I first posted this in September 2017 after a summer vacation to Austria. The thoughts are still very real for me, and become very relevant after deciding to embark on the Mozart in a Month project. Now in my 4th month, I thought it was worth re-upping this post, with just a few edits.
It's fair to ask, given that I have a doctorate in contemporary music, why I am spending 2 years learning a large chunk of the traditional canon. A lot of the answers are in this post.
My wife and I took a two-week vacation to Austria this past summer. I’d been there before, mostly studying piano at an intensive program, but she had never visited. I had loved my time there, the natural beauty, the authenticity of culture, and the sense of history surrounding every step. It was worth using the rare European trip to return to such a place.
We spent about a week in and around Vienna first and saw most of the famous sights, the palaces, the cathedrals, and plenty of composer houses. We took the train to Hallstatt and spent one night in the most gorgeous of little mountain villages. Finally we had several days in and around Salzburg, visiting friends who lived there, plenty of castles, cathedrals, caves, mines and, of course, Mozart.
Walking the same streets and within the same rooms as iconic figures certainly humanized history. There’s nothing quite like taking a tour of the Austrian Emperor’s palaces and seeing his toilet room to realize that such a figure who guided history, who conducted powerful military, economic and social forces, was a real, normal human being. Seeing the piano that Beethoven practiced and composed on, or the church where Wolfgang and Constanze were married reminded me that they worked just as hard as I. They loved, laughed and cried. They dealt with the minutia, the mundane, day to day joys and problems, and yet their art survived the centuries, never to be forgotten.
On our last full day in Salzburg, a Sunday, we visited the Mozart Residence, the place where he lived his formative years. We went early in the morning and just as we were walking out, the bells from a nearby church began to ring. Standing in this square, I was struck by the thought: Mozart himself probably heard these same bells. I like to at least think they were the exact same bells, but certainly he heard some very similar from the exact same church building. And quite possibly they were rung the exact same way in his day as that day I heard them: by a rope pulled by a church employee.
Given how much the world has changed in the 200+ years since Mozart lived there, it was quite a wondrous realization that such a sound could connect myself to such a famous figure.
That moment, and that thought, have inspired me since, especially as I explore traditional repertoire again. This music, truly ‘classical’ music connects figures through time in the same way these bells did. In performing the music of Mozart, I have a direct connection to the artistic passions of a man who lived hundreds of years before, who history has decided to remember. But I’m also connected to people who have played this music since. Great artists who have turned simple notes on a page into beautiful, magical art in sound. The excitement one feels sharing a passion with a friend is amplified when you get to share it with a host of people through time.
I’ve been finding this concept inspiring, but also humbling.
This music has survived for so many generations for good reason, and I must try to do it justice. There is a certain amount of social capital involved by joining the tradition of performing classical music. So many beautiful artistic ideas have been cultivated with these scores and I have a responsibility to do justice to this artistry.
But the time which it has survived through is also present when I play it. These bells I heard in Salzburg rang during war, and were heard by all sorts of figures and events that history would rather forget. The music of Mozart has been played and enjoyed by contemptable people as well. The responsibility of playing this music and accepting the history it has is not just a matter of artistry, but also of reconciliation, of a wish to do good in and for the world.
This is one aspect of studying and performing music which contemporary works cannot share in. Non-canonical repertoire simply does not have the accrued temporal history to carry such baggage, both good and bad. As I stated in my previous posts, this is precisely what I was looking for in pursuing the study of contemporary music. But I don’t know a person who doesn’t have some curiosity to understand history. The classical canon gives performers the opportunity to connect through time with sound to history, to worlds long forgotten, and to try and change the world we live in.
There’s this idea out there that Mozart’s music is the hardest to play on the piano.
It sounds obscene on the face of it: Who, stepping onto a professional concert stage, can’t play a simple alberti bass? Mozart’s music is just melody and accompaniment. Any child can play it! The technical challenges are nothing compared to the romantic virtuosity of Liszt or Rachmaninoff’s thick, fast moving chords or busy textures.
