Sonata in B-flat, K. 281
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Parallels are inescapable. Imagine for a moment the young Mozart, straddling the border between his teens and early 20s. He travels between the great cities of Europe, with family members in tow, plying his trade as a musician and composer. What caught his eye, like today's youth? The latest technological gadget - in this case, the newfangled piano. Letters survive which document Mozart's experiences with pianos from a variety of makers, his enthusiasms for some and his disappointments with others.
We take for granted the concert grand piano as we know it. Without much change, it has been the mainstay of the stage for over a century. But for the 18th century no such certainty existed. The harpsichord and, to a lesser extent, the clavichord were the most popular and most available of the keyboard instruments. The mechanical foundation of the pianoforte, in which a hammer strikes a string to sound it rather than plucking the string as in the case of a harpsichord, was invented as early as 1700. But innovators were constantly proposing new solutions to the problem of allowing the string to continue sounding or damping the string, as desired. Nor was any standard key size, string length, number of pedals, or methods in which those pedals were operated set. In some cases one's knees were used to activate pedals to the same ends as our current foot pedals.
The one definite and reliable distinction the new instrument had over its older cousin is discernible in its full name, the pianoforte: piano = soft, forte = loud. The ability to strike the key softly or forcefully creating a quieter or louder sound as required was something unavailable on the harpsichord, and the expressive possibilities this creates were quickly exploited by Mozart.
The Sonatas K. 281 and K. 282 were part of a set of six sonatas Mozart played in his travels between Salzburg and Munich in late 1774 and early 1775. They are the earliest examples we have of Mozart's keyboard composition and reflect the influence of Haydn in their prevailing good nature. It is in the deeply felt second movement of K. 281 that we find the first evidence of Mozart coming into his own compositional voice, as well as an expectation that this music was likely intended for performance on the new instrument. The movement, euphoniously headed Andante amoroso (amoroso = lovingly) begins with a crescendo and decrescendo, possible only on the piano or clavichord. The outer movements of K. 281 and the closing Allegro of K. 282 would have served as calling cards for the young virtuoso declaring his lyricism and dexterity.
Grant Hiroshima is executive director of a private foundation in Chicago and former Director of Technology Development for the Los Angeles Philharmonic.