Pianist and fortepianist David Breitman may be best-known for his collaboration with baritone Sanford Sylvan, spanning twenty-five years and including hundreds of concerts, as well as four CD’s (two of [...]
They spoke about it
Mozart: the name alone conjures up the overwhelming, perhaps even exclusive, image of composer and pianist. As a result, it is too easily (and too frequently) forgotten that he was also a violinist of the first rank, and that the violin played a central role not only in his early compositions, but in his early performances as well.
The Mannheim–Paris Sonatas
In late 1777, Mozart resigned from the court music and left Salzburg to seek his fortune in Mannheim and Paris. And while the bulk of his documented performances from the tour are of symphonies, piano concertos, masses, and a variety of chamber works, he also continued to present himself as a violinist.
The works themselves are stylistically varied. The influence of the Dresden composer Joseph Schuster (1748-1812) is not distant: the first movement of K.303, for example, appears to be modeled on Schuster’s sonatas in which an Adagio introduction represents the first subject and recurs at the recapitulation. And like most of Schuster’s sonatas, five of K.301-306 are in two movements (not the three typical of Mozart’s contemporary solo piano sonatas).
Expressively, however, it is the Mannheim style that dominates. The frequent turns to minor, the jarring dissonances, and the harmonic and rhythmic disjunctiveness of the sonatas betray a sensibility closer to that of North German music. Mozart’s sonatas, characterized by a kind of expressiveness atypical of his earlier instrumental works, especially those composed in Salzburg, clearly revolve in this rarefied orbit.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in K.304, Mozart’s only work in E minor: the stark unison opening of the first movement, the abrupt shift to G major that never fully dispels the darkness of the minor, the canonic writing of the development with its biting dissonances, the surprisingly reharmonized recapitulation and, in the second movement, the hauntingly sweet major episode. Yet K.304, surprisingly, is among the two works of the set not composed in Mannheim, but in Paris.
The A major sonata for keyboard and violin K.305 was also composed in Paris during the early spring of 1778. One of the most genial of the sonatas composed on the journey of 1777-1778, it includes two movements: an introductory Allegro di molto and a theme and variations Andante grazioso. The 6/8 meter and triadic motives of the allegro conjure up a bucolic pastoral-hunting atmosphere even if the chase seems to go on longer than expected: fully half of the first part of the movement is given to cadential gestures and pedal points of increasing agitation—perhaps the prey is more elusive than we are at first led to believe. And if the development hints at escape—the minor mode dominates much of this section—order is nevertheless restored at the recapitulation and the chase satisfactorily concluded. The variations, on the other hand, breathe something of the perfumed Mannheim style, not least in the ornamental opening to the second variation and the ad libitum adagio in the fourth (it is a typical gesture, indicative of the sonata’s reliance on the keyboard as the chief protagonist, that the violin rests during the first variation). Still, the hunt is never far away and the triple-time allegro variation that concludes the set reinscribes the pastoral mood of the work’s first movement.
Not all of the sonatas composed by Mozart on the Mannheim-Paris journey were published by him at the time: K.296, composed at Mannheim on 11 March 1778 for his pupil Therese Pierron, did not appear in public until 1781 when Mozart published it, together with the sonatas K.376-380. That the piano is the lead instrument in these sonatas is already clear in K.296, which consists of three movements, an Allegro vivace, an Andante sostenuto, and a concluding Allegro: at the difficult sixteenth-note passage in the first movement development, it is the keyboard that takes command. The same is true of a similar passage in the middle section of the Andante. The charming Rondeau finale includes a tune Mozart later used as the basis for his Rondo for piano, K.485.
It was in Paris that Mozart composed the one sonata that breaks the expressive and stylistic pattern of the set: K.306. The only three-movement work in the group, it is a virtuosic romp, extroverted, full of energy, and relatively free of the sometimes tortuous disjunctiveness of the other sonatas. The violin is a more equal partner in the musical dialogue and the keyboard writing is neither restrained nor spare, but has a hint of orchestral style. In several respects it is reminiscent of both the “Paris” Symphony K.297 and the symphonic works heard by Mozart earlier at Mannheim.
The Viennese Sonatas
The sonata K.454, composed for the Mantuan violinist Regina Strinasacchi (1761-1839), marks a break not only in Mozart’s conception of the sonata as part of a cycle—like all the remaining sonatas it is a singly-conceived work—but also in Mozart’s conception of the relationship between the two instruments: whereas earlier works in the genre give primacy to the piano part, beginning with the Strinasacchi sonata there is a more equitable balance (Mozart’s continued, and traditional, description of them as “sonatas for keyboard with violin accompaniment” notwithstanding). In the case of K.454, this change is hardly surprising: Strinasacchi had commissioned the sonata from Mozart for performance at her public concert at the Kärntnerthor-Theater on April 29, 1784.
K.454 differs from the other violin sonatas by the inclusion of a substantial slow introduction, stressing the equality of the two instruments and its richly ornamented Andante (originally marked Adagio) which invites a variety of subtle dynamic gestures.
The last of the sonatas with violin, K.547, is something of a mystery. Described by Mozart in his catalogue as “a small sonata for beginners, with violin,” the autograph is lost. And the work was not published during the composer’s lifetime: the earliest known edition, published by the Viennese firm of T. Mollo, did not appear until 1805. Curiously enough, the well-known and exactly contemporary C major piano sonata for beginners K.545 has a similar history. Like K.547, its autograph is also lost and like K.547, it remained unpublished until 1805. It is possible that in mid-1788 Mozart was commissioned to write a series of easy works, designed chiefly for pedagogical use; this could have been at the request of a publisher or on his own initiative. But then the fact of the sonata’s non-appearance would be particularly odd: there was a large and enthusiastic market for just this kind of work. A more fanciful interpretation might take as its point of departure other works composed by Mozart at the time: both sonatas were written while Mozart was hard at work on the last three symphonies. Could the tremendous achievement of those works have fostered in Mozart a counter-gesture, sonatas no less sophisticated in terms of style but scaled-back to normal proportions by the standards of the day?
© Cliff Eisen