The Final Program- Why K. 488?

For some strange reason, my blog post “Haydn-More Talented Than Mozart” has left some readers with the impression that I somehow don’t get or don’t like Mozart. Far from it- in fact, those who pay attention to these sorts of things will no doubt have noticed that three of my last four works here in Pendleton are by Mozart.

One of my points in that post was that we ought to do away with the notion that every note Mozart wrote was a heaven-inspired nugget of perfection. Haydn was far closer to achieving infallibility in the sense of always being fresh and inspired on every single page.  Pretending that every Mozart wrote was equally wonderful completely obscures just how astounding his greatest pieces are deadens us to a full understanding of who he really was and what his music, at its best, can say.

For all his precociousness and genius, Mozart seemed to often have to struggle far harder than Haydn, which ought to make us all the more in awe of what he achieved at his best. It would have been all too easy for Mozart to be content turn out mountains of attractive but ultimately unimportant music- some of the greatest prodigies and pure geniuses fell into that trap, never quite delivering music worthy of their gifts. Cruel as it is to single them out, and for all that they were fine composers, think of Korngold or Saint-Saens and imagine if Mozart had followed their path, content to turn out pieces that were perfect in their voice-leading and entertaining for the audience, but ultimately, not very deep?

There are certainly works of Mozart that prove he was far from infallible. One of my teachers, now a very famous composer in his own right, spent a week in our analysis class taking apart the poor Mozart Bassoon Concerto so that we would all be able to articulate why it was such a mediocre piece as preparation for spending the rest of the term celebrating the Prague Symphony, which he felt was as close to perfect as music gets (I agree).

A piece like the Mozart Requiem doesn’t just flow from the pen as an effortless expression of divine gifts, it is the result of a genius pushing himself to and beyond the limits of his talent. The Piano Concerto in A Major that we’re playing this week is, in a much quieter and more personal way, a similarly towering achievement.

It might be my favorite Mozart Concerto (the D minor is its only real rival to me). In spite of its major key and the wealth of lovely tunes, I find it a strange and heartbreaking work. It seduces and haunts in equal measures. Of course, the heartbreak in the F# minor slow movement is easy to recognize- I think it is simply the saddest piece of music ever written. But even in the outwardly bucolic first movement there seem to be incredibly powerful undercurrents of longing and uncertainty. I suppose this balance between outward graciousness and inward loneliness has a few distinguished cousins- the first movements of Mahler 4 and Brahms 2 both come to mind, but this movement of Mozart’s seems to be the most perfect and moving expression of nostalgia in the best sense of the word of any piece I know. It is an expression of idealized beauty surrounded by mystery and complexity, of radiant, fragile candlelight in a vast, shadowy night.

Mozart does give us daybreak in the Finale, after we’ve cried our eyes dry in the Andante, and what a bright day it is. Still, he is, by now, too honest and too great a composer to let us completely forget what has come before- there are just enough hints of shadow and sorrow that the ending feels honest and connected to what has come before. Where the great (and similarly heart-wrenching) slow movement of the Sinfonia Concertante is followed by a not-very-distinguished Finale which can come across as a little insipid after such deep music, in this Concerto, Mozart manages to show us the sheer strength of will it takes to be joyful, truly joyful, in a world full of pain.

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at

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2 comments on “The Final Program- Why K. 488?”

  1. Tony E

    K488 is one of my all time favorite pieces. I like the Horowitz recording that I have the most.

  2. Nikki M

    An interesting aside: a theory prof at Eastman told me that the slow movt of 488 is the only thing Mozart wrote in the key of F-sharp minor. I’ve yet to find anything to prove him wrong.

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