performed by Dame Mitsuko Uchida
One gets the feeling, listening to the Sonata in A minor, that Mozart had been stocking up on minor mode drama for some time when he wrote it. Its stormy music is a far cry from the happy-hearted, light-footed sonata fare composed up to that point.
(cover image by Aliis Sinisalu)
Mozart’s eighth piano sonata was written in the summer of 1778, around the time of his mother’s death in July of that year, meaning it was obviously a very difficult time for the young man, “one of the most tragic times of his life,” says Wikipedia.
The work was written in Paris, or at least begun there, as the manuscript for the work was written on paper purchased there that he used to write other pieces we know date from this time. That aside, we actually don’t know much about this work. Even in my cursory discussions of Mozart’s works, I’ve still at least occasionally mentioned the composer’s correspondences with his father Leopold or others, but we don’t really have much here, as it seems the composer didn’t discuss it. I think it is easy to assume that it could be that it dates from a very difficult time in his life, one he may have liked to leave behind or stay quiet about.
Of Mozart’s 18 piano sonatas, it’s one of only two in a minor key (the other being no. 14, in C minor). The work is in three movements and has a playing time of a little over 20 minutes:
- Allegro maestoso
- Andante cantabile con espressione
The first of two themes is obviously in the home key of A minor, and Johnston’s quote that began this article does seem pretty spot on. Perhaps the tragedy in his life was the occasion for him to bring the minor key to his constantly maturing works. We see it in the string quartets, the concertos, and the sonatas, that the young man is possessive not just of talent but inspiration, aesthetic, whatever you want to call it, maybe soul.
Obviously, though, the piece isn’t sappy sob story, nor is it a Chopin-esque funeral march. In its minor key expression, it strikes me more as the pained, even frustrated spirit of Scriabin’s F minor sonata, but obviously in a very Classical way. It could be described as heavy, or even perhaps aggressive, but all within the context of Classical conventions.
The second theme, though, brightens up and gives us a pleasant contrast to the opening thee. This also makes it easy to hear when we’ve arrived at the exposition repeat, with the reentry of the A minor theme.
Interestingly then, similar to what happened in the previous sonata (no. 7) with that bright, cheery C major theme that got thrown into the minor key, in the development, we hear the A minor theme suddenly in the major, which introduces what is probably one of Mozart’s most exciting developments (dare I say in any of his compositions thus far?). His writing here reaches approaches the kind of grand, virtuosic, fiery style that goes beyond pure technical clarity, with really mature-sounding, developed piano writing. It’s wonderful. The final bars, how the composer finishes out this movement, are very exciting.
So removed from that is the tenderness of the F major andante, kind of like the middle theme of Chopin’s funeral march. It is indeed pretty on its own, but when set in contrast against what’s around it, its strengths are accentuated even further. It’s a movement of true beauty which is good, because it makes up about half the playing time of this sonata. What’s enjoyable about it is not only its beauty, but how the composer handles this broad, ten-minute respite, still increasing tension and creating movement even in this relatively muted, soft environment.
The finale, however, marked presto, is obviously a return to greater energy, and also to a darker atmosphere. There’s beautiful contrapuntal writing here, but it doesn’t strike me in the least as an academic exercise or homework assignment. Rather, it goes somewhere; the texture and movement generate an energy of restlessness, of excitement, and at under three minutes, it packs a punch, managing even to work in a few sunnier passages, rounding out this sonata almost like a coda to the two contrasting, much longer movements. It finishes with a Beethovenish fire.
Isn’t this just so exciting? As I’ve said, I really feel that it’s in the works of this time period that we’re seeing Mozart come into his own, seeing the composer as a (more, at least relatively speaking) mature adult rather than a precocious child. We’ll hit his tenth string quartet this weekend, and see one more sonata, and two more concertos before we move on to Beethoven and an upcoming, very exciting milestone, so please stay tuned for all of that and thank you so much for reading.