Song of a Split Personality:
Drama Through Contrast in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.9 in E-flat, K. 271 ("Jeunehomme")
A distinguishing feature of Mozart’s piano concertos is his conception of the genre as akin to “opera without words” (Levin Lecture A). Unlike his predecessors, Mozart took the emotional complexity of the concerto form to new heights by constructing an intricate hierarchy of themes and motives, the combination of which reveals a rich, three-dimensional character to the piece. Indeed, the concerto genre was particularly conducive to this effort of Mozart’s due to the listener’s natural tendency to presume a theatrical dynamic between soloist – or the personification of his or her musical line – and orchestra (Grayson 15). The aesthetic appeal of such a work depends primarily on a composer’s ability to craft genuinely dramatic tension from these various elements of character, as embodied in the music. Mozart, of course, was a master of this art, as is particularly evident in his Piano Concerto No. 9 (“Jeunehomme”) in E-flat major, K. 271.
In each of the three movements of this concerto (I. Allegro, II. Andantino, III. Rondo), Mozart combines a number of musical elements to create an especially prominent dramatic presence for the soloist. The first movement imparts an impression of joyful audacity and eagerness to pursue unpredictability, paradoxically juxtaposed with periods of more conventional style. A key change to the relative c-minor shifts this character in a decidedly darker direction in the second movement, infused as it is with a palpable sense of mourning or anguish. Finally, the third movement combines both of these aspects into a single intricate and beautiful, although almost terrifyingly emotionally complex whole. (As to what such characterization implies about the young woman pianist for whom Mozart wrote the concerto in 1777, modern listeners may only speculate.) To develop each of the two sides to the personality of the solo “protagonist”, as well as to dramatize the tension between them, Mozart utilizes recurring contrasts in instrumental texture, harmony, melody and theme, as well as other elements.
Mozart develops the more lighthearted or cheerful aspect of the concerto’s thematic nature primarily in the first movement, a lively allegro. The dramatic character of this movement is dominated by the dynamic of interaction between soloist and orchestra; for this reason, an examination of textural contrasts is essential to a complete understanding of the movement. Levin describes some degree of textural contrast between “tonally stable orchestral music and dynamic solo music” as an archetypal element of a first movement to a Classic concerto (162). However, from its very beginning, the first movement of K. 271 transcends this archetype in that both soloist and orchestra seek aggressively to assert themselves; that is, the first movement under consideration here is marked by particularly contentious interaction between the two concerto textures.
For instance, although Mozart seems to begin the movement in traditional fashion with an opening orchestral section stating the “1st theme,” the solo cheekily interrupts in mm. 2-3 (which pattern is subsequently repeated in mm. 4-6), disrupting the standard pattern of an orchestral introduction. In presenting a split first theme, Mozart consciously flouts convention and thereby gives the impression of a similarly “unpredictable” soloist personality. Aside from being quite entertaining in the context of a live performance, such unpredictability lends drama to the movement as a whole by destabilizing listeners’ preconceived expectations of first movement concerto form.
The same interruption pattern from the opening repeats itself every time the first theme reappears: in the solo exposition at m. 63, at the beginning of the sonata development in m. 156, in the orchestral passage to cadenza at m. 282, and in the sonata recapitulation in m. 196. The latter example (chronologically second-to-last) is particularly important in that it keeps the “unpredictable interruption” motive from becoming ironically predictable: when the first theme is recapitulated after the development, it begins in the piano, only to be interrupted by the orchestra! In the subsequent repetition (m. 199), the orchestra “seizes back the initiative” (diagram I) by beginning the theme itself, only to be interrupted once again by the soloist.
