performed by Mitsuko Uchida
(cover image by Lex Sirikiat)
You like forensics, don’t you, dear reader? After shows like CSI and others, as well as what seems (at least to me) to be the growing fad of true crime podcasts, shows, and documentaries, it seems most people have dipped their toes into that pool.
Did you know, though, that forensics plays a part in classical music, or at least its history? This certainly isn’t the only piece where a different kind of analysis comes into play, but it’s significant enough to mention.
Perhaps the same sort of tests and things were done with the previous sonatas in Mozart’s chronology, but the catalogue number is, it appears, actually a little bit deceptive. We just recently discussed Mozart’s sonatas numbered 10, 11 and 12, and they are given catalogue numbers 330-332, and here we are at the thirteenth sonata, with catalogue number 333. Unfortunately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s not that simple.
You may remember that the previous three sonatas were not of 100% certain chronology, but figured on being around the summer of 1783. This piece was also subject to some confusion, at least in part because the paper didn’t match what people would have expected him to be writing on at the time. As a result, it was estimated to have been composed between 1778 and 1779.
I promised you forensics, and forensics you will get.
That late 70s date was maintained until as late as 1964, but Wikipedia tells us how it was eventually determined, apparently pretty incontestably, that the work is in fact from 1783:
More recently, this date [of 1779] has been invalidated by the findings of Wolfgang Plath and Alan Tyson. On the basis of Mozart’s script, Plath assigns the piece to the time around 1783/84, “likely not long before the appearance of the first print.” Furthermore, Tyson convincingly demonstrates through paper tests that the work was composed at the end of 1783, likely in November, around the same time as the “Linz Symphony”, K. 425, when the Mozart couple made a stopover in Linz on their way back to Vienna from Salzburg. This new dating also fits stylistic criteria.
No video montage of people doing fancy things with expensive machinery in dimly lit rooms or anything, but there it is. Paper tests. It’s more than just reading through letters and family records, but even that is detective work that gives us an enormous amount of information.
The B-flat major sonata is in three movements, as follows, and has a duration of a little over 20 minutes:
- Andante cantabile
- Allegretto grazioso
The first two movements are in sonata form, with the finale in sonata-rondo form, which we’ll review when we get there. It is, as you may expect, somewhere between sonata form and rondo form. Imagine that.
Need I say that Mozart’s writing is still impeccably clean and expressive and lively?
As we said in the previous article (actually maybe the one before it…), sonata form does not mean that the subjects must be at each other’s throats the whole time. There isn’t always a source of grinding conflict and resolution. Here, it more resembles a beauty contest. There is transitional material between the first theme and the second, but the clean introduction of the material in F major seems almost like a curtain closes and reopens to introduce… another sonata. There is a small codetta that rounds out the exposition before it is repeated.
The second subject seems to me to be a bit more playful, even mischievous, in its rhythms and phrasing than the first, but all is still quite refined. Tonic-Chord gives us an explanation of what exactly happens in the development, but it begins effectively with an idea from the first subject, in the key of the second. It sounds familiar, but also foreign, and it’s exactly this kind of mix-up that makes a development section what it is.
The two themes are recapitulated, with a slightly lengthened transition section, and the second subject and codetta now, as we would expect, in the tonic key of B flat rather than F.
The second movement is, at least in Uchida’s reading, the longest of the three, and is also in sonata form, although with the tender, lullaby-like nature of this movement, it’s easy to see how matters of form and themes become of less importance. It’s simply beautiful, but some contrast is afforded by the development’s beginning in F minor. This should be hard to miss, and creates a very noticeable move away from where we were in the exposition, especially with some more ominous tolling utterances from the bass. The recapitulation is a little bit elaborated and ornamented.
The finale is that sonata-rondo business. A sonata form usually has two themes in separate but related keys, often repeated before a development section that does just that, plays with and breaks down and explores or combines the material before returning to the home key. A rondo has separate sections featuring a theme in the tonic with sections in different keys as contrasting episodes (A B A C, etc.)
So the sonata-rondo form, then, is like a rondo with developments. Wiki says that “The simplest kind of sonata rondo form is a sonata form that repeats the opening material in the tonic as the beginning of the development section.” In any case, the movement opens with a delightful idea that isn’t terribly energetic or rambunctious, but upon its repeat is embellished and more effervescent. You can follow Tonic-Chord’s play-by-play of how the movement is laid out, but it’s more outwardly virtuosic than the two previous movements, some passages resembling a cadenza, as if it’s a solo in a larger work. The repeated embellishment of previously-presented material emphasizes the playfulness and almost improvisatory nature of the writing, which in Mozart’s hands, is a source of enormous joy.
There’s such a breathtaking sense of refinement but also spontaneity that I guess comes from the more mature composer able to balance the more formal approaches he of course learned from his father with his own youthfulness and vibrance. You can’t miss the opening ‘A theme’ as it appears throughout the finale in different episodes, and it is always refreshing. This is quintessential Mozart, to me.
What’s terrifying is that I feel like I haven’t really given any useful insight into these recent pieces, although they’ve been stuck in my head as I’ve been listening to them in the past weeks and months, and that we have only five more sonatas from the composer to discuss, so we’re going to slow our roll a little bit with the form. We have lots more other Mozart to discuss, though, (wow, the end of the finale really is approaching Romantic-era virtuosic and showy) so stay tuned for that, and thanks so much for reading.