Friday, December 31, 2010

Mozartian Counterpoint, Part V

Mozartian Counterpoint
Part I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII

Before beginning Part V, which focuses exclusively on keyboard music, we ought to note (however briefly) some chamber music in which counterpoint figures but does not predominate. The popularity of some of these works likely suffers because they do not inhabit famous and familiar genres like the symphony or sonata. Yet what intimate dialogues in these pieces and what wonderful combinations of instruments such as in the Piano Quintet in E-flat, KV.452, scored for oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, and piano. So also for the Quartet for Piano and Strings in E-flat and the Trio for Piano, Clarinet, and Viola, KV.498 (which is probably more famous by having been dubbed the "Kegelstatt" and associated with Mozart's skittles-playing.) Also to this group we should add the Violin Sonata in A, KV.526, the opening allegros to the Piano Trios KV. 496, 502, 542, 548, and the String Trio in E-flat, KV.563.[14] The counterpoint here is utterly transparent and Alec Hyatt King put it well that, "in spite of his deeper instincts, Mozart became a master of allusive and incidental counterpoint–the union of themes in nimble sections of fugato–swift inversions and graceful canons, all bubbling up with kaleidoscopic suddenness. . ." [15]

While the final quintets, operas, and the Requiem undoubtedly dominate amongst the works of Mozart's last years one ought not overlook the splendid and intriguing keyboard music from this same period.

25. Rondo in A minor, KV.511

Abert called this "one of the most important keyboard rondos ever composed" [Abert, 986] and Arthur Hutchings said its mood is "lovely in a musical expression like this, but morbid beyond pathos in a man's behavior." [16]

The chief figures of this landscape are chromaticism and the trills and turns, which as Abert says recur so regularly as to be thematic. We will see this rondo's very close imitation in the stretto entries again in the sonatas, yet not so fierce as here where the mood is perhaps but slightly removed from that of the allegro to the Sonata in F for 2 pianos, KV.497. Like the theme to the finale of that same sonata, this theme too is one of Mozart's most veiled and mysterious: bare yet secretive, intimate yet detached,
longing yet resigned. That it enters so suddenly yet so logically and naturally renders it all the more potent; its return is always as a sort of disturbing reminder. Here the form of the dance creates an air of gentility even as the chromaticism bares unrestrained pathos. Such an unsettling pairing nonetheless transfixes.[17]

While the "easy" Sonata in C KV.545 utilizes some imitation in its short rondo finale and the Sonata in B-flat, KV.570 features counterpoint in its outer movements, it is in the two sonatas KV.533 in F and KV.576 in D where we hear Mozart striking an extraordinary balance between the "learned" and "galanterie" styles. In these works we have both lightness and seriousness, accompaniment and counterpoint.

26. Piano Sonata in F, KV.533

Allegro in F

Mozart subverts our expectations straightaway. The main theme enters by itself but then is joined at bar 4 by the Alberti accompaniment which proceeds to sort of clash with the scalar figure before it drops out entirely. What are we in for here? We barely get to know the main theme, which only drops into the bass, jumps up again, and is repeated, before it is treated in counterpoint. After the imitative development of the first theme, the second enters (at m. 41 and on the dominant C) and it too is treated in counterpoint straightaway. A third theme enters at m.66 and is not treated in imitation but rather it ushers in an exuberant virtuoso passage of scales and triplets.
click to enlarge

The passage from m.125-145, right, in the development is also a feast of imitation. Here the first part of the second subject is inverted over and over, modulating each time through D minor, G minor, C major, and F major.

At last in the recapitulation at m.194 the third theme enters again, this time as counter-subject to the main theme which enters at m.220 and which is again thrown against counterpoint (m.213.)

Andante in B-flat

Here, "Mozart carries the language capacity of his epoch to the breaking point, and nearly to his end."
–Hans Werner Henze [18]

The beginning of this sonata brings us near to the world of the introduction to the Sonata in F for 2 pianos, KV.497. The restlessly modulating and fantasia-like passage from m.47-72 is the heart of this movement and of it Abert wrote:
This is one of the most austere passages in the whole of Mozart's output. Certainly none of his contemporaries ever wrote anything to match the present passage in terms of its searing relationes non harmonicae. Together with its contrapuntal accompaniment, which is reinforced in thirds, the motif. . . strives upwards with its sforzato accents, creating a feeling of bitterest self-torment, until it reaches the dominant harmony of B flat major, thereby producing a sense of emotional tension unique in Mozart's sonatas. [Abert, 1146]
N.B: A finale for this sonata was begun but only 16 bars are completed (K.Anh.30 = 590.) The rondo performed with this sonata (KV.494) was composed about 18 months before the preceding movements, and expanded with a twenty-seven bar contrapuntal episode, perhaps to create symmetry with the imitative counterpoint of the first movement.

