Sonata for Piano Four-Hands in C major, K. 521
December 19, 2017: Alessio Bax, piano; Lucille Chung, piano
Four-hand piano music—two players at one keyboard—first surfaced in England in the early seventeenth century and became immensely popular in the mid-eighteenth century. As children/teenagers in the 1760s, Mozart and his gifted older sister Maria Anna (Nannerl) greatly popularized four-hand playing all over Europe through the tours they were taken on by their father Leopold. A famous painting of the Mozart family from about 1780 depicts the two showing crosse-hand technique at the keyboard, their father standing by with violin, and a portrait of their recently deceased mother on the wall.
Wolfgang apparently wrote his first four-hand sonata, K. 19d, in London in 1765 when he was nine years old. Nannerl also mentioned in a letter of 1800 that she had other similar four-hand works in her possession, some of which may have been even earlier works, but all of which regrettably are lost. Wolfgang returned to the genre in 1772 with the D major Sonata, K. 123a (K. 381), probably influenced by seeing circulating manuscripts of Charles Burney’s four-hand sonatas even before they were printed in 1777 as the first published set of piano duets. Mozart went on to complete three more, of which the present C major Sonata of 1787 was the last.
In Mozart’s day it was customary for the woman to play primo (the higher part, often with the melody) and the man secondo (the lower part, often with the bass support)—Wolfgang and his sister always played thus and perhaps instigated the custom. (From 1769 onward, having reached marriageable age, Nannerl was no longer permitted to perform in public.) Charles Burney, famous for his observations on musical life in many European countries, requested that a lady who wished to play piano duets should remove the hoops from her skirt, and not be embarrassed if her left hand occasionally grazed the gentleman’s right. Today’s piano-duet players—as in the case of Alessio Bax and Lucille Chung—like to change up who plays which part for any number of reasons.
In his own thematic catalog, Mozart dated the C major Sonata May 29, 1787, which happened to be the very day he received word of the death of his father Leopold. He shared the sad news that day with one of his best friends, Viennese court official and amateur musician Gottfried von Jacquin, at the same time asking him to “have the goodness to give the sonata to my lady, your sister [Franziska, one of Mozart’s most talented pupils], with my compliments—but she might have a go at it immediately, for it is a bit difficult.” Evidently Mozart was eager to play it with her! Several months earlier he had nicknamed Franziska “Signora Dinimininimi” (related to diminutio and minim), no doubt referring to her skill at playing fast notes.
As it turned out, when Mozart published the piece the following year, he dedicated it to some other members of the Jacquin circle, Babette and Nanette Natorp, the young daughters of a wealthy Viennese merchant. Babette was also a pupil of Mozart’s and later married Gottfried and Franziska’s older brother Josef Franz.
The C major Sonata breathes grace and elegance, much like Eine kleine Nachtmusik, which he composed just two months later—and in great contrast to the more brilliant character of the F major four-hand Sonata composed just ten months before. The C major Sonata’s sparkling first movement opens by contrasting a forthright idea in octave unison with a more delicate response that alternately highlights the secondo and primo parts. Mozart begins his elegant second theme with a distinct three-note pickup to a dotted idea related to the movement’s opening pronouncement, into which he injects darting fast-note decorations. His development section is a fascinating excursion through new ideas and keys that includes storm and brief melancholy before winding up to a full recapitulation.
The middle movement ambles sweetly in its outer sections, which surround a more agitated central section. Each of these sections takes on the binary form of a traditional dance-suite movement—two halves each repeated, except for the return to the opening section which is reprised without repeats.
The final rondo shows Mozart’s mastery of understatement in its genial refrain. Its subtle charms provide a great foil for the remarkable yet still seemingly effortless virtuosity of its intervening episodes. Mozart’s ingenuity shows up in some wonderfully unexpected harmonic diversions in the episodes and even in the coda, which Mozart caps with emphatic chords.
© Jane Vial Jaffe