The world of classical music is no exception when it comes to a good mystery. “Cherchez la femme,” said Alexandre Dumas, in his novel Les Mohicans de Paris (1854), words taken to heart in the search to reveal the identity of Mozart’s “jeunehomme”.
Mozart wrote 27 piano concertos, four of which were early works based on sonatas by other composers. Beginning with Concerto No. 5 (K175), written in Salzburg in 1773, Mozart composed his first original concerto for piano. Concerto No. 9 (K271), known as the “Jeunehomme”, followed just four years later. In Mozart, His Character, His Work (1946), Alfred Einstein calls it “one of Mozart’s monumental works, those works in which he is entirely himself, seeking not to ingratiate himself with his public but rather to win them through originality and boldness. He never surpassed it.”
Written in Salzburg in 1777, when Mozart was 21 years old, for a long time it was thought that the “jeune homme” (young man) was Mozart himself. We now know that in a letter to his father, Mozart mentioned a pianist called “Jenomy”. In 2006 musicologist Michael Lorenz argued that the woman was Victoire Jenamy (1749-1812), the daughter of Jean-Georges Noverre. A famous dancer and one of Mozart’s friends, Noverre had choreographed a 1772 Milan production of Mozart’s opera Lucio Silla and later commissioned the ballet Les Petits Riens.
According to Lorenz, Victoire Jenamy performed in public at a Ball given at the Karntnertortheater on 17 February 1773 as a benefit for her father. A local newspaper reported that Noverre’s “daughter played a concerto on the Clavier with much artistry and ease.” It seems that when she arrived in Salzburg in late 1776 or early 1777, on her way from Vienna to her father in Paris, Mozart took the opportunity to present himself with a composition as a calling card. In April 1778, Mozart met Jenamy again in her father’s house in Paris. At the time he was still unmarried. Not much more is known about Victorie Jenamy, who died childless on 5 September 1812.
The “Jeunehomme” concerto is highly regarded by critics. Pianist and author Charles Rosen describes it as “perhaps the first unequivocal masterpiece [of the] classical style.” The eminent pianist Alfred Brendel calls it “one of the greatest wonders of the world.” In an excerpt of a conversation with writer Martin Meyer published in The New York Review of Books, Brendel says:
“If you listened to all of Mozart’s previous piano concertos without knowing who composed them you would hardly suspect that they were by him. But now something completely new appears that is also an unbelievable leap in quality. The ‘Jeunehomme’; piano concerto is Mozart’s first great masterpiece… Although he had already written many astonishing things which prepared the way for his later mastery, it is with the ‘Jeunehomme’ concerto that this mastery begins – even if it is, as it were, premature, because Mozart had still to grow older before he could attain this level again. I even find that he did not surpass this piece in the later piano concertos. The truly gifted at times achieve things that appear too soon.”
As a young man of seventy-seven, Alfred Brendel played the “Jeunehomme” at his farewell concert in Vienna on 18 December 2008. Brendel’s sense of humour is well known and I like to think that, in addition to expressing his affection for the work, he was indulging in a characteristically whimsical “farewell”.