It is always dangerous to associate biographical detail with a work of art – discussing intentions and inspirations is an uncertain thing at best. However, scholars have dated Mozart’s Sonata in A minor, K. 310 to the early summer of 1778 and it is impossible to neglect the fact that the composer was at that time visiting Paris and tending to his ailing mother. She would die there on the 3rd of July. Mozart was 22 years old.
Let’s take a closer look at this innocuous title. Sonata in A minor. The key of A minor! This is worth noting. The scarcity of minorkey pieces in Mozart’s work makes it clear that he never used these keys lightly, reserving them for his most dramatic outpourings. Out of Mozart’s more than 600 completed works a mere 30 or so were written in a minor key; only one other piano sonata was written in the minor mode. Perhaps it is not overreaching, then, to suggest that the almost orchestral tragedy that the sonorities of this sonata conjures is closely tied to the young man’s frame of mind.
The sonata opens in turgid dark terrain. Even when the music edges into the major there is an uneasy tension throughout. Conflict and dissonance are always nearby. The second movement, Andante cantabile con espressione, in a consoling F major, offers a respite, but the final movement, again in A minor, rushes to its conclusion in bleakness. In the face of the conventions of a time that expected an ultimate happy ending, Mozart hurtles past a few glimpses of optimism headlong into despair, the reverberations of which will be heard later in Beethoven and even in Chopin. In a letter to his father informing him of his mother’s death, Mozart wrote: “I have indeed suffered and wept enough – but what did it avail?” There is desperation in this music.