over again (which I know is tough), let’s pick this movement apart a bit, see what makes it tick, appreciate some of the qualities of this, and see wherein Mozart’s genius is demonstrated.

Your first impression may be that the movement is sad, almost desolate at times. How does Mozart establish this?

1) Slow tempo (Italian for speed).

Kind of self-inherent, or more intuitively understood – between faster and slower, slower is usually the sadder one of the two. But, perhaps, appreciate the idea that “slow,” if not handled well, can simply lead to “boring” or “dead” or “uninteresting.” So there is a challenge in the craft of writing music that is slow and interesting, and overall holds itself together without wandering into dead-ends and stagnancy.

2) Minor tonality.

To use some formal terminology, one big reason for this feeling is that it’s written in a minor key, as opposed to a major key (as the 1st and 3rd movements are in). The best analogy might be of colors – a “key” is like a related set of color tones that a painting uses (or at least, of one element of a painting). If you’d follow me along, the opening of the movement feels like a very dark blue to me – but not just all in one color, it kind of moves and pulses through various tones of dark blue. Individual chords are like those different tones of dark blue that Mozart is painting this sadness with. Simply put, it’s often said that these minor chords have a sadder sound than their corresponding major chords. However, this isn’t to say that all music in minor tonality (or “minor key”) is “sad” – lots of counterexamples on this down the line.

3) Harmonic tension.

Following the opening solo piano section, the next theme (0:59-1:29), introduced by the orchestra, is quite different. To me, it’s filled with a wonderful tension, and (without using a full-on technical analysis), I’ll attempt to describe some reasons why. First, it’s built on a short melodic phrase, a 7-note motif played by the violins, with clarinet/flute added for color. It’s restated two more times in increasingly higher register, and with increasing volume each time, and feeling-wise, an increasing urgency as well. But listen also to the chord change (or, color change) in accompanying instruments. Listen carefully what happens around the longer notes, paying attention to the other lines that are moving underneath it – especially at the 3rd (and loudest) iteration, the first long note is met with other lines which create a series of dissonant, tense-sounding chords, which gradually untangle themselves towards a more stable and resolved state by the end of the phrase. In the process, there’s this stretching, twisting, writhing, feeling that’s going on. To me, this is the most brilliant little excerpt of the entire 3-movement concerto.

Thought of too simplistically, consonance and stability = good, and dissonance and instability = bad. But the trick here, and other parts of the movement, is that there is a controlled dissonance that Mozart is leading you through, which makes it interesting, and creates movement and emotion. It has to contain just enough “clash” to make it expressive, but not so much that it becomes displeasing to the ear. Comparing this section and the previous, the chords of the opening section are more stable and settled – here, there is much more tension and movement. Herein, we can see both sides of Mozart’s brain at work at the same time – powerful dramatic tension, yet executed with fine craftsmanship, without excess or heavy-handedness.

I can’t analyze the whole movement minute by minute, but as you listen to the rest of it, consider at what points the music is “sad,” more static, more inwardly “weeping;” versus when the music can be described as being more tense, moving, dynamic, and “outward.” Also, listen for the “color change” when Mozart brings in a new theme that’s in a major tonality and a lighter texture (I’ll leave you to pinpoint when that occurs). And consider what color that part feels like, if we say the opening is dark blue.

All in all, one omnipresent quality of Mozart is that he’s always singing – one historian/writer identified connections between this movement and some of Mozart’s operatic work. Even in an atmosphere so weighty and sad, Mozart is still singing so lyrically through the piano.

Also, I’ve just decided right now that I won’t analyze the third movement of this piece, though you’re invited to listen to it an enjoy it’s much brighter colors.

Next: Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” (Overture, and Act 1, Scene 1)

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One Comment
  1. i really enjoyed what you wrote about 2. Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 23 in A, II. Adagio and Allegro but how come u didnt cover Allegro asai

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