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Adagio in B minor, K. 540

October 29, 2017: Peter Serkin, piano

According to his own catalog, Mozart completed the Adagio, K. 540, on March 19, 1788. Two weeks earlier he had completed the last of his arias for sister-in-law Aloysia Weber, “Ah se in ciel,” K. 538, and the previous month the Piano Concerto in D major, K. 537, “Coronation,” but he was chiefly occupied by thoughts of the impending Vienna premiere of his opera Don Giovanni on May 7 that year.

No specific event appears to have prompted the composition of this exquisite, solitary slow movement for piano, though its ending in B major has invited speculation that he may have intended it for a sonata in E minor. Distinguished English musicologist Arthur Hutchings deemed the Adagio Mozart’s finest single piano work and eminent Mozart scholar Alfred Einstein considered it “one of the most perfect, most deeply felt, and most despairing of all his works.” Had it found a place in a complete sonata it would no doubt have received the larger number of performances it merits.

The Adagio displays the elegant simplicity that imparts poignance to so many of Mozart’s slow movements. Here sudden changes of dynamics and register supply drama. The movement follows sonata-form of the binary type, in which the second half containing the development and recapitulation is proportionally equal to the exposition. Mozart adds florid elaboration to the short coda, which ends serenely in B major.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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