This is not wrong on a superficial level. There aren’t nearly as many notes in a 15-minute Mozart Sonata versus a 15-minute Liszt tome. You cover a lot less of the keyboard in classical repertoire, as opposed to later works.
But the idea does start to fall apart: Mozart’s music was written on a less-evolved piano which had a much lighter action, and some of his busy, scalar passagework could be played more brilliantly with less physical demands on the pianist. Secondly, Mozart’s music fits some pianist’s hands better. The bigger your hand, the more precise and delicate your fingers must be.
It is easy to look at Mozart’s music as rather simple, but in reality, he rarely writes a simple Alberti bass. You hear it in the most stereotypical examples, like the beginning of his Sonata in C K 545, but for the most part, his accompanimental patterns are much more inventive and varied.
The idea that Mozart’s music is so difficult comes from the fact that it is so musically delicate. It’s in fact because of these lean textures, where there’s nowhere to hide, that his music is a feat to play. In later music, wrong notes can be hidden by the damper pedal (they shouldn’t, but everyone slips up!), but you simply can’t get away with using the pedal just anywhere in Mozart. His passage work requires rhythmic precision. It’s easy to hear the difference between beautiful rubato, playing with time for expressive purposes, and simply not being able to keep time, when you try to be expressive in Mozart’s music.
It’s deceptively easy to just play Mozart’s music right off the page. The melodies and harmonies are beautiful in and of themselves. But there’s so much to Mozart underneath the surface of the score, and the beauty of Mozart is to play his piano music as if it’s an opera scene. You need to have beautiful, charismatic characters who interact with each other. You need to hear the drama of the plot.
So all of the slurs in Mozart become very important. The interaction between the right hand and the left hand. The passagework aren’t just series of notes, but they have to alternately invoke excitement, frenzy, exuberance, and frowns.
Evidently Artur Schnabel, one of the oldest pianists who was recorded playing Mozart, and indeed, who spent his life dedicated to classical composers like Mozart and Beethoven, said, “Mozart is too easy for children, but too difficult for professionals.” No less a master of the classical style than Alfred Brendel elaborated on that mentality this way:
In Mozart's keyboard works everything is exposed. There are relatively few notes and each of them counts. Not only that you find the right key, but that you give each key the right nuance, the right inflection. If you are not careful you fall into a trap. This is also why these pieces are relatively rarely performed. I think that most players shy away from them. They either don't see the complications and think the pieces are too easy, or they do see the complications and find them too difficult. I decided that I should tackle these sonatas because it will be too late if I don't do it soon.
This piece can easily devolve into banging in the repeated left hand chords and unmelodic thumping in the right hand repeated notes. There is not a lot of melody, especially considering the amount of repeated E’s in the first phrase. The pianist’s challenge is to make this piece angsty and musical.
Reisenberg does this by leading to beat 3 in measures 1 and 3. This slight crescendo to and decrescendo from the beat creates a nice phrase, so the DNA of Mozart’s theme-the repeated notes-is not played like an apology, yet it doesn’t sound pedantic.
Not that the second theme is much more melodic. Is the melody in the right hand filigree or the left hand chords? For Reisenberg, the answer is the latter, but her left hand is still phrased with very precise shaping and rhythmic cut-offs. This is very string-like playing. The left hand continues to dominate when it splits into two-part polyphony, but the real magic is in the right hand. Even though it’s subordinate, this is some of the most lyrical playing for seemingly “filler” notes. How many times have you heard these 16th notes played completely rhythmically? Some people would say that every note is pearly, but I’m not really sure what that means. To me, her fast notes seem to float out of the piano, she’s playing with a beautiful, light, and even tone, yet it’s as if there’s no bottom of the keybed, no percussive beginning to any one tone.
