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Analysis of Mozart's Piano Concerto in G major, K.453

Last Updated: December 26, 2010 / by Michael Kinney

In the following, I will discuss Mozart's Piano Concerto in G major, K.453.  This particular concerto was composed in 1784 and contains three movements (allegro, andante, and allegretto).  Due to the fact that I do not have the entire score, I will only be able to make certain comments on harmonic movements that are obvious to my ear.  I will try to provide as much harmonic analysis as possible under these circumstances.  I will explain how Mozart's choice of harmony, rhythm, melody, and orchestration in this particular concerto affect my reception of the piece.   

The first movement, marked allegro, contains an orchestral ritornello, a solo exposition, a development, and a recapitulation.  The opening orchestral ritornello begins by introducing the first theme with violins and various woodwind accompaniment figures.  The first phrase of theme 1 starts on tonic, moves to IV and then returns to tonic.  This is followed by slow figures played by the woodwinds that are answered by the violins stating V very clearly.  Next, we move slowly back to tonic.  When we finally do reach the tonic, we do so very forcefully with the full orchestra beginning the transitional theme.  This transition then leads us to the second theme.  When the second theme is presented, we only get the string section playing the melody line.  The second time it is played, however, the theme is presented by the woodwinds with added violin ornamental figures.  This provides a nice balancing contrast from the first theme where the woodwinds provide the ornamental figures over the melodic line played by the violins.  Following theme 2, Mozart provides us with a closing theme leading us into the solo exposition. 

The solo exposition is similar to the original theme in that it also has woodwind accompaniment.  It is different, however, in that it contains many virtuosic pianistic decorations.  As we discussed in class, Mozart was fond of composing pieces that displayed his pianistic abilities.  In this interpretation of theme 1, there are many added piano trills and also various scalar, arpeggiated, or chromatic lines which bring us in and out of the familiar theme (and transitional theme) that we were presented with in the original orchestral ritornello.  I noticed that the transitional theme in the solo exposition was not quite as forceful as the one presented in the orchestral ritornello.  Nevertheless, following this transitional theme we are led through various piano arpeggios into a new solo piano theme that is very light and bouncy in texture.  It is first presented with solo piano and is then presented a second time with pianistic ornaments and woodwind accompaniment.  Following this, we hear a descending call and response type of line which is played back and forth between the woodwinds and the violins.  This line eventually gains momentum by shortening the descending lines and by bringing in the piano to also play call and response figures with the strings and woodwinds.  This eventually leads us to theme 2 played by the piano with string accompaniment.  Theme 2 is repeated in the strings with piano accompaniment.  The solo exposition is ended through a series of descending and ascending piano arpeggiations through major, minor, and diminished types of harmony.  This final closing provides an obvious end with ii-V in D major.  The closing does, however, leave us hanging for the next development section by briefly hitting the IV in D major (G) with the strings and woodwinds.  This IV chord is followed by a short dramatic pause taking us into the development.

The development begins quietly and is distinctive in that it starts with large sweeping types of motion.  These arpeggiated "sweeps" undergo various modulations.  Without the score it is difficult for me to discern each modulation.  One harmonic movement I was able to hear (TRACK 20; 0:51) suggests the following harmonies: Cmi->->Dmaj->D7->Gmi->Amaj->A7->Dmaj.  Following this movement, Mozart ends with four short hits on D7 which returns us to tonic and also which brings us to the recapitulation.

The recapitulation begins with the first theme in the violins with woodwind accompaniment just as was heard in the beginning of the piece.  The beginning of the recapitulation is different from the beginning of the piece in that it contains many more ornamental figures especially in the piano.  As the first movement progress, we notice that the role of the piano becomes more and more prominent.  The piano obviously becomes very prominent at the end of the movement during the solo piano cadenza.  During this cadenza we hear hints at various previously heard themes.  We also notice a dramatic shift in harmony at 0:11 TRACK 24.  To me this comes very abruptly.  I believe the harmony is going back and forth between I and V in G major and then suddenly shifts to an Eb major sound.  This moves in a descending motion leading us into a short variation of theme 2.  Lastly, the piano continues through various other virtuosic ascending and descending lines which finally end on V (D) prompting the final ritornello in G major.

The second movement (andante) is in C major, 3/4 meter, and is of the same form as the first movement.  Like the first, the second movement begins with an orchestral exposition.  The orchestral exposition begins with a very slow moving, calm line (theme 1) played by the strings.  This is followed by the woodwinds playing lines that seem to weave in and out of one another.  These lines are very conversational in that they begin with one instrument introducing the "conversation" while others slowly creep in by responding and adding to the lines just heard.  The conversation is then interrupted by theme 2 which begins with the strings insisting our attention.  They play dynamically loud figures and then quiet down to let the woodwinds play less dramatic, softer lines.  Eventually the string and woodwinds combine and finish the orchestral exposition with a chromatically descending line bringing us to a final cadence in C major.

The solo exposition begins again with a very soothing and melodic interpretation of theme 1 played by a solo piano in C major.  In the piano, the right hand plays the melody of theme 1 which is very sparse, hanging on just G for a period of time while the left hand creates a descending harmonic type of movement.  The melody then falls down a half step to F sharp and then leaps upward to an E natural.  This leap provides a nice melodic contour which will ultimately set us up for the following harmonic surprise.  Much like how the strings interrupt the conversation that unfolds between the woodwind section in the orchestral exposition, here the strings interrupt this pretty C major sound with a very strong and adamant G minor sound.  By doing this, Mozart begs for our attention by drawing us into the beginning of the solo exposition with a very slow, quiet, lingering melody.  Once he has our attention, Mozart hits us over the head with an insistent and contrasting minor harmony with the strings.  These strong figures played by the strings, however, leave gaps for the piano to fill in with melody.  In between these gaps and during the melody played by the piano, the strings play soft ascending arpeggios.  Further, like the beginning of the solo exposition, the end also contains various types of chromatic movement.  In the ending, there are some call and response types of chromatic lines that are played between the piano and the woodwinds.  The solo exposition finally comes to a close with a piano trill which subtly brings us into the development section.

The development begins with the woodwinds playing the original theme of the first movement (theme 1).  This is followed by a solo piano section which begins with a minor harmony.  This solo piano section is similar to the one we just heard in the solo exposition in that it has a single note, lingering type of melodic line played by the right hand which is accompanied by a left hand pulsing chord movement.  Following this, the strings enter and the music moves into a wondering type of sound.  It is at this point that the development starts to modulate.  Unfortunately I couldn't distinguish exactly how the modulating was occurring at all times.  I do know that I heard the first solo piano section end on D minor.  After the strings come in, another solo piano section ensues and ends on Ab major which is relatively far away from D minor.  Following this, the strings enter again with gradually increasing intensity.  They begin on the Ab major, move to Ab minor, then Ab diminished, then G7, and finally to the tonic of the movement, C major.  This movement from Ab major is interesting in that it starts by moving just the inner voice (from C to Cb) while the top voice (Eb) remains constant.  Next, to move from Ab minor to Ab diminished, the top voice moves from Eb to D natural.  Next, the woodwinds climb up to grab the F natural while the strings move the Ab down to a G.  This creates the V7 of the tonic, C major.  Once we finally return to tonic, we move forward to the recapitulation.

The recapitulation of the second movement begins with theme 1 played by solo piano.  This is interrupted by a strong entrance (strings) of theme 1 in Eb.  By going to Eb, we find ourselves at a key signature harmonically close to the Ab major we just came from in the development.  However, the strings and piano move us slowly back to C major.  When C major returns, we begin a series of calls and responses between the strings, the woodwinds, and the piano.  The strings play a dynamically loud recurring theme that climbs upward diatonically from C to F.  When the F is reached, the harmony changes from C to G7 and the response from the woodwinds or piano begins.  At the end of the recapitulation, Mozart introduces a solo piano cadenza.  This is set up by a C with a G in the bass played by the strings and woodwinds.  By putting the G in the bass, Mozart leaves the harmony somewhat unstable to introduce the cadenza.  This cadenza again draws on some of the ideas presented in theme 1 of the movement.  In particular, the cadenza begins with the constant descending harmonic movement in the left hand.  After the cadenza, the woodwinds play theme 1 with various piano ornamentations and finally cadences on C major ending the second movement.

