Program Notes: Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20

American pianist Eric Lu makes his Seattle Symphony debut, performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20 with the orchestra. This concerto pairs with Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony under the baton of guest conductor David Danzmayr, broadcasting from the Benaroya Hall stage on Thursday, April 8, 2021, at 7:30pm on Seattle Symphony Live.


Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759, “Unfinished”
Allegro moderato
Andante con moto

BORN: January 31, 1797, in Vienna
DIED: November 19, 1828, in Vienna
WORK PREMIERED: December 17, 1865, in Vienna

Schubert was a considerably humble and shy man. He seldom wrote letters, never married and suffered greatly from illness in his final years. After his death, manuscripts that had been scattered in the homes of friends and family came to light, and the sheer magnitude of his opus was realized and heard for the first time throughout the rest of the nineteenth century. The “Unfinished” Symphony was first performed forty-three years after being composed.

Scholars disagree on the circumstances surrounding Symphony No. 8 and why Schubert may have abandoned it midway through. He was twenty-five years old in 1822 when this piece was written and though he did die at a young age, he still had six more years to live at that point in time. Within this time, Schubert composed at a tremendous pace, completing his Ninth Symphony, three song cycles, his final three string quartets and the great C major Quintet. Perhaps he was unsure of how to proceed, or simply wanted to move on. The musicologist Alfred Einstein believed Schubert was unable to finish the work, “for nothing could approach the originality, power, and skill of the first two movements.”

Also during this year Schubert began to suffer from what is believed to have been syphilis. This was the beginning of a painful struggle with illness that would last the rest of his life. There is little known of Schubert’s inner world, and it is difficult to understand the effect his ailments had on his musical work. Given the dark tone of this symphony, and its mysterious structure, it is intriguing to wonder how much of Schubert’s psychological outlook and physical health played a part in the musical depths that he explored within this piece.

Defying the standards set by Beethoven’s symphonies, whose successes had intimidated many contemporaries, Schubert struck out on a fresh course with his Symphony No. 8; his musical lines and tonalities are shaped and structured in unprecedented ways. From the opening bars of the first movement it is clear that this is strange territory. Unlike many classical and early romantic symphonies that begin with energetic, confident statements, this opens with an ominous, skeletal phrase from the cellos and basses, followed by nervous quivers in the strings that underlie the melancholic melody of the oboe and clarinet. In another unusual turn, Schubert avoids a seamless transition to the second theme and instead stops abruptly on a B-minor chord, leaving the horns and bassoon to transition alone to the sunnier key of G major, where the serene melody is introduced by the cellos and soon handed over to the violins. This movement is fraught with chilling pauses and dramatic turns between major and minor sonorities that contribute to the underlying sense of unease.

The Andante opens with a melody in E major and moves to a minor key in its second theme, a mirror image of the Allegro’s minor/major pattern. Much like the first movement, this theme is unsettled in nature, this time slipping into remote keys and chromaticism. Solo violins create a unique, hovering transition to the second theme, which then takes a winding harmonic path before concluding. The emotional impact and harmonic vision contained in these two movements is everlasting, and though it may be “unfinished,” what remains is an exquisite, transformational experience.  

Scored for pairs of woodwinds; 2 horns; 2 trumpets; 3 trombones; timpani; strings. 


Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466
Rondo: Allegro assai

BORN: January 27, 1756, in Salzburg
DIED: December 5, 1791, in Vienna
WORK PREMIERED: February 11, 1785, in Vienna with Mozart as the soloist

When Mozart premiered his Piano Concerto No. 20, he was at the height of his popularity in Vienna, attracting crowds as much for his virtuosity as a performer as for the desire to hear his latest compositions. Finished a day before its premiere the concerto was still being tinkered with up until the performance, and Mozart did not have a chance to run through his part before the concert. Much of the success of the premiere is due to his popularity as a performer. In 1781 Mozart petitioned to be released from his position as court musician for the Archbishop of Salzburg, and moved to Vienna where he was sought after as a performer, teacher and composer. Perhaps due to his demand as a performer during this time Mozart composed twelve piano concertos between 1784 and 1786, often performed by himself and his pupils.

The majority of Mozart’s piano concerti are in major keys, delivering on the audience’s expectations of the form as an energetic and joyful genre. The D minor Concerto is striking in its contrast to these norms, bringing a darker side of Mozart’s creativity to the surface. The opening music is syncopated and urgent, full of unease and pathos. Mozart later wrote in this same tonality for the penultimate scene of his opera Don Giovanni, when the main character confronts his impending doom and is consumed by flames. Due to these dark, tempestuous leanings, this piece was a favorite among 19th-century audiences and Romantic composers; Beethoven himself often performed this work in concert.

In another breach from tradition the first movement’s principal theme is not stated outright in the orchestral introduction. Rather, the turbulent energy is the main focus, gathering in strength from the strings until the whole orchestra explodes the tension and makes way for the piano to enter softly and hesitantly. The dark mood and struggle between orchestra and soloist remain unresolved throughout this movement.

The sublime melody of the second movement is an exquisite example of Mozart’s lyrical genius. A respite from the first movement, the landscape is filled with the warmth of B-flat major sonorities. This Romanze is structured as a five-part rondo (ABACA) plus a coda. Mozart delves into the minor realm with themes from the first movement, as if reminding the listener not to grow complacent, before concluding the movement in the tranquil resolution of the major key. 

Shocking the listener out of this peaceful lull, the finale opens with dramatic arpeggios and dissonant chords. This theme alternates with a contrasting cheerful, major-key tune in the woodwinds, and the push and pull of conflicting ideas continue throughout. Ultimately, Mozart provides an optimistic conclusion in D major; a symbolic triumph of light over darkness that resonates to this day.       

Scored for flute; 2 oboes; 2 bassoons; 2 horns; 2 trumpets; timpani; strings. 

© 2021 Catherine Case

Posted on April 8, 2021