I have to say a few words about Reisenberg’s development section: The drama is unleashed here. Mozart has undertaken a really nifty compositional trick. We hear the first theme in C major, elliding with the ending tonality of the exposition. He fakes a modulation to F major/minor, a perfectly natural progression, but in the sixth measure of this section, confuses the eye by replacing Db with the enharmonic C#. This makes no difference to the listener, but it’s a nifty trick to those following the score, signalling that something is up harmonically. In measure seven, we begin a downward cascade of broken chords on the dominant 7th of F, but in the next measure, rewrites that enharmonically as a German Augmented 6th chord so that we land in measure nine in B major. This key ‘splits the difference’ between the key we start in, a minor, and the relative major, C Major. The harmony isn’t stable in this new key for long, but it’s a noteworthy achievement that we ended up here at all.
What Mozart was never great with is pulling apart his themes. He didn’t need to, he could create drama with a new melody, or with these tricky slights-of-hand. Not coincidentally, the left hand lives in a range much lower than it has inhabited thus far in the piece, in a stormy pattern that’s new too. Meanwhile the right hand has some biting dissonances.
While Nadia Reisenberg perhaps kept the demonic powers at bay in the exposition, they are unleashed here. The bass booms, and while I’d have preferred that she not shy away from the right hand dissonances, she tracks the dotted rhythm through the entire left hand, creating a gnarly web of melody. When the first theme comes back briefly in A major, she makes no qualms about pounding here, while not hammering. As we land on the dominant to prepare for the return to a minor, she shows off the jumps and trills of the left hand very clearly. All of these elements make the Development section come alive.
It’s hard to find the right words to describe the magic that is the 2nd movement of this Sonata in Reisenberg’s hands. Certainly, I don’t dare track moment by moment pianistic tools that she uses. This is beautiful playing, which has the delicacy that so many people crave in Mozart playing, but still amply phrased and melodies differentiated with clear articulation. A visual inspection of the score suggests a busy sounding movement: plenty of articulation, phrasing, rhythmic variety and accompanimental vitality. All of these differentiations are present, yet the sound of the music is simple, straightforward and natural.
The finale is more agitated than angsty. Generally I’m happy with the balance she strikes between the hands. I think Mozart creates the illusion of independent hands, each hand with its own rhythmic ostinato and melodic shape, that line up for brief moments at cadences, when the left hand has quarter notes. I think a little more left hand would have made this compositional device more apparent, and the moments of coordination between the happens ironically jarring. But, when the hands flip ostinatos for the B-section in e minor, Reisenberg’s voicing is so mysterious and the interaction between the hands so nervous, that this oddly mono-themed Rondo is a great success.
Bonus: Attached to the playlist is another pianist who recorded this piece but no other Mozart Sonata--Dinu Lipatti.
You appreciate this caricature of Mozart in Amadeus when you listen to the obscure works in his catalogue. We know the hundreds, thousands of melodies from his best known genres: operas, symphonies, piano concertos, sonatas, string quartets. But there’s so much out there that we never hear. Last month I was listening to several of the flute quartets, this month I listened to the Church Sonatas (sometimes called Epistle Sonatas).
I can’t imagine many people have listened to these works, some 17 short works written mostly when Mozart was a young professional church musician in Salzburg. I will admit that when I saw this genre, I assumed they were some inconsequential choral works, written for immediate practical use in the liturgy.
It turns out, these Church Sonatas are mini-symphonies. They seem to take Sonata-Allegro form, and use small forces: a few instruments with continuo. Some recordings play one instrument to a part, how Mozart would have heard them, but some, such as the Daniel Chorzempa album on the accompanying playlist, use filled out orchestral forces. On a few occasions, the organ continuo takes a soloist role. Who knew that Mozart wrote organ concertos!
It turns out these works were written for a practical purpose: to fill ceremonial time between scripture readings in the liturgical service where Mozart served as church musician. These works probably were written in the same key as the Mass service used that day, Mozart was simply adding his style as an interlude to this sacred music.