And this back-and-forth scheme of interruption and competition between soloist and orchestra is hardly confined to restatements of the first theme. The solo repeatedly pokes its head into the middle “orchestral” section, with what Levin dubs the “sweet theme” in m. 141 and in m. 148 with the “sly theme” (with the pan-concerto motive of three repetitions of the fifth scale degree – here an F, since we are in the dominant B-flat). The orchestra responds in kind, interrupting a virtuosic solo section of the recapitulation with the sly theme at m. 251. Finally, in measures 54 and 297 the piano interrupts the orchestra’s “playout” conclusion theme with a high trill. On the first occasion, this leads to a transition directly into the solo exposition, in contrast with a more traditional break between the two sections. On the second occasion, the trill leads to a pronounced arpeggiated E-flat chord in the piano, to which the orchestra with a forte riposte; both the arpeggio and the riposte repeat, emphasizing the conflict between the parties one last time before they join one another for a concluding cadence in unison. Thus we find that the first movement of K. 271 is positively riddled with textural contrast, as the soloist and orchestra “duke it out” for primacy.
Indeed, much of the first movement’s drama derives from such soloist-orchestra conflict; yet Mozart skillfully works other musical contrasts into the mix, which also play a (less essential) role in the movement’s dramatic development. One important example is the dynamic contrast between the forte opening theme – which itself is a rarity in Mozart piano concerti (Levin 159) – and the piano sly theme that follows in mm. 7-11. This is the first of several instances of extremely stark dynamic juxtapositions; Mozart’s shocking fortissimi interrupt even the most delicate of themes, such as the relaxed “2nd theme,” broken at m. 41 by a loud interruption. Likewise, Mozart marks many half cadences throughout the movement with repeated two-chord figures in the orchestra (e.g. mm. 22, 84, 190, 213), first piano and then forte. Such dynamic contrasts further develop the movement’s dramatic unpredictability, reemphasizing the presence of a bold soloist who is unafraid to go anywhere or do anything at all.
Finally, Mozart even uses surprising harmonic contrast as a device for adding drama to the movement. A sonata recapitulation must certainly confront the harmonic obstacle of remaining in the tonic rather than modulating to the dominant (or in minor, to the relative major) as in the exposition. In this movement, however, Mozart confronts this obstacle in an interesting way: rather than simply remaining in I, he extends a piano passage in m. 200 to an exciting sequential modulation from I to ii to iii and back to I. This modulation not only adds an unexpected twist to the music, but because of the movement’s already well-established willingness to defy convention, suggests to us for just a moment that perhaps Mozart will begin a “second development” by venturing into distant harmonic territory.
Whereas the contrasts of the first movement are concerned primarily with the audacity of the soloist, and are essentially joyful at heart, the c-minor second movement takes the concerto’s drama in an entirely new direction. Here Mozart introduces another extremely vivid emotional dimension to the solo “protagonist” – raw, mournful, soul-wrenching anguish. The central musical contrasts of the second movement are primarily harmonic in nature, although once again there are additional, less prominent contrasting element that advance the same thematic ends. These contrasts serve two purposes. On the one hand, Mozart uses harsh dissonances (a sort of harmonic conflict between voices of the orchestration) to deepen the listener’s sense of spiritual anguish. On the other hand, the composer intertwines c-minor passages (the main body of the movement) with wistful harmonic forays back to E-flat major, which serves as a modal signpost for reminiscence of the “happier days” of the first movement. In this manner Mozart uses harmonic contrast to highlight the emotional contrast between the two personalities of the soloist, as developed in the first and second movements respectively.
To emphasize the new, mournful aspect of the solo character which he presents in the second movement, Mozart uses certain carefully chosen musical contrasts. Some of these contrasts are anything but subtle; for example, the andantino tempo of the second movement is markedly less lively than the allegro of the first, which sends an immediate signal to the listener that an emotional shift is to take place. Perhaps even more obvious is Mozart’s decision to write this movement in the relative minor (c) of E-flat. Quite simply, minor keys are sad – minor is the mode of the dirge, the marché funerale – and, like the tempo, specify the emotional tenor of the movement right from its inception.
The harmonic minor scale also contains a dissonant augmented second interval between the sixth and seventh degrees, which Mozart uses to good effect. In measure 4, he uses a neighboring non-chord tone on the downbeat to introduce the augmented second dissonance between the first and second violins; and what is more, he accents this harsh sound, so laden with associations of grief and mourning, with a decisive fortepiano, thereby forcing the movement’s modality into the listener’s consciousness. A similar device occurs in m. 12, where Mozart once again adds non-chord leading tones into a iv chord, where they make the same augmented second with A flats.
