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About this Piece

Mozart’s short but remarkably prolific creative life spanned three different periods in musical history. Born at the very end of the Baroque era, he came of age at the height of the Classical age and died at the dawning of Romanticism. Elements of all these styles found their way into his compositions. A gifted synthesizer of various and sometimes contradictory influences, Mozart (like his admirer Stravinsky in the 20th century) eagerly absorbed and transformed the music he heard around him into an integrated and often revolutionary personal style that resists neat categorization.

As Ólafsson has observed in an essay, Mozart “was not just perfecting the Classical tradition but subtly subverting it, his graceful touch as featherlight as always but the shadows darker, the nuances and ambiguities more profound.” But what led Ólafsson to construct the eclectic program he presents here is the “ecosystem of 18th-century music” in which Mozart operated. The music of the four composers who join Mozart here presents an “echo of the age” and helps us to see him as part of a larger tradition, not just an isolated genius.

Two are Italian and had little or no direct contact with Mozart: Baldassare Galuppi (1706–1785) and Domenico Cimarosa (1749–1801). Two are Austro-Germanic and were closely connected to him musically or personally: C.P.E. Bach (1714–1788) and Joseph Haydn (1732–1809).

Best known as composers of opera, Galuppi and Cimarosa together wrote nearly 200. They also shared the experience of working in Saint Petersburg as court composers for Empress Catherine the Great of Russia. Venetian Galuppi served there from 1765 to 1768 and entertained her courtiers with his fashionable galant style of keyboard performance. Ólafsson includes two Galuppi pieces here: the Andante spiritoso from the Sonata No. 9, with its “elusive combination of darkly polished elegance and apprehensive energy,” and the moody, melancholy Larghetto from Piano Sonata No. 34.

Catherine found the more “fastidious and scholarly” Cimarosa less congenial to her flamboyant taste, and his sojourn in the frigid Russian capital (1787–91) was decidedly less successful. His keyboard music was a mere sideline, and little was known of it until some sonatas were discovered in the 1920s. Ólafsson has chosen movements of a “lamenting, arioso quality” from two sparsely scored sonatas (Nos. 42 and 55), harmonizing and arranging them for the modern piano.

When Mozart was making his name in the 1760s and 1770s, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, the so-called “Berlin Bach,” fifth child and second surviving son of J.S. Bach, was one of the most influential composers in Europe. Mozart famously said of him (and not of his father), “Bach is the father, we are the children.” C.P.E. Bach’s Rondo in D minor provides a superb example of his characteristic empfindsamer Stil (sensitive style)—virtuosic and fresh, with unexpected detours and shifts in tempo and mood, qualities Mozart later brought to his own keyboard works.

Of all the composers represented here, Mozart had the closest and most complex relationship with Joseph Haydn. Often considered together as twin peaks of the Classical style, they were the leading composers in Vienna at the end of the 18th century. Sturdy “Papa Haydn” was old enough to be Mozart’s father, but actually outlived him by 18 years. Hapsburg Emperor Joseph II compared Mozart’s compositions to “a gold snuffbox, manufactured in Paris, and Haydn’s to one finished off in London.” Their professional situations were quite different, as musicologist David Wyn Jones has observed: “Haydn was a dutiful Kapellmeister; Mozart was a freelance musician.”

Both composers wrote a large body of music for the keyboard, but Haydn produced more sonatas: 60 to Mozart’s 18. (Admittedly, Haydn’s are generally much shorter.) Until the 1770s, when the pianoforte came into wider use, Haydn wrote mainly for the harpsichord and then transitioned to the new instrument, while Mozart wrote only a few early pieces for the harpsichord and then focused on the piano.

Haydn’s Sonata in B minor (No. 7, Hob. XVI:32) dates from the mid-1770s. A surprisingly dramatic work full of sharp contrasts and virtuosic passages, it seems to foreshadow Beethoven with its insistently repeated (hammered, even) themes. Of particular interest is the Minuet, opening as a stately Baroque dance in B major but taking a dark and stormy romantic turn in the middle section (trio minore).

Haydn admired Mozart and considered him “far above me” in talent. In general, Mozart’s music is more emotional and serious, with longer phrases and more developed slow movements. Mozart’s style is sophisticated, nuanced, and “urban”; Haydn’s rustic, less chromatic, and often jolly. Many of Mozart’s sonatas also had a pedagogical purpose, used when he turned to teaching for financial support in the late 1780s. The sunny and charming Piano Sonata No. 16 in C major, known as the Sonata facile (easy sonata), composed in 1788, is a prime example and has been used by piano teachers (including mine!) for many generations as a gentle introduction to “serious” music. Twice as long, and very different in personality and difficulty, is the Piano Sonata No. 14 in C minor, with its pregnant pauses, dark colors, and arresting changes of timbre, rhythm, and tempo.

Mozart also mastered smaller forms. The five examples on this program span various genres and moods: the cheerful but complex F-major Rondo, K. 494; the dreamy, mysterious (and unfinished) Fantasia in D minor, K. 397; the technical tour de force of the Rondo in D major, K. 485; the tiny, exuberant personal tribute to J.S. Bach of the Kleine Gigue, K. 574; and the Adagio in B minor, K. 540, a balance, in Ólafsson’s words, of “dark, introspective tension with tender meditation.”

The “grace and consolation” of the Adagio movement of the melancholy 1787 G-minor String Quintet, K. 516 (for two violins, two violas, and cello), inspired Ólafsson to create an arrangement for piano solo. Many other composers have transcribed Mozart’s works for piano solo, including one of the most prolific transcribers of all, Franz Liszt (1811-1886). His 1867 version of the beloved 1791 short motet Ave verum corpus, composed just six months before Mozart’s untimely death, dwells mainly in the piano’s upper register. Writes Ólafsson, “Mozart has become an angel of sorts.” —Harlow Robinson