But these pure orchestral works are excellent pieces. The themes are memorable, and are treated with the same compositional finesse we would expect from any substantial work by Mozart. Though short, these Church Sonatas are a trove of melodies that few Mozart fans get to appreciate. Realizing that these works exist lends credence to that fictionalized view of the composer in Amadeus: it was as if he was able to create melodies effortlessly on divine inspiration.
Last month I gave some of my personal history with Mozart. I wrote about hating him as a high schooler, and how i came around to loving him. There's a few steps I missed.
In my master's degree, I had a chance to study with Ann Chang at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She had studied plenty of fortepiano, but specialized in transferring this performance practice knowledge to the modern piano. So while there was a fortepiano there, and I got to epxeriment plenty on it, we worked on Mozart and Beethoven on a modern Steinway. I came to understand the language of notation that was familiar, presumptuous, in Mozart's day, how translation of that language became transmuted over time, and how we can capture aspects of the fortepiano on today's instruments. I even got to play in a masterclass by fortepiano and classical performance practice specialist, Malcolm Bilson; a true class by a master if there ever was one. He told me at the time that I understood the rules, but I wasn't a very good salesman for the cause; I had work to do to make these ideas convincing.
These were very influential ideas for me. Combined with my discovery of the Golden Age of piano playing, I veered towards contemporary music, because I was so dissatisfied with how pianists interpreted that music of the historical canon.
Then I became a contemporary music snob. My DMA is literally "in contemporary music", and I loved the program I was in. I've written plenty about how I believe in the importance of even the most difficult, abstract contemporary music (see all the posts under the 'contemporary music' category in the archives). But in becoming a advocate of this abstract music, I began to discount tonality entirely. I looked down on the tonal system as one of idiotic simplicity.
This attitude stemmed from my budding appreciation for complex atonal languages that composers of the 20th century have developed. My intellectual curiosity (as well as musical satisfaction) was piqued by composers who used very simple musical material to derive all kinds of music aspects: harmony, rhythm, form, etc. Of course this is not dissimilar to how classical composers created themes and developed them throughout a movement, or in the case of Beethoven, using motives to connect across movements.
But it was all so obvious in tonality. Especially with Mozart. Glenn Gould evidently said that Mozart could never write a proper development section, especially since he never had anything worth developing. I grew into that view the more I grew into contemporary music. Mozart's music was so easy to like that it wasn't worth liking.
I'm not sure what changed that attitude. I finished my DMA in May of 2015 and by that fall I was reworking Mozart's Sonata K 333 to have some good recordings of standard repertoire. Over time, I think I allowed myself to enjoy something whether or not it was intellectually satisfying.
And then the further out I've been from my DMA, the more I see the intellectual underpinnings of tonal composers, especially Mozart. I've been reading Charles Rosen's The Classical Style (which will be the subject of future posts!) and he is able to make incredible connections between obscure aspects of Mozart's music, for instance, how the accompaniment in a piano work becomes the melody later on. Or subtle shifts in Mozart's Sonata forms which revolutionize the sense of drama.
Just because something is 'easy on the ears', doesn't mean the music can't have deep intellectual underpinnings.
I've loved the music of Kaija Saariaho for several years. Her music has always sounded Debussy-esque, except more lush and sensual. She's one of those living composers who I expect would speak to those uninitiated in contemporary music. I played her Ballade for solo piano on one of my doctoral recitals and I loved how she created this lushness with intricate textures and requiring more than a little subtlety with the damper pedal.
Her opera L’Amour de Loin comes from the year 2000, and has the distinction, as unfortunate as it may be, of being the first opera by a woman produced by the Metropolitan Opera in New York in over 100 years. I got to watch that production through the Met on Demand service, but I've attached a recording to this post in lieu of a production.
The story is set in the 12th century, which seems appropriate to the musical style that we hear throughout. There's something archaic, gothic actually, about Saariaho’s music that seems so appropriate for that setting. I've read the synopsis before starting to watch that Met production, but I otherwise know nothing of this opera or its music. I followed along with a vocal reduction and English subtitles.
