by Robert Silverman

Mozart’s piano sonatas are not commonly believed to be representative of his finest work. I disagree. Admittedly, they are not as central to his oeuvre as Beethoven's. Beethoven's sonatas provide a unique view into his development from work to work, whereas Mozart's offer snapshots of possibly the greatest musical talent of all time, taken from his teen-aged years until 1789, two years before his death.

We must not forget that even he had to undergo an extended learning curve. He started composing at the age of five, but with a few notable exceptions, the greatest of his works all bear a Köchel number above 350, when he was in his early-to-mid twenties, and it was only during the last seven or eight years of his life that he turned out masterpieces one after another. In other words, even a prodigious talent like Mozart required a 15-year "apprenticeship" in order to begin hitting his stride.

A full third of his piano sonatas (those he performed on his tours, and referred to as his "difficult" ones) were written during that period. A glance at Köchel reveals that, far from being relatively weak, they are remarkably representative of his best efforts at the time of their composition. Nor is this observation confined to the earlier sonatas: it remained true until about 1785. Even the final four sonatas, composed at the pinnacle of his powers, are superb, if no longer at his cutting edge.

He had another obstacle to overcome: like Josef Haydn, he began writing piano sonatas at a time when both the mature classical language and the instrument itself were so new that, although many sonatas had already been published, and those by Bach’s sons Carl Philip Emanuel and Johann Christian would serve as particularly useful models, no composer had thus far created a solo piano masterpiece. Inevitably, the two greatest composers of the era had to figure out for themselves how to write for the piano, and they did so in diametrically opposed ways. Haydn experimented far more with the keyboard's possibilities—unusual pedal effects, placing the hands at the keyboard’s extremities, etc.—but often did not achieve results comparable to the quality found in his ground-breaking quartets and symphonies. In contrast, Mozart, by treating the instrument conservatively and thinning out his textures, was more able to apply his masterful, recognizable hand to his piano music. Moreover, it is fascinating to witness how those achievements would subsequently make their way into his symphonic and chamber works, and even his operas.

The score of a Mozart sonata is often analogous to the tip of an iceberg. What is not written down is as important as the notes that are present. Whenever I hear or play a Mozart sonata, I always find myself filling in other, unwritten parts in my head. When teaching these pieces, I sit at a second piano, and play what I can of those "un-composed" parts, so that my students can comprehend the totality of the piece. Interestingly, Grieg used to employ that practice with his own students (albeit in an ultra-romantic manner) and even published some of those accompaniments.

There was another problem: the fortepiano itself. This transitional instrument for which Mozart wrote was changing from year to year throughout his lifetime. He had only known the inferior pianos that preceded his discovery of Stein's instrument, so of course he would have sung of its delights, as he did in his famous letter. Moreover, differences among products from various piano makers at any given moment were enormous.

It is undeniably enlightening to hear Mozart sonatas performed on instruments that he would have recognized, and there are—finally—some fortepianists around with enough chops and musicality to give us a fair picