fb-pixelMozart for an era of political machinations - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

Mozart for an era of political machinations

Camillo Landini’s 1787 portrait of Maria Carolina of Austria, the politically savvy wife of the king of Naples and Sicily.Museum of Capodimonte

On July 13, the Boston Symphony Orchestra presents “Tanglewood in the City,” simulcasting its concert in the Berkshires on a video screen on Boston Common. The music, by Wagner, Mozart, and Schumann, sits squarely within classical music’s vintage Austro-German comfort zone. But the Mozart — the Piano Concerto in B-flat major (K. 595), Mozart’s last effort in that genre — is also, in part, a memento of perennially current political machinations: a weak leader, shifting alliances, creeping repression.

Little is certain regarding the concerto’s creation. Mozart dated the manuscript Jan. 5, 1791, but analysis of both the work’s style and the paper it was written on suggests that much of it may have been composed up to three years earlier. Its debut, too, is disputed. It was long thought that Mozart himself played the premiere, in March 1791, at what would be his final public performance. But recent speculation has centered on a Jan. 9, 1791, concert at the palace of the Austrian prince Johann Adam von Auersperg, featuring pianist Barbara Ployer, a virtuoso student of Mozart who premiered two other of his concerti. Given Mozart’s deadline-driven habits, the proximity of dates on the manuscript and of the concert are strong (if circumstantial) evidence.


Auersperg’s soirée honored Ferdinand, the king of Naples and Sicily, and his wife, Maria Carolina of Austria, in Vienna for the weddings of their two daughters. Ferdinand was an ineffectual monarch, ill-informed and idle, better known for his singing than his savvy. Maria Carolina was more ambitious, vigorously filling the power vacuum left by her husband’s indolence, forcing out longtime éminence grise Bernardo Tanucci, reorienting the kingdoms away from Spain and toward England and Austria — and the Catholic Church, which Tanucci had antagonized. (The royal entourage had, on its way to those Vienna weddings, stopped in Rome, where Maria Carolina secured a papal rapprochement.)

And then there was the fate of Maria Carolina’s sister: Marie Antoinette. The French queen’s house arrest and, ultimately, execution in the wake of revolution caused Maria Carolina to abandon relatively liberal rule in Naples and Sicily for a program of reactionary crackdowns and surveillance. The rise of Napoleon would twice force Ferdinand and Maria Carolina into exile; Maria Carolina died in 1814, too soon for the slow gears of the Napoleonic Wars to again restore her to the throne. Ferdinand survived, reestablishing his domains as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, but remained an Austrian puppet.


Mozart’s concerto remains aurally aloof from such politics; even the seemingly Sicilian-appropriate tarantella-like rhythms of the finale are, in all likelihood, coincidental. Rather, the work preserves a sliver of the soundtrack of the era, music to fill elegant enclaves while epochs tectonically slid past each other.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra, with conductor Moritz Gnann and pianist Paul Lewis, performs music of Wagner, Mozart, and Schumann, July 13 at 8 p.m. at Tanglewood’s Koussevitzky Music Shed in Lenox. Tickets $12-$104. 617-266-1492, www.bso.org. A free video simulcast of the concert will be broadcast on Boston Common, near the corner of Beacon and Charles Streets.

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.