Immediately the vocal score seems almost unecessary. Saariaho's orchestrations are so isntricate, and texture so refined, that so much detail will naturally be missing. Given all that's left out, I'd still rather not be the rehearsal pianist! For my purposes, the piano reduction of the orchestra plays a helpful role. I'd like to have some sense of how she translates her sound pallette-which keep in mind, often makes use of live electronic manipulation of and in conjunction with acoustic instruments-to operatic form.
One criticism of contemporary music is that listeners have trouble knowing what to listen for. When you're not well versed in a musical language, it's hard for anything to stick in your head. Even I'm not going to be able to whistle Saariaho's melodies after one or two listens! Throughout the first couple “tableaux”, I felt like the relationship of the orchestra and voices was very consistent. So even if a musical relationship doesn't stick in someone's ear, this consistency allows the audience to focus on the words.
Here's an example: As I listened to the second tableaux, with the pilgrim’s first aria, I recognized the words “beautiful without the arrogance of beauty” from the main character, Jaufre, who sang the same words earlier. I jumped back in the score and it turns out that the melody is the same for both characters. I don't know that I would have made that musical connection on melody alone. The orchestra is different in both circumstances, which shows the versatility of her melodic material. But this clarity in which the words are set makes that connection obvious.
This same text comes back in Act 2, this time the pilgrim singing to Clemence. The melody is almost the same, same rhythm but slight variations in the intervallic content. But when Jaufre and the pilgrim each sing this in Act 1, the temporal action is very close together. Here, some time has passed, since the Pilgrim has travelled “afar” between these two presumably lovers-to-be. So the variations in the melody help illustrate this passage of time. The Pilgrim remembers the words used before but the melody is a little fuzzy. Again, these are all things I notice only because of the score, but it's a great example of a composer subtly tying the dramatic elements to the musical.
This is a noteworthy opera given that there are only 3 roles, plus an all tenor/bass and all soprano/alto choruses. So far the accuracy of all singers is extraordinary. The counting itself is actually quite straightforward, but the regularity if the heat is not obvious from the orchestra, yet the ensemble is very rhythmically coordinated from all singers and the orchestra. Of course this is memorized from all the singers!
Nowhere is the singer's artistry and accuracy more apparent than in The Pilgrim's aria early in the second tableaux of act 2 (see track 8 in this recording), where she sings Jaufre's love song to Clemence (later, the Pilgrim tells him that he “I mumbled them more or less", which is interesting regarding my 'passage of time' comment above'). Tamara Mumford sings The Pilgrim with such passion, and organic lyricism that one need not realize that the melodic line or it's rhythm is at all difficult. Of course, it doesn't hurt that Saariaho harmonizes and orchestrates this chanson hauntingly, recalling medieval harmony in parallel fourths and a lack of leading tone motion, but also not without some lush dissonances. Throughout, I find Mumford's performance to be the most enthralling.
Overall, I loved getting to know this opera, even though I listened to only about half of it actively. Saariaho created a beautiful score and she finds this nice balance between a consistent harmonic voice in her music while still adapting the vocal style and orchestral accompaniment to the drama at hand. This is something that made Mozart's operas so great. With such abstract music it is sometimes hard to get a concrete understanding what is going on only from listening. But, for example, in Act 5, as Jafre dies, all parts, chorus, soloist and orchestra, the pitch is always descending and then sitting low. A general understanding of the plot will indicate the word painting quite easily.
convince everybody, and I dare say that my approach to the music will evolve over the next two years.
To begin with, though, I want to listen to a Mozart performer who I love. Walter Klein was not someone I knew, actually. As I started to collect lists of pianists who had recorded complete Mozart Piano Sonatas, his name came up and I started listening, and was hooked. There is so much in his approach to Mozart that I admire and want to recreate in my own way. His Mozart is full of extroverted characters, obvious phrasing, and colorful textures. To get a sense of this, I thought I would focus on the Sonata which I'm learning this month: #1, K 279 in C Major.
