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Sonata in A, K. 526

March 11, 2018: Benjamin Beilman, Violin; Orion Weiss, piano

Little is known about the circumstances surrounding the composition of the A major Violin Sonata, K. 526, other than that it was written in August 1787 in Vienna during the composition of Don Giovanni. Mozart himself was an accomplished violinist, but there is no evidence that he wrote it with himself in mind; nor is there evidence that he wrote it for anyone else. It seems unlikely, however, that Mozart would have interrupted work the opera unless some occasion demanded it.

Mozart’s violin sonatas span an interesting time in the history of the genre. His earliest violin sonatas belong to the tradition of keyboard sonatas for the amateur to which ad libitum violin (or flute, and sometimes cello) accompaniment could be added if available. His violin sonatas, though called piano sonatas with violin accompaniment(!), exhibit equality and great independence of the two instruments. In the Sonata, K. 526—his last except for K. 547, “a small piano sonata for beginners, with a violin”—the piano and violin are truly equal partners. The contrapuntal textures throughout may suggest Mozart’s study of Bach, but the language remains thoroughly his.

The Molto allegro is set in 6/8, an unusual meter for Mozart to use for a first movement. (It is interesting that he also cast the first movement of his other A major Violin Sonata, K. 305, in 6/8, a meter commonly associated with “the hunt,” and indeed the meter he used for the first movement of his Hunt Quartet in B-flat major, K. 458.) The hemiola effects (switching from rhythmic patterns of two groups of three to three groups of two) and extensions of cadential phrase endings constitute some of the delightful features of this sonata-form movement.

The Andante, again in sonata form, is remarkable for its spare texture, often achieved by the kind of octave doublings that Brahms later favored. Mozart never ceases to amaze in his ability to create such expressive music with deceptively simple means—fragmented melodic utterances, flowing regular accompaniment, chromatic touches, major-minor shifts—how can these produce such a compelling effect?

The finale, though one of Mozart longest in a chamber work, races by at a presto tempo. It combines virtuoso tendencies with an almost demonic high-spirited quality. Mozart scholars Derek Carew and Neal Zaslaw have independently reported that the movement is based on the finale of Carl Friedrich Abel’s A major Violin Sonata, op. 5, no. 5, possibly as a memorial tribute since Abel had died on June (Carew mistakenly says January) 20, 1787.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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