Mozart’s piano sonatas rank among those compositions that I could listen to for an indefinite time. Whenever I forget to change the default setting on my iPad, it plays some albums over and over again. Today I spent hours listening to the Sonata Nos. 5, 6, 7 and 10, 11, 14, all played by the Portuguese pianist Maria Joao Pires. And I did not get tired of it. How can that be? I believe, the pleasant melodies, the carefully constructed harmony and Maria Joao Pires’ extraordinary skills as a pianist are the main reasons. The label Deutsche Grammophon has published them all on a collection of 6 CDs.
From Salzburg to Vienna
So, do I have any preferences? Oh yes. We have already dealt with the Sonata No. 11 K. 331 (Turkish March), but Sonata No. 10 in C Minor, K. 330 is just as lovely. Mozart wrote it in 1783 when he was 27 years old and had by then already moved from his hometown Salzburg to Vienna, the capital of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. In those days he was an often seen guest at the house of Gottfried van Swieten, who owed a large collection of Baroque music. It is here that the young genius studied the great Baroque masters, Bach and Händel.
It was a very productive time. He composed the piano sonatas 10 to 14, the well-known Mass in C Minor and six string quartets dedicated to the composer Joseph Haydn. The piano sonatas 5 to 7 saw the light a few years earlier between 1775 and 1777. Sonata No. 5 is equally beautiful; it was written by Mozart while he was visiting Munich. Pay attention to the feather-light notes by which the second movement starts! When I am listening to Sonata No. 7, I am always mesmerized by the subtle contrasts, especially in the first movement, and its sweeping rhythm.
Mozart’s dark side
I imagine him, still a very young man, admired by society for his precocious talent, sitting at the piano in the early morning hours, sorting out the thousand musical ideas in his head, working out a new melody, then scribbling down notes in a couple of hours – done! He certainly has my unconditional admiration as a composer. While as a person he definitely had his unpleasant sides: frequent changes of humour, a penchant for intrigue, foul play and vulgarity. He was a serious drinker and gambler and seems to have been broke most of the time.
Perhaps this is the price he had to pay for his fame as a composer. Should we pity him? Or rather the society in Salzburg and Vienna, that played with his musical career as Mozart played with his audience? Or a father who used his son’s talent for self-promotion without paying much attention to Mozart’s personal issues? Mozart lived a cruel life. And his life made of him an extremist in many respects.
© Charles Thibo