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