Also of great emotional power is what Levin dubs the “heartbreak sequence” (Lecture B) – a dramatic i-V7-i-V-i-III6-IV65/g-V-i progression in the piano over a steady pedal on the fifth scale degree (with effectively dominant function) in the bass (mm. 97-99). The pedal tone places the tonic chords in second inversion, creating an uneasiness about them that is unmistakably tragic. Similarly, the brief, all-too-transient glimpse of hope offered by the raised 3rd (A natural) in the IV chords on the first beat of m. 99 grates against the harsh reality of the pedal tone as well.
Finally, the statement of the first theme features a drawn out, accented Neapolitan6 (flat II6) chord in m. 11; like the IV in the heartbreak sequence, the N6 offers a short return to the major mode that seems almost out of place, and makes the sadness of the passage as a whole all the more apparent. Thus, several of the contrasting or dissonant musical elements of the movement – particularly in its harmony – combine to develop a powerful second personality of extreme anguish to the concerto.
This emotional complication is made more dramatic in the context of the joyfulness expounded in the first movement. Mozart exploits this added drama to great effect by using the sonata’s secondary group in the relative major (the E-flat of the first movement) as a way of inducing the listener to remember all the happiness of the first personality, cruelly crushed by the mournfulness of the second.
This pattern – which, as mentioned above, can only be described as wistful – first occurs with an orchestral modulation to E-flat in mm. 23-24, followed by a solo theme in the new key in m. 25. Mozart compounds the drama of this harmonic shift by revisiting the same anguished thematic material from the orchestral introduction in the secondary key; specifically, the haunting N6 in c minor of m. 11 becomes ii in E-flat major in m. 48, building to a beautiful and triumphant forte imperfect cadence in 53. The emotionality of this key shift in the sonata exposition makes Mozart’s modulation back to c minor (by sequences in mm. 65-72) in the development all the more harrowing. Finally, the major/minor harmonic contrast is revisited once more in the recapitulation, where the orchestra once again modulates to E-flat, leading to the return of the piano’s hopeful major theme (Levin’s theme “A”, Diagram B). However, this theme diverges from precedent in m. 89, dashing the hopefulness of the protagonists by returning once again to the minor.
One final dramatic contrast, this one melodic in nature, used by Mozart in the second movement is particularly interesting: the piano decorates the movements main “1st theme” in mm. 16-22 and 76-82 with a haunting tune. This melody begins with an ascending arpeggiated c minor triad, followed by descending conjunct motion in the soprano; as such, it follows a pattern strikingly similar to the 1st theme of the first movement (which also begins with an arpeggiated chord, followed by descending scalar runs in the soprano voice of the piano). However, since this pattern appears in the second movement in a minor key, overlaid upon the dirge-like first theme of this movement, the listener reinterprets it as an emotional inversion of the first movement’s material. This melodic parallelism therefore underscores the harmonic and emotional contrast developed in the second movement.
In the final movement of the concerto, Mozart takes the unifying theme of dramatic contrast out of the musical background and places it squarely in the forefront; the movement is almost defined by the structural contrasts that comprise it. Indeed, the dramatic resonance of the sonata rondo form Mozart selected for the finale of K. 271 derives above all else from the interplay of refrain and episode, as the music back and forth between comfortable, familiar material and more frightening, unknown territory. The joyous refrains – which at mm. 1, 150, and 424 begin with the entrance of the unaccompanied soloist – recall the jubilant first personality developed in movement one. In contrast, the episode in m. 192 reintroduces the soloist’s emotional complexity; a startling sequential modulation (first to f minor, then to c, then back to f) at the beginning of the episode reminds us of the anguish in the second movement. This is only to be interrupted by a completely unexpected return to the original E-flat harmonic, but with dominant function, leading to a delicate minuet in the subdominant A-flat major at m. 233.