You can hear nearly everything that I love in Klein's playing in the first few lines:
Overall, the thing I like about Walter Klein's Mozart playing is that he doesn't aim for delicate consistency. Many pianists underplay the variety that is in Mozart's scores, like they're apologizing. Klein does not. The first measure of the last system on the second page is quirky, the grace notes snappy and tempo rushing, before he returns to a melodic texture. Everything has shape and articulation, and those shapes are not even, smooth and rounded.
The Development of the first movement does not have quite the variety I'd have expected. The sequential elements are often played with the same momentum, rather than each measure phrased internally, as well as having a specific role in the entire sequential shape. But perhaps this is intentional; he's letting the harmonies speak for themselves. It's like this Development section is no-man's-land, harmonic anarchy, and such phrasing would be out of place without a tonal hierarchy. After all, he makes much of the harmonic differences in the recapitulation, where even in the first theme (bottom of the 3rd page), Mozart is making creative changes.
I've always found the second movement of this Sonata to be very awkward. The fortes and pianos seem rather arbitrarily placed (i.e. 3rd system, page 9), and many sections seem to disregard the time signature entirely (i.e. last two systems of page 9). But the phrasing taken by Klein makes the movement make sense. Nothing is very extreme here, the dynamics, nor the rubato. But he uses enough create phrases that have internal logic, and thus, the whole movement seems to make sense.
The finale begins with a typical 4-measure phrase. The second phrase begins with the same thematic material, but ends up as a 6-measure phrase. Klein makes this phrase sound normal by playing M. 7-8 exactly the same, rather than cheapening the repeated measure with hackneyed trick like the echo effect. M. 11-18, to contrast, is a typical 8 measure phrase, except it sounds uneven: Mozart fills these measures with nearly sequential material, except he always changes something: compare M. 13 and M. 15. Or take M. 12 and M. 14, which are sequential, vs. M. 16 which begins the same, but takes a new turn. In these instances, Klein plays up the subtle melodic shifts so that this typical phrase seems asymmetrical. Because his left hand is prominent, the extra quarter note on beat 2 of M. 16 makes the shifty composing unmistakable. Ignore left hands at your own peril!
Consider Klein's treatment of the repeated note motive in the second theme: measures 23, 25 and 27 each have repeated notes but each instance is treated differently in terms of dynamic and rhythmic drive. Nothing is monotonous, even though it looks monotonous on the page. This, in short, is what I love about Walter Klein's Mozart playing. It's full of vitality and variety, and perfectly encapsulates the operatic elements that I wrote about on August 6th.
Mozart wrote four of these works, and I’m listening to an iconic quartet-the Emerson-playing with Carol Wincenc, a flautist I’ve known of but never listened to before.
On first glance at the track listing, these do seem to be mini-quartets. Either two or three movements long, and glancing at the score, I don’t even see an obvious Sonata form movement, but several that are marked minuets, themes and variations, or rondos. Glancing through the score, these seem a little like mini-concertos, in that the flute has the primary melody most of the time, often with the violin doubling a third below, and the viola and cello providing chordal and rhythmic accompaniment. Not that this will be mundane: I’m anticipating Mozart’s great melodic abilities on full display here.
I’m digging in to the last of the 4 quartets, in A major, K 298 by following along with the score as I listen. I was surprised that I found the instrumental mix not very pleasing at first. Somehow the flute didn’t seem to sing out. But as I listened through the first movement, I grew more accustomed to it. This movement is a set of variations: the flute has the melody in the theme and first variation, then the melodic variation role works its way down the string instruments. I really liked the instrumental mix during the viola and cello variations. I actually liked the flute better in an accompanying role, where neither high treble instrument had a primary melodic role!
