performed by Christoph Eschenbach, or below by the also outstanding Mitsuko Uchida
We haven’t seen Mozart in a while. Actually it hasn’t been that long. We featured him more than once or twice during the horn series and a few of his symphonies before that. He’s far and away the most featured composer on the blog, and he’ll be pulling even farther ahead this week.
We haven’t done anything strictly piano in a while, so I thought that after such a wonderful series just stuffed to the brim with such outstanding (and some rather more obscure) English music, we’d jump way back in time to a few of the classics, because there’s plenty more to catch up with here. I’m excited to say that this week, we’ll officially be a third of the way through Mozart’s piano sonatas, and almost a third of the way through his concertos (just one more would have been a perfect [major?] third through!).
I do want to clarify something, though, since it’s no secret that this entire week, through to Saturday, will be devoted to Mozart, and it’s the reason for the two Köchel catalogue numbers these works have. If we go by the first, K. 282, one would assume that they come some time after the concertos we’ll be discussing, but by this lower-numbered 189 something, assigned in a revision of that catalogue, that they’re correctly placed before some of the concertos. The three sonatas we’ll be discussing this week come from 1774-75, while the three concertos all date from early 1776. Also, this sonata and the one that follows it were numbered in sequence and apparently often performed by the composer, but never published in the composer’s lifetime, although they were likely intended to be. And now that that’s out of the way…
Mozart was only about 18 years old when this sonata was composed, on a trip to Munich for the performance of his opera La Finta Giardiniera. Wikipedia lists the completion of that opera in 1775, and the completion of this sonata in 1774, into the beginning of the following year, so it may not have been completed until 1775 anyway.
It’s a short work, in three movements, with a playing time of about 12 minutes, and that’s about all Wiki gives us. There’s certainly more to be found though, but let’s take a listen and see what we hear.
The first movement begins quietly until…. well, nope, it pretty much stays that way. It’s a slow movement, which is a unique, even odd, way to begin a sonata. The movement is still in sonata form, with a very brief development typical of what we’ve seen in early Mozart sonatas, and also interestingly, the recapitulation (the reappearance of the opening material) skips the first theme and brings the second right to the key of E flat.
A slow, peaceful first movement gives a strong impression of peacefulness, a delicacy we might not be used to in Mozart’s younger days. It’s simple, but also of pristine beauty, transparent but not lacking a single thing. In an article about the sonata on AllMusic, John Palmer mentions that one of the reasons Mozart hadn’t written sonatas until so much later in his life (relatively speaking, obviously, for a kid who started writing symphonies, operas, and concertos before he was ten) is that Salzburg music folk apparently weren’t interested in solo keyboard music, which is why we find these works coinciding with the composer’s trip to Munich.
This first movement certainly doesn’t make a splash, though; rather it is expressive, tender, possibly even the slightest bit heartbreaking in its simple beauty. The second movement is made of two minuets, neither of which have a trio section. The first minuet sounds related to the first movement’s opening, but with a more pronounced spring in its step, more like what we’re used to hearing from Mozart, maybe. We also have greater contrasts in dynamics and more varied use of material here, but overall, Mozart’s writing is just so damn charming. There are moments where the melody and harmony, often clearly separated in the right and left hands, respectively, is just so perfect, almost breathtaking in its simplicity and effectiveness. It’s music to cherish, to savor.
The first minuet ends with a restatement of the opening material in a more varied form before moving to the second minuet. Palmer says it “contains a lengthy, quasi-developmental extension of the main theme with numerous, wide dynamic contrasts and a modulation to the dominant,” but eventually ends in the tonic. Those details aren’t really important, though, because the music speaks for itself.
After the first two movements of increasing charm, the finale is the most energetic and buoyant. Palmer notes that the octave plays an important role in both themes of this sonata-form movement, with an octave jump in the first theme, and the second theme which contains “chords that encompass a full octave.” It’s the most vivacious, virtuosic, but retains the lightness and clarity that were established in the previous movements. it maintains that beauty, but with the addition of a bright, big smile, wrapping up this fine sonata with another concise sonata-form package, ending without a splash.
The music is so unassuming at first, not pretentious or extravagant, but gives the listener a sense of pure, unadulterated perfection. I had a conversation with a friend the other day about how ‘pretty’ doesn’t really interest me much as a listener, that ‘beauty’ can encompass a whole range of powerful, moving emotions, of which ‘pretty’ is just one small sliver. Others would include things like triumph, pain, sorrow, etc., but ‘pretty’ music doesn’t keep my attention for very long.
Here, though, we have simple, irresistible beauty of a higher order altogether. Mozart isn’t even twenty years old at this point, and had already written tons of other works. One could romanticize it and say he was saving the solo keyboard sonata for a later time, that it was an important form to him, but it’s more likely, as Palmer states, that it just wasn’t popular where he was. In any case, his fourth effort in the form is by no means an immature one, although youthful. There are still more than a dozen of them left (how wonderful is that?!) and we’ll get around to two more this week, to reach a third of his sonata output, so stay tuned. There’s lots of piano on the way this month.