Next, we move to the third and final movement which is played allegretto, in cut time, and is in G major.  This movement, as marked, begins in a much more lively nature.  The movement begins with an A section which is repeated twice and a B section which is also repeated twice.  Both the A and B sections have their melodies carried primarily by the violins with sparse woodwind ornamentation.  The most common rhythmic figure and the one that is used to end each phrase is a group of four eight notes followed by a half note.  The A and B melodies are both very singable and danceable in nature.  They each have a very distinct type of two-part melodic idea.  By this I mean that the first four bars of each section is posed like a question while the last four bars sounds like an answer to that question.  This gives these sections a more memorable quality.  This will prove useful when Mozart reintroduces these themes towards the end of the movement.

Following the repeats of both the A and B sections, Mozart then introduces the first of 5 variations.  The first variation begins with solo piano playing a sequential type of pattern.  The pattern is characterized by one leap followed by three descending diatonic notes (with the exception of a few neighbor tones).  Throughout this variation, there are violin accompaniments that either ornament the figures played by the piano or repeat the motives introduced by the piano.  The second variation is introduced by the woodwinds and is accompanied with fairly busy piano lines which play triplet arpeggiations and scalar patterns behind the melody.  With the addition of these piano lines, the variation played by the woodwinds is given a greater sense of forward motion.  The third variation contrasts the second in that its sense of forward motion is lessened.  This variation instead is given an almost rocking feeling.  This is achieved through the lyrical melody played by the woodwinds which is accompanied by the strings playing a quiet eight note comping pattern where all eight notes in the bar are played except beat one.  On the repeat of the variation, the piano takes the lyrical melody and the woodwinds drop out momentarily.  As the variation moves forward, the piano plays more and more virtuosic patterns which take us into the next variation and into another key.  The strings begin the next variation by introducing a more shadowy, (G) minor mood.  Following this introduction, the solo piano takes over with a melody characterized by heavy syncopation, large intervallic leaps, and a descending (briefly chromatic) bass line.  This is then answered by the strings which accompany the piano in bringing us to the fifth and final variation.  The full orchestra announces the final variation very distinctly.  In the beginning of the variation we hear quick descending patterns which are answered by short, often two note melodic ideas.  Next we hear solo piano playing a snippet of the A section of theme one which we heard at the beginning of the movement.  After a brief section of descending piano and strings, a piano trill and arpeggiation prompts the final cadenza and coda.

To end the piece, Mozart provides a short solo piano cadenza followed by a long coda.  The closing coda has many new sounding parts as well as teases of ideas we have heard in the past.  Of those, we hear a much more virtuosic sounding rendition of the opening theme.  Before this theme is introduced in the coda, however, Mozart introduces a rather mysterious sounding bass line characterized by a leap down by a minor third (Eb to C), a whole step up (D), and a leap down of a fifth (G).  This bass line is repeated three times with string and piano playing over it.  This is followed by a brief solo piano figure which begins the virtuosic rendition of the opening theme.  The mysterious bass line then returns again in between another playing of the theme.  The theme is then played for the last time with light orchestral fills of the theme's melody.  This is followed by a final cadence in G major.

To conclude, Mozart's Piano Concerto in G major is filled with many contrasting melodic and harmonic ideas.  Though I was not able to fully harmonically analyze each idea or harmonic movement, I was able to get a sense of some of the techniques Mozart uses throughout the three movements.  I have also come to realize that Mozart's cadenzas seem to be most vital to the overall flow of the movements.  I can see how Mozart was able to set up the feeling of each section by the choices he made within the cadenza.  Knowing that these cadenzas were often improvised, I would have liked to have known the various ways he might have changed each one from one performance to the next.  Nevertheless, as a piano player, I was impressed by the various piano sections which display incredible moments of piano virtuosity.

About the Author: Michael Kinney

I have played piano since I was 5 years old. I started in classical and then quickly moved to blues and jazz. I studied at the collegiate level and have played professionally since I was 16. My favorite piano players (if I had to pick 3) include Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and Herbie Hancock). I own several keyboards but always prefer to play on a Steinway if one is available! I live to perform as much as I like to teach.

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