MOZART AT THE FORTEPIANO
SONATAS AND A FANTASY
[Mozart’s] immense ability to dream in sound-structures served [his] secret coveting of love and affection.
Mozart, Portrait of a Genius, 1991.
Like many musicians of his time, Mozart played several different instruments, including violin, viola, organ, and, of course, harpsichord. But his favourite was the new fortepiano, invented in Italy in the early 18th century and signi cantly improved in the 1770s. He encountered the instruments of Johann Andreas Stein in Augsburg in 1777, shortly before his second trip to Paris, and after arriving in Vienna, he developed a special fondness for those of Anton Walter, acquiring one in 1784. These instruments were perfectly suited to the style cultivated by Mozart and his contemporaries, so vastly different from the polyphonic constructions of earlier generations. At the keyboard – whether performing his sonatas, concertos, or the improvisations described in numerous accounts – he always favoured “taste,” “precision,” and “emotion.”
As Paul Badura-Skoda describes, “compared with the modern piano, Mozart’s piano produces an extraordinarily translucent, sharply de ned, silvery sound effect. The instruments were much more delicately built; the strings and the soundboard were thinner, which produced a relatively soft yet beautiful tone due to the richness of overtones.” Indeed, the fortepiano offers enhanced clarity, especially in the lower register; the typical Alberti bass accompaniment used in this period feels more natural and is less likely to sound muddy than on a modern piano; and highly delicate nuances, such as creating clear distinctions between sound strata, are in nitely more feasible.
Along with a series of variations, fantasies, and other works, Mozart wrote 18 piano sonatas between 1774 and 1789. With his trademark creativity, he brought the sonata form to its apogee, drawing inspiration from both the gallant charm of Johann Christian Bach and the poetic outlook of Johann Schobert. With few exceptions, their smiling cheerfulness seems self-evident at first glance, but, as Patrick Gale notes, “from even the most casual study of the sonatas it is evident that their ‘simplicity’ is actually restraint: the observation of the decorum of a musical form.” Not particularly high up in the hierarchy of genres, the “classical” keyboard sonata arose in Italy and Germany around 1740 as a salon entertainment accessible to the pro cient amateur. As Jean and Brigitte Massin explain, “piano literature in this period was seen as an inferior genre for social reasons, expressivity being less acceptable.” And while Mozart did imbue the piano sonata with his own brand of genius, he was decidedly freer and more audacious in his concertos.
Opinions differ as to when the sonatas K. 331 (no. 11) and K. 333 (no. 13) were composed. While some date them from soon after Mozart’s arrival in Vienna in 1781, others believe that they were written or begun during his second journey to Paris, in 1778. Either way, the rst was published, along with K. 330 (no. 10) and K. 332 (no. 12), by Artaria in 1784; K. 333 was published by Torricella that same year along with two others – all three dedicated to Mozart’s student the Countess Theresa von Cobenzl.
The K. 331 sonata could be regarded as a sort of tribute to the French wit. It is atypical in that it bears no trace of sonata form, instead beginning with an “Andante grazioso” theme followed by six variations. The theme is based on a popular song entitled “Rechte Lebensart” (The Right Way of Living) – an ironic allusion to Parisians’ rude treatment of Mozart, according to Jean and Brigitte Massin. The ensuing variations take on various moods and irt with virtuosity through lines played in octaves, hand crossings, and other broken arpeggios. Then, after a tender “Menuetto and Trio,” comes the iconic “Alla Turca” rondo. With the Ottoman Empire on their doorstep, the Imperial Hapsburgs were utterly fascinated by Turkish habits and customs. Musically, composers from Johann Joseph Fux to Christoph Willibald Gluck engaged in various “Turqueries,” taking pleasure in reproducing the sonorities of the Janissaries’ exotic instruments, modal scales, and distinctive rhythms. Here, Mozart offers a simple, well-articulated march that alternates relentlessly between major and minor modes.
The ambitiously proportioned K. 333 sonata would appear to have been completed in Strasbourg, upon Mozart’s return from Paris, or composed in Linz in December 1783. Mozart likely wrote it to perform himself – it is constructed much like a concerto, with tutti and solo effects and an opera- like lyricism. The supple, undulating opening of the first movement recalls several of J. C. Bach’s opus 17 sonatas, but with a much more substantial development. The “Andante cantabile” develops a daring harmonic progression, with a middle section that, as Adélaïde de Place writes, “startles with its sombre and stark accents,” before the nal “Allegretto grazioso,” a free-form rondo, concludes with a concerto like cadenza. In 1788, in his own thematic catalogue, Mozart described his short K. 545 sonata as “for beginners.” His many piano students in Vienna most likely exhibited unequal pro ciency, and he probably had both commercial and pedagogical aims in writing the work, though it was only published a year after his death. It later took on the Italian sobriquets Sonata facile and Sonata semplice, though, as the Massins point out, this “excludes neither science, nor mastery, nor impressionistic delicacy of colour.” And indeed, the work is more difficult than it appears at first glance, with scales, arpeggios, and other gures that might very well bewilder the beginner in question. The romance-like theme over an indefatigable Alberti bass of the “Andante” is a return to the galant style of Mozart’s youth. And in the joyful concluding “Rondo,” one hears a touch of Joseph Haydn’s bonhomie. As for the poignant and contrasting “Fantasia” K. 397, composed in Vienna in 1782, the Massins believed that it represents “the archetype of Mozartian improvisation, with the erce pathos of its opening […] and its recitative effects.” The work was left incomplete, and its short nale was completed by August Müller before its publication in 1804. In his autobiography, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf recounts a conversation about his colleague Mozart with emperor Joseph II, admitting that he had “never yet met with any composer who had such an amazing wealth of ideas,” adding that “he leaves his hearer out of breath; for hardly has he grasped one beautiful thought, when another of greater fascination dispels the rst, and this goes on throughout…” What more is there to say?
© François Filiatrault, 2021
English translation: © Peter Christensen