A Classical concerto is a three-movement work for virtuoso instrumental soloist and orchestra. The solo part is designed to feature the skills of the performer and possibilities of the instrument. In the best examples of the concerto, there is a constant dialogue between soloist and orchestra, with both participants on equal footing.
The Bathing Pool | Hubert Robert (1733–1808) | Metropolitan Museum of Art
The concerto developed in the Baroque side by side with the concerto grosso, which pitted a small group of instruments against the orchestra. The popularity of the concerto grosso form faded after the Baroque. However, the solo concerto has remained a vital musical force from its inception to this day.
Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major K. 488
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote the Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major (K. 488) in 1786 for piano and orchestra. Mozart was at the top of his game and his new opera, Le nozze di Figaro, premiered in the same year. This concerto is scored for piano and an orchestra of flute, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns and a full string section.
As was typical for the time, this concerto shares formal structures with the symphony. But, instead of four movements, the concerto normally has three movements in a fast-slow-fast tempo scheme. Like the symphony, the first movement is in sonata form. The slow and lyrical second movement uses various forms, but Mozart used ternary form (A B A) for K. 488. Finally, the third movement is typically a fast paced rondo or sonata rondo form. Here, Mozart choose rondo form.
The Death of Socrates, Paris 1778 | Jacques Louis David (1748–1825) | Metropolitan Museum of Art
The first movement of Piano Concert No. 23, the focus of our listening assignment, uses the ubiquitous sonata form but with a twist: a double exposition. The first exposition is played by the orchestra while the soloist waits patiently. Finally, the soloist joins in on the repeat of the exposition. However, the repeat is not exact: modulations are added to increase tension and the piano expands and plays with the themes. Here's a breakdown of the double exposition sonata form used in Piano Concerto No. 23:
00:00 First theme in tonic key (orchestra only)
00:36 Transition theme
00:59 Second theme
Codetta and cadence
02:10 First theme in tonic key (piano and orchestra)
02:40 Transition theme and modulation to new key
03:10 Second theme in new key
Codetta and cadence in key of second theme
04:38 Development theme introduced
Development of themes and motives (piano and orchestra)
Modulations to new keys
Transition to recapitulation
06:23 First theme in tonic key
06:52 Transition theme
07:21 Second theme in tonic key
09:36 Cadenza (piano solo)
10:40 Coda in tonic key
Before listening to the concerto, take the time to familiarize yourself with the main themes. Mozart is known for bending the rules and his sonata form always has something extra. In this case, two extra themes!
The first theme is presented straightway by the orchestra:
Here's the transition or bridge theme between the first and second themes of the exposition:
The second theme:
A development theme is introduced at the beginning of the development section:
Classical composers were often the soloist in their own concertos and frequently improvised a flashy solo in the second half of the movement called a cadenza. In the case of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23, the composer took the unusual extra step of writing out the cadenza, although he was known to be an incredible improviser. Listen for the cadenza at 09:36, just before the coda.
Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major: 1. Allegro | Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–91) | The second movement (Andante) begins at 11:15 if you'd like to listen to the whole concerto.