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Piano Sonata in A minor, K. 300d (K. 310)

October 4, 2015 – Richard Goode, piano

Mozart petitioned the Salzburg court for release from employment in the summer of 1777 because of difficulties with Archbishop Colloredo and longstanding contempt for Salzburg musicians. Colloredo responded by dismissing both father and son—an unexpected blow to Leopold, who sent Wolfgang on a job-hunting trip accompanied by his mother. One of their stops was Mannheim, where Wolfgang was extremely impressed with the musicians but no offer materialized. He dallied there, however, because he had fallen in love with Aloysia Weber, a fine singer and daughter of a music copier. At home in Salzburg Leopold fumed and in February 1778 ordered his son to Paris. Mozart resumed contacts there from previous trips and kept extremely busy, but he disliked the French musical scene and desperately wished he were in Mannheim. Tragedy struck when his mother sickened in mid-June and died on July 3. Leopold, in his grief, wrote accusingly that Mozart had not done enough for his mother.

Whether or not one accepts the premise that biographic events can be reflected in works of art, this time of grief and frustration was the backdrop for one of Mozart’s most dramatic and tragic-sounding pieces ever, the Piano Sonata in A minor, which he composed in July 1778. Long considered one of finest sonatas, it is one of only two he wrote in a minor key, among an enormous body of instrumental works predominantly in major keys.

A particular influence that can be documented in the A minor Sonata is the music of Johann Schobert, active in Paris in the last years of his short life, whose sonatas Mozart had played since his childhood visits to Paris and imitated in some of his own sonatas. He had even arranged several movements from Schobert sonatas as concerto movements. Still fascinated, Mozart taught his students Schobert’s sonatas during his 1778 Paris sojourn. Schobert was known for his Romantic tendencies, in particular extreme contrasts of storminess and introversion. The A minor Sonata’s great juxtapositions of loud and soft, rage and despair show this influence, but even more specifically the slow movement quotes a passage from Schobert’s Sonata, op. 17, no. 2, that Mozart had already arranged ten years previously as the second movement of a pastiche concerto in B-flat major, K. 39.

An almost violent intensity permeates the first movement, launched by insistent repeated chords and marked dotted rhythms. The great theorist Leonard Ratner associated this kind of music with Turkish or janissary military music, which Western composers often imitated in their art music. Mozart infuses intensity into his less forceful second theme with a spate of running fast notes against the repeated-chord idea, and by invoking a contrapuntal texture that creates great tension when coupled with driving dotted rhythms toward the end of the exposition, in the hair-raising development, and again in the recapitulation. The ferocity of his drive to conclude the exposition—even though it is in the major mode—and especially to end the movement inspires awe.

Poignant tenderness radiates from the slow movement, for which Mozart requests a singing style, with expression. Yet the contrasts of soft and loud are extreme here, too, and agitation builds almost to turbulence in his development section. It is in this dramatic section that Mozart recalls a D minor sequence from Schobert’s F major Sonata.

The restless, shadowy Presto darts by almost without pause. Contrasts of dynamics abound here too, and Mozart’s ingenuity shows in his remarkable pianistic textures that often consist of four-part writing. He does insert an episode in folklike musette style, but the shadows return, propelled to a dark, tumultuous conclusion.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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