performed by Mitsuko Uchida
(cover image by Joanna Kosinska)
Mozart’s eleventh piano sonata was composed somewhere, at some point.
It’s not often that we don’t have all the juicy details about the composition of Mozart’s efforts in the more popular forms (symphonies, quartets, concertos, etc.), of which the piano sonata is one, but we are apparently not entirely sure when or where this one was composed. Wikipedia tells us that “Vienna or Salzburg around 1783 is currently thought to be most likely (Paris and dates as far back as 1778 have also been suggested).”
The work is in three movements, one of which you are likely very familiar with, and has a duration of about 24 minutes, in Uchida’s recording:
- Andante grazioso
- Alla turca – Allegretto
The andante grazioso marking at the beginning tells us it should be at a ‘graceful walking’ pace. There are a few odd things about this first movement when compared with overall musical tradition or trends of the time, although they aren’t the kind of thing that would make the average listener say, ‘This is odd!’ They’re more just departures from convention.
For one, the first movement is not in sonata form, but is a theme and variations, and quite a long one, at 14 minutes in Uchida’s recording. Second, Mozart’s choice for these variations is ” a siciliana, consisting of two 8-measure sections, each repeated, a structure shared by each variation.” As far as theme-and-variation movements go, that’s not too odd, but generally speaking, the siciliana is in a minor key, and Mozart himself used it as such to great effect in much of his other work. Here, though, we are in A major.
So that’s what you may want to know about the first movement. It’s a theme with six variations, beginning with a main theme that may call to mind the chimes of a music box ticking away in another room. It strikes this listener as the opening of a lullaby-like central movement rather than the first utterance of a piano sonata, but what results is undeniably pristine and heavenly. This movement makes up more than half of Uchida’s playing time.
The second movement, half the length of the first, is a minuet with trio. This, for some reason, strikes me as having a more convincing opening as the start of a new work. The opening gesture of this movement is brighter and more confident, but as a minuet, is still very elegant. There are sections in both the tonic and dominant keys, as well as a section in B minor, and a trio in D. The movement is full of charm, refinement, restraint, but isn’t without a few bold outbursts. There’s an overall sense of beauty and peace in this work so far, but we haven’t even yet gotten to the finale.
This movement, about half the length again of the previous movement, is the movement from which the piece gets its nickname ‘Alla turca.’ As you may be aware from some of Mozart’s other music of the time, like his Die Entführung aus dem Serail, ‘Turkish’ music, really just march-like music featuring additional percussion, like bass drum, triangle, and cymbals, things that may be hard to think of as ‘exotic’ or rare today.
This is one of those movements that will bring almost everyone to say, ‘Oh yeah, I know this!’ If you do, try to listen for the different sections in this very short movement. The first of these is obviously the most famous. Follow Wikipedia’s explanation of the five major sections and how they are revisited, or at the very least try to follow which sections are in A minor, A major, F# minor, etc. and when they change. This is a great chance to get familiar with the nuts and bolts of something that may already be very familiar to your ear.
Also, it’s interesting that this smallest, briefest of installments to a beautiful, well-executed sonata is the one that gives it its nickname, and since the ‘Turkish’ part is so commonly heard out of context, I have a little trouble placing it alongside the previous two movements as one cohesive work, but no matter how you slice it, this is a work of sheer delight.
We’ll be seeing a bit more, just a bit more, of Mozart the next few weeks, about half a dozen more pieces, before moving on. No months-long stretches this time, at least not yet. Stay tuned for that, and thanks so much for reading!