In the minuet movement, it’s such a joy to listen to the accompanying instruments, especially when all three strings take this role in the trio. Pulsating repeated chords can be so musical! And they play such a crucial role, not just as background sound but as integral shape and body to the sound world in which the melody can truly shine. This is akin to the left hand for the Mozart pianist!
The finale, a rondo, is true Mozart. The first two movements are very simple, straightforward, perhaps stereotypical classical era music. But the finale is chamber music. The texture varies, the instruments interact with each other. It’s a typical rondo form but Mozart is a little more inventive harmonically than he’s been in previous movements. When each instrument was truly an independent part of the whole ensemble, I really bought into the genre.
Upon reading up about these works a little more, I see that Mozart was quite a young man when he wrote these works-21, though of course he had written significant works at the time-and likely that he had written these for an amateur flautist, and in fact it seems these works were written mostly as busy work. Of course chamber music during his lifetime was never meant to be a grand concert work that a famous composer put his best work into. Perhaps it’s best to consider these flute quartets testing grounds for the great works he would produce throughout his lifetime. Still, the great performances I’ve listened to show that they are well worth their while, enjoyable to listen to once in a while, and surely very rewarding to play with dedicated chamber partners.
As I understand, the Flute Quartet in D, K 285, is the most famous of the set, and listening casually to it, you can tell why. The adagio movement is exquisite. Such a long, beautiful flute melody accompanied by pizzicato. This movement is a must-listen.
The funny thing about me dedicating 2 years to learn and perform all of Mozart's Piano Sonatas is that I used to HATE Mozart.
I had avoided playing him until my final year of High School. That year, my teacher had me work on several things to fill in some gaps: J.S. Bach (shamefully, I avoided him till that year too), Haydn and yes, Mozart. She had me work on two Sonatas, F major K 280 and G major K 283. I hated them, especially G major.
I was all about Beethoven and Brahms at that point in time. I liked bigger, meatier sounds. I liked the passion. Mozart was lean and gangly, light and frothy.
I remember working on that G major Sonata and declaring to my parents that he was the worst composer ever. It didn't hold together, there was no continuity. Thinking about the finale of that Sonata, I can understand why. Thinking back to what I wrote about Mozart and opera just a few days ago: Mozart writes differently for different characters. And, Mozart Sonatas are mini-operas. If those two things are true, then Mozart's piano Sonatas will feature many shifts of idea, texture and technique. It will seem discontinuous, but that's because the focus is shifting from one character to the next. I was expecting one continuous character, but what Mozart was giving me was a scene full of interactivity.
As for the passion...I just wasn't a mature enough listener, analyst or technician at the piano to hear, see, or perform the passion that was there. Mozart's music is passionate, but it's passion that requires nuance of dynamics, and shadings of rubato. With Beethoven, his approach to piano technique and texture practically writes the passion onto the page. In Mozart you have to search for it. That doesn't mean that Mozart should be subtle in sound, but that little of his passion is obvious just reading the notes.
Overtime, I came to appreciate Mozart one way or another. I worked on K 331, 332 and 333 at one time or another, as well as the Concerto K 467. As I became more aware of classical performance practice, the possibilities of Mozart's music became more and more real. As I studied opera, I understood how to connect that dramatic music to the piano. Eventually I developed a certain sound and approach to Mozart's piano music that I could get very excited about.
Thus, sometime in the spring of 2018, the idea of diving deep into a composer came to me. My first thought was actually Bach, but then the alliterative "Mozart in a Month" came to mind and I never looked back. I'm so excited to discover all of this music bit by bit, and to develop my sound, and revisit this composer again and again, always coming back to him with new ideas, better ears and more refined technique. I'm excited to listen to other works, watch operas, and read books that will illuminate style. I also want to explore the idea that Mozart is an essential element of human love and flourishing. I'll visit the 'idea of Mozart' every month, talking about what I've learned from him and hope to get from him as this project moves on.
