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Mozart's Fantasia in C minor, K. 396, was first published in 1802 with the expansive title "Fantaisie pour le Clavecin ou Pianoforte dédiée à Mad. Constanze Mozart." The composer had been dead for over a decade. After her husband's death, Constanze asked friends and pupils of the late composer to help her catalog and - in some cases - complete the many drafts and fragments of music Mozart had left to her care. Posthumous publication and sales would mean a steady stream of posthumous income for the family. Among the group who advised Constanze was the Abbé Maximilian Stadler (1748-1833), who, beyond being ordained as a Benedictine priest, was also a composer and musician, and a familiar figure in Vienna's musical circles. Stadler's work with Mozart's manuscripts included one of the earlier attempts to complete the unfinished Requiem. His completion of the C-minor Fantasia is based on a 28-bar fragment in Mozart's hand dating from 1782.
The improvisational qualities of the music are unmistakable, beginning with a minor-key flourish and a sustained dark dramatic mood. Though Mozart's manuscript bears no title, Stadler's choice of fantasia is appropriate.
Mozart arrived in Vienna in March of 1781 and within the year had established himself as the leading pianist in the city. Then in his mid-20s, he was a composer preparing to make his mark. By the following year he had begun his marriage to Constanze, had overseen the premiere of his opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail (The Abduction from the Seraglio), and had become a favorite in the homes of such powerful patrons as Baron Gottfried van Swieten. If the music in this and another Fantasia (in D minor, K. 397) from the same period are reminiscent of a baroque style, it should be remembered that van Swieten's musical evenings favored the music of Bach and Handel - music that was considered old-fashioned by the Viennese. Mozart took to the style immediately and earned a reputation for his virtuosic keyboard improvisations.
(N.B.: Despite the venue for this recital, we should pronounce the fantasia as though it rhymed, sort of, with the phrase "glad to see ya.")
Grant Hiroshima is executive director of a private foundation in Chicago and former Director of Technology Development for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.