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The movies always knew anyone could appreciate Mozart

We start this week with a movie question. What do the cold war classic Funeral in Berlin, the James Bond epic The Spy Who Loved Me, and The Associate, Whoopi Goldberg's comic take on the trials and tribulations of Wall Street have in common? They all feature music from a piano concerto by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Mozart was one of history's most prolific composers. Where Beethoven, who was greatly influenced by him, composed just five, Mozart's canon of piano concertos runs to 27.

He began tinkering with the form when he was a child. His first efforts were re-workings of the material of other composers. He was 17 before he properly explored the possibilities of the medium, and in doing so, he effectively invented the piano concerto.

Mozart was writing for the hammer-action fortepiano, which had superseded the harpsichord, that was a long way from the concert grand of today. Even though the orchestra was small, the fortepiano wasn't powerful enough to match its sound.

Mozart's concertos -- all bar one -- begin with a statement of the theme by the orchestra, followed by a response from the keyboard. And so it would go on, the dramatic interaction between the tutti (all the instruments) and the solo taking on the form of a musical tennis match.

Whenever the orchestra would accompany, it would be with the lightest of touches. Anything else would have drowned out the piano.

The opening movement of the Concerto No 9, written when Mozart was 21, illustrates this perfectly. The orchestra only gets a bar and a half to say its piece before the piano is delivering the answer.

It took the bright lights of Vienna to bring out the best of Mozart the keyboard specialist. Nos 11, 12, and 13 were the first of his output there, all written for his own use as a performer. His success as a freelance pianist in a city that loved its concerts was the driving force in the creation of this body of work.The form was straightforward. Three movements -- a brisk opening allegro, a central slow movement, and a rondo to finish.

His concertos were music for the moment. Their attraction had to be immediate, so that the 'less-learned', in Mozart's description, would find them just as pleasing as would a connoisseur. The proof of the pudding is in their enduring appeal.

Back in the cinema, the most famous Mozart soundtrack is in a 1967 movie long forgotten. But Mozart's Piano Concerto No 21 in C is still known as the 'Elvira Madigan'. The familiar slow movement is one of the most popular passages of classical music. Have a listen. It's the Mozart piano concerto in a nutshell.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 9.30am each Saturday.

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