Mozart: Piano Concerto No.18 in B-flat major, K. 456

Maria Theresia Paradis

Maria Theresia Paradis

During his initial years in Vienna, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart made the acquaintance of Franz Anton Mesmer. Mesmer was a trained physician who hypothesized that it was essential to maintain equilibrium between the natural magnetic fluid that filled all living things, and the magnetic fluid that he thought filled the universe. He treated patients in his elegant private residence by fitting magnets to various parts of the body. The wonderful and dramatic cures he achieved via this method were initially termed “animal magnetism,” and inspired lavish parties and musical soirées. Mozart wrote an opera called Bastien et Bastienne, and the original performance took place in Mesmer’s garden theater. Magnetism became a cult and Mesmer became its high priest. However, Mesmer’s reputation was utterly destroyed by his failed treatment of Maria Theresia Paradis. Paradis was the daughter of the Imperial Secretary of Commerce and Court Councilor to Empress Maria Theresa, and she had lost her eyesight at age 4. Initial magnetic treatment did restore her eyesight, but failing to correctly identify the underlying cause, the unfortunate young woman relapsed into her previous blind state. The press was all over the story in a real hurry, and once the University of Vienna renounced Mesmer, he quickly left the country and settled in Paris.

Maria Theresia Paradis was an accomplished singer, talented composer and virtuoso pianist who performed in various Viennese and European salons and concerts. Although she lost her eyesight early on, her musical talents were quickly recognized. Educated by Antonio Salieri (singing and composition) and Abbé Vogler (music theory and composition), Paradis gave her first public performances at age 12. She also actively commissioned an organ concerto from Salieri, and a piano concerto from Haydn and Mozart, respectively. At the height of her career, she had more than 60 piano concertos in her memorized repertory. Extended tours of Germany, Switzerland and England led to her first appearance in Paris in March 1784. A reviewer wrote, “one must have heard her to form an idea of the touch, the precision, the fluency and vividness of her playing.” In all, Paradis made 14 concert appearances in Paris, and she also assisted Valentin Haüy in the establishment of the first school for the blind, which opened in 1785.

The series of piano concertos Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart composed during his initial years in Vienna are undoubtedly his greatest achievement in instrumental music. They represent compositions of the highest quality and originality. According to Maynard Solomon, “their artistry goes far beyond the concertos of his predecessors or his contemporaries in their scale, their thematic richness and their highly developed relationship between soloist and orchestra.” During1784, Mozart composed a total of six piano concertos. Although mainly written for his personal use, it has been suggested that the concerto K. 456 was composed on commission from Maria Theresia Paradis. Evidence of the commission comes from a letter from Leopold Mozart to Nannerl, describing “a glorious concerto written for Paradis for Paris.” Although the letter is inconclusive, there is no doubt that Mozart crafted an assured and confident work with a supremely entertaining piano part. The string section in the opening “Allegro” sounds a delightful little march, which is immediately taken up by the woodwinds. Subsequently, the whole orchestra plays a forceful transition that harmonically drifts towards the lyrical contrast. In a touch of genius, Mozart infuses this theme with various minor inflections, before stylized hunting calls conclude the orchestral exposition. The pianist restates the opening theme and is eventually joined by the orchestra. Both performing forces artfully embellish the musical material, and an extended transition prepares for the entrance of the lyrical theme. A light-hearted musical dialogue between the solo piano and the woodwinds characterizes the development, before the themes stated at the beginning of the movement are repeated. Mozart wrote two different cadenzas for this movement, possibly providing Paradis with a pianistic choice. The slow movement unfolds as a series of variations on a bittersweet theme, while the concluding rondo artfully contrasts an innocent music-box theme with flashes of virtuoso brilliance.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 18 in B-flat Major, K. 456

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