performed by Mitsuko Uchida
(cover image by Vincent Giersch)
This is a piece that has captivated me, and although it may not be, like the finale of the previous sonata, one of those immediately recognizable, iconic passages, it exudes such a wonderful sense of playfulness, spontaneity, and joy but expresses also, at least to me, a deeply musical nature, ‘serious’ in its form and musical content. It’s a beautiful piece.
The sonata in F was composed around the same time as the tenth and eleventh sonatas, K. 330 and 331, respectively. There is, as I believe I mentioned, at least a little bit of uncertainty regarding exactly when these pieces were composed. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say there is not 100% certainty that they were composed in 1783, the year before their publication. There was a time when they were thought to have been composed in the late 1770s, although they weren’t published until 1784.
The work, like the others in this group of three, is in three movements, as follows, and has a playing time of around 19-20 minutes:
- Allegro assai
All three movements are in some sort of sonata form: the outer movements have repeats of the exposition followed by a development section, while the central adagio is in a ‘sonatina’ form, says Wikipedia, which usually means it lacks a development, rather repeating the two subjects without much embellishment. Interestingly, though, Wiki does say:
In the autograph, the second half is essentially a repeat of its initial presentation with some minor tonal adjustments. In the earliest printed editions, however, it is considerably elaborated.
So perhaps it was a little bit more decorated or involved or lengthy at one time, but not upon later publication. I’d be curious to know when and why this changed.
The first movement may for a moment trick you into thinking it’s a more famous, later piece, but actually, the first movement is rather subtle, at least at the beginning. (If you’re a keen enough listener to hear that those two sonatas are in different keys, you may already know the pieces anyway.) Listen in the first theme for what sounds at least to my ear as almost Baroque-like interaction between the treble and bass in places, a Bach-like clarity.
Wait, though, for a much more dramatic passage in the minor key that leads us to a second theme, more bubbly and even a little nervous at times. You’ll see here, not just in the transition from the first theme to the second, but even within themes, how phrases and ideas in the minor keys get interwoven among the brightness of F major, making for a really vivid tapestry. This is an exposition we really can enjoy twice.
Not every development section needs to pit the themes against each other in a battle to the death, either. We hear some similar material, as well as some almost directly quoted material before a cute, pensive (if those two things can even coexist) little pause that brings with it the recapitulation. Listen again for that semi-familiar opening.
The second movement is the one with no development section. Do you hear that there may just be some relation in the basic figure to that of the first movement? I say relation; they’re just broken chords, or whatever that figure is called. This is by a little bit the shortest movement of the sonata, but they’re of almost equal length. Even though this is a piece for solo piano, it is as if the piano gives itself an aria at a few points, most notably the more melancholic ones. I hear a beautiful maturity, a polish and crystal-clear refinement that needs no further explanation. It is a quiet, personal space/moment, with a few chromatic, almost Romantic-era gestures that may remind you of Chopin. Overall, though, it is quiet.
The finale, though, is not, at least not at the beginning. The left hand blurts out what sounds like a child’s imitation of a bodily function, almost slapstick-comical in comparison with the refinement of the previous movement, but things move quickly. This movement, as discussed, is also in sonata form. Again, the wonderful thing about this boisterous, unmistakable entry is that you can’t miss it when the exposition repeat begins.
And as a matter of fact, you also can’t miss it at the beginning of the development, but here, it wears a mask in the minor key. The development does some fun things, but is overall pretty brief. What’s perhaps most surprising about this boisterous, rambunctious finale isn’t some continued hilarity with that near-obnoxious opening utterance, as you might expect from the constant false climaxes that seem to want to conclude the piece, but rather the quiet, soft gesture with which it finally ends. It’s perfect.
So yeah, contrary to what some people may think, traditional form can be upheld in a piece of music and still be fun rather than just academic. It’s a testament, as I’ve said before, to a composer’s skill that a piece can be enjoyed by listening just to the music as it’s presented to you, or with a keener ear, for themes, motifs, the nuts and bolts of music, and people would argue (probably different people, but people all the same) that that’s the case for Bach as well as Babbitt. Give a listen to some Mozart today.
And later this week, and this weekend, and next week, and next weekend, because there’ll be a bit more of him. Stay tuned for that and thanks so much for reading.