Mozart’s Piano Music

The keyboard played an overwhelming part in Mozart’s life. His earliest recorded composition, a ten-bar C major Andante, K. la, was for keyboard (harpsichord, probably) and dates from early 1761, shortly after his fifth birthday. Almost thirty years later, he completed his last piano concerto in B flat, K. 595 (though the work had been started in 1788). In addition to eighteen or so solo sonatas, the twenty-seven concertos, a handful of variation sets, and other occasional pieces such as the chromatic Minuet, K. 355, the Rondos K. 485 and K. 511, a few Baroque-style trifles perhaps composed in emulation of J. S. Bach, and the Adagio in B minor, K. 540, there are numerous piano duet compositions including the G major variations, K. 501, along with the splendid sonata in D, K. 448, for two pianos.

References to his keyboard compositions are frequent in the Mozart family correspondence. They range from explicit description of the grand and virtuosic piano concertos in B flat, K. 450 and D, K. 451 (K. 450 was designed’to make the player sweat’), to infuriatingly imprecise references to sonatas that Mozart may or may not have written by such and such a date, and may or may not have offered to a publisher in Paris or elsewhere. He certainly took great pains over the texts of his keyboard sonatas when these were occasionally published, as became increasingly the fashion towards the end of the eighteenth century, ensuring that they were suitably adapted where required to the touch-sensitive capabilities of the fortepiano. Well, sometimes he did, as in the case of the D major sonata, K. 284, which has rather more in the way of slurrings and dynamics at times than in the autograph; and sometimes he didn’t, as in the B flat sonata, K. 333, published in the same set, Trois Sonates pour le Clavecinou Piano Forte . . . Op. VII (Torricella; Vienna, 1784), which has hardly any dynamics at all in the first movement.

Though he remained equally expert on the harpsichord and organ (even acquiring a post as an organist in Vienna in the last years of his life), once ensconced in Vienna the forte piano became Mozart’s preferred métier and his frequent appearances as soloist in his own concertos did wonders for his emerging reputation in the capital. He owned a piano by Anton Walther and was familiar with those of Spä th of Regensburg and Stein of Augsburg. His father, visiting Vienna in spring 1785, wrote enthusiastically to his daughter about Wolfgang’s hectic pace of concert-giving (which included moving the Walther and its heavy pedal attachment out of Mozart’s lodgings tothe concert venues every time), the brilliance of his playing, the originality of his compositions, and the reception accorded to both Wolfgang and his music by the top dogs of Viennese society.

Back home in Salzburg, copies of keyboard works were assiduously produced under Leopold’s closest supervision, and some works were learnt by Nannerl Mozart (including the C major concerto, K. 467, whose difficulty did not pass unnoticed in her correspondence). The path that Wolfgang’s imagination was taking, as expressed in his keyboard works, must have seemed astonishing in provincial Salzburg. Factors such as the technical difficulty of, say, the finale of the F major concerto, K. 459—not one of the most taxing of Mozart’s concerto movements, incidentally—or the sound world of the C minor Fantasia, K. 475, or the B minor A dagio must have made this music appear rather esoteric, something aimed at the professional rather than the amateur. Undeniably, such works played a part in shaping what soon came to be recognized as the professionalization of piano music in a concert-hall setting far removed from the repertory learnt by young ladies at home. Virtuosi were not unknown in Salzburg, however, including Louise Victoire Jena my, for whom Mozart wrote the E flat concerto, K. 271 in January 1777. Thanks to Michael Lorenz, ‘The Jenamy Concerto’, Newsletter of the Mozart Society of America (2003), 1-3, we now know the true identity of Mozart’s dedicatee, formerly identified as ‘Mlle. Jeunehomme’. But Mozart’s sonatas and concertos challenge more than just the virtuosity of the player: they also challenge the listener’s intellectual resilience. Compare the sonata and concerto output of Mozart with that of Johann Christian Bach (whom he revered) and you have some impression of what matters about Mozart’s contribution to these genres.

William Kinderman’s Mozart’s Piano Music considers the totality of Mozart’s concerto, solo, and duet keyboard output, occasionally making sideways references to the piano’s role in chamber music too, though that is not his prime concern. No justification is needed for a broad brush treatment of this repertory, sitting alongside various more detailed studies of particular genres currently available. Indeed, it is fascinating to have the views of a musicologist who is also an active pianist allunder one cover rather than widely dispersed. Much of his advice from the performance standpoint is refreshing common sense, and whether or not one might have hoped for rather more nuancing in favour of period performance, there is much food for thought—for instance, in his remarks about playing the first movement of the early G major sonata, K. 283, considered in chapter 2. His goal overall is ‘consideration not only of a legacy of many individual compositions, but also of a rich stylistic evolution, from childhood assimilation to mature mastery’ (p. 13). Fair enough—and among the tools engaged for this quest are generic description (indeed, a great strength of the book is Kinderman’s ability to describe the music coherently and with enthusiasm, whether or not one agrees with what he says), analysis, and performance. He is conversant with several analytical approaches and with the underpinning literature for these (copiously referenced for the benefit of those who wish to pursue such avenues for themselves). Tomy mind, a hugely positive point of his discussion of particular pieces (K. 283, for instance) is that it is gloriously empirical and supported by plenty of  extended musical examples. Both author and publisher are to be commended not only for the fact that the examples are there at all, but that they are sensitively disposed in relation to the text, avoiding too many awkward back-and-forth leafings through the book.

John Irving

University of Bristol

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