In the refrain-recapitulation, the orchestra and piano begin the same modulating passage at m. 320, but the soloist redirects herself to remain in E-flat, building to a half cadence at m. 355. The overall effect is to impart a poignant impression of the solo protagonist’s “bipolar” emotionality – that is to say, the split between her two personalities, joyous and mournful. Hence we see revisited in the finale much of the same harmonic contrast that lent so much drama to the second movement.
At the same time, the finale uses textural contrasts much as Mozart introduced them in the first movement, although with less contentiousness between soloist and orchestra. In the third movement, the orchestra seeks not so much to combat the soloist’s audacity as to support it. As mentioned above, the soloist repeatedly enters the refrain on her own (mm. 1, 150, 424), only to be joined after a few phrases – as if in admiration of her courage - by support from the orchestra.
However, Mozart does retain the thematic drama of the first movement, namely the soloist’s determined willingness to be completely unpredictable. We see this most clearly in the piano’s sudden introduction of the menuetto cantabile in measure 233; it is safe to presume that such an unconventional move on Mozart’s part would have been considered very bold of him by Classical period audiences, further underscoring the soloist’s audacity!
When the strings enter in m. 245 with a rhythmic pizzicato accompaniment in the first violins, the pianist’s songful melodies with their more fluid rhythms and articulations stand out all the more. The minuet thus highlights another side to the bold personality from the first movement. Although the textural contrast still emphasizes the soloist’s willfulness and daring, here it appears in a sweeter, more delicate form, rather than in unfettered jubilation.
Note: All measure references are to Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus, “KV 271,” KONZERT FUR KLAVIER UND ORCHESTER, Ed. Cliff Eisen and Robert D. Levin, (Nr. 5300): 1-96 (2001). Reprinted in Coursepack for Literature and Arts B-52 “Mozart” Vol. 2: Scores. Ed. Robert D. Levin, 2005: 89-184.
On the whole, Mozart’s “Jeunehomme” concerto presents a vivid portrait of a “split personality” by developing two separate characters in one – one side joyous and daring, the other side more emotional and prone to powerful feelings of anguish and heartbreak. Mozart develops the drama inherent in these contrasting natures by using a number of contrasting musical elements, ranging from textural to harmonic to melodic. And while it is impossible to draw firm conclusions from a work of art such as K. 271, to me the sheer strength of the emotions Mozart presents suggests some grounding in reality; I suspect that Mlle. Jeunehomme herself was at once willful and saturnine, prone to alternating bouts of joy and anguished sorrow. As such, it is perhaps unsurprising that she inspired Mozart to compose as dramatic a work as this concerto.
Diagram of Mozart Piano Concerto in E-flat, K. 271, mvt. I structure. Handout from lecture, Harvard College, Literature and Arts B-52. 31 October 2005. Online, available <http://www.courses.fas. harvard.edu:80/~lab52/Handouts/10-31%20K271%20I%20Structural%20Outline.pdf>. Updated 2005.
Diagram of Mozart Piano Concerto in E-flat, K. 271, mvt. II structure. Handout from lecture, Harvard College, Literature and Arts B-52. 2 November 2005. Online, available <http://www.courses.fas. harvard.edu:80/~lab52/Handouts/10-31%20K271%20II%20Structural%20Outline.pdf>. Updated 2005.
Grayson, David. Mozart Piano Concertos Nos. 20 and 21. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Levin, Robert D. “Function and Musical Form, II,” UNPUBLISHED MANUSCRIPT, pp. 334-354. Rpt. in Coursepack for Literature and Arts B-52 “Mozart,” Vol. 1: Readings (Fall 2005): 162-182.
Levin, Robert D. "Mozart Piano Concertos." Lecture, Harvard College, Literature and Arts B-52, Mozart. Sanders Theater, Cambridge, MA. 21 September 2005. (Cited as Lecture A.)
Levin, Robert D. "Mozart Piano Concerto K. 271, Mvt. II." Lecture, Harvard College, Literature and Arts B-52, Mozart. Sanders Theater, Cambridge, MA. 2 November 2005. (Cited as Lecture B.)