27. Piano Sonata in D, KV.576

Allegro | Adagio | Allegretto

Mozart completed this sonata shortly after his trip through Leipzig to Berlin (see No. 28 below) possibly in fulfillment of a commission for six "easy" ("leichte") keyboard pieces for the Princess Frederika of Prussia. That this is the only sonata Mozart wrote for this planned series, that it is not at all "easy," and that it was published alone and posthumously all suggest a different purpose for its composition. I once heard Robert Levin give a most insightful (and fun) pre-concert talk about this sonata, a talk of which you can hear a variant here: YouTube. His remarks bring to mind a similar comment from another great pianist, Alfred Brendel, who said that, "Where Mozart somehow manages to surprise us with what we expect, Haydn excels in the unexpected." [19] Indeed while that observation plays out over the course of this sonata there is nothing expected about the contrast in the main theme's pair of figures. Levin respectively terms them "fanfare" and "goody-two-shoes":
click to enlarge

This sonata takes further the stretto and inversion and re-inversion of the parts in the B-flat Sonata, KV.570. Contrapuntal procedures begin almost immediately when the first theme is joined by a similar counter-subject. This counter/second subject begins with the "fanfare" theme and continues with a descending semiquaver figure. Soon after at m. 28. this figure enters in stretto. The development section begins with canonic imitation soon repeated in inversion. The rising chromatic passage at m.77 and subsequent semiquaver figures give way to the figure of two triplet quavers from the close of the exposition. For eleven bars it alternates between the hands, treated against a rising chromatic line and dominant pedal before a descending scalar passage enters forte and reintroduces the main theme for the recapitulation.


The form of this movement has been variously referred to as "free rondo" "sonata-rondo" or "irregular-sonata-form." F. H. Marks in "The Sonata Its Form and Meaning as Exemplified in the Piano Sonatas by Mozart" offers an extended discussion of this question of form. Here though we may briefly note that on the one hand this movement has three entries of its subject with interstitial material and on the other the transposition of the melody to the dominant makes it a second subject rather than an episode, and bars 80-116 are developed from existing material, making it a development section. Too, the exposition is not repeated. Of contrapuntal procedures we see the stretto of the main theme at m.34, m.103, m.117 in sharp relief from the virtuosic runs of ascending and descending quavers.

28. Eine Kleine Gigue in G, KV.574

This short gigue is of the French, fugal, type and of course such is what brings it into our purview here. It seems rather curious in Mozart's output at this late date, does it not? Girdlestone suggested it was a pastiche[20] of Bach, probably spurred by Mozart's April 1789 visit to Leipzig where he met Johann Friedrich Doles (1715-97), Kantor of the Thomasschule and pupil of J.S. Bach. While in Leipzig Mozart played and improvised on the Thomaskirche organ, looked at some of Bach's motets, and heard Doles' students perform Bach's motet Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied. While the precise date of this gigue is uncertain, it likely dates from around May 16 of the same year, when Mozart in fact returned to Leipzig and where he presented this little piece to Carl Immanuel Engel, organist at the Schlosskapelle.


Abert, Hermann. W. A. Mozart. Yale University Press. New Haven and New York. 2007.

[14] King, Alec Hyatt. Mozart's Counterpoint: Its Growth and Significance. Music & Letters, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Jan., 1945), pp. 12-20 (quotation from p. 17)
[15] Hutchings, Arthur, "The Keyboard Music" in H. C. Robbins Landon and Donald Mitchell (eds.), The Mozart Companion (London, 1956), p. 62 –– cited in Sutcliffe, W. Dean "The Keyboard Music" in The Cambridge Companion to Mozart, Simon P. Keefe (ed.) Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 2003.
[16] See also Levin, Beth:
[17] See lecture, "Mozart: Divertimento in E-flat major for Violin, Viola, and Cello, K. 563 (1788)"
[18] Brendel, Alfred. Alfred Brendel on Music: His Collected Essays. A Capella Books. Chicago. 2007. p.12
[19] ibid. p.110
[20] pastiche should not in this context carry the the often negative connotation of our common usage.

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