We talk about operatic singing a lot in the piano world: we are supposed to take bel canto singing as our inspiration for beautiful melodic tone and phrasing. Sometimes I think people take that too far, especially applying it to Mozart's piano music, but I find opera incredibly beautiful and I usually leave an opera jealous that I just can’t do what those singers are doing!
Most people will agree that Mozart reached his peak art when he wrote operas. As I understand it, that's where he felt his greatest strengths were too, or at least that's where he would have liked to use his compositional talent most. What I love about Mozart's operas in particular is the variety is in his writing, he's really the earliest composer to connect subtleties of style to the character at hand, or the moment in the plot. This is the element of operatic style that I think is most applicable to Mozart's piano music. I care less about long fluid lines and more about variety, drama and character. Mozart's Piano Sonatas ought to be mini operas and contain the same variety of style and characters as his stage works.
Given the number and importance of his operas, I thought I'd best dig into Mozart's operas as I dig into his Sonatas. I've seen a few, live or recorded, and played many individual arias. But there are several lesser known operas I know nothing about, operas by Mozart and the larger operatic world.
Thus, every other month I'm going to watch and report on a new Mozart opera, how it inspires me and what I'm most impressed by. On alternate months, I'm going to dig into either an older, rarely performed work, or an opera premiered quite recently, in my lifetime. I'm very excited to hear 24 operas, from a master like Mozart or those who follow him, and track how my feelings on the genre, and how opera can impact my piano playing, evolves.
First up: Mozart's Don Giovanni. My wife and I sat down to watch a production from the 2010 Glyndebourne Festival, available on Amazon Prime Video. Who knew so many operas are available to there?
I love the world set by the overture; I don't believe I've ever heard this before. It's dark, and...sharp. The conductor doesn't shy away from the edges with sharp accents, so you get a sense of the “black comedy” aspect of this story right in the first minutes, before anyone has sung a note.
Mozart doesn't shy away from chaos; that was my sense of the very first appearance of the title character. There is so much polyphony between the three voices--Don Giovanni, Leporello, and Donna Anna--that you might expect a composer to avoid when introducing important characters. But of course I think that's the point. Chaos follows Don Giovanni and Mozart is simply making that apparent by stepping us right into one example.
Yet there is such simplicity elsewhere. When Don Giovanni is singing serenades, the melody is simple, smooth and easily memorable. Some melodies are fast and melismatic, not the kind that get stuck in your head but still passionate, such as Donna Elvira's long aria in Act II. Or take the Commendatore: upon his return in Act II, he sings largely in syllabic, repeated tones, befitting, since he’s now a zombie. Mozart is always adapting to the situation, and I'm sure there are many lessons from this when playing his piano music.
I'm struck in the famous Catalogue Aria (and many other places) by how busy the orchestra is. Of course, I've encountered this at the piano, but it's hard to appreciate how useful this is to the overall effect when you're on a single instrument (and trying to keep up). But I think this is key to the style. The orchestra plays a vital role in characterization, though Mozart lets the orchestra sit back in the accompaniment role often.
Similar is tempo. In Zerlina's Batti, Batti aria, her sweet, pleading, melody fits a gentle 2/4 meter for the first few verses before being transformed into a lilting 6/8 when she wins her husband back. Then Act 1 ends with such an accelerating ball of rhythmic energy, the frenzy of the situation is implicit in the music, not just the text. In this case, the meter doesn't change, and Mozart doesn't even change the tempo, only says to go faster.
This makes me question how much tempo variety is allowed in his Sonatas. If his operas are his most public genre, it makes sense that he might notate his musical ideas most fully. Since his Sonatas were much more privately minded, you might intuit that he wasn’t as careful to notate his musical ideas as well. Maybe there are situations where a drastic change of tempo is merited by a clear shift in rhythmic energy or melodic style.
Overall--I loved watching this entire opera for the first time. Mozart’s music is so full of life and energy, and I can’t wait to continue finding this peak artistic expression in his Piano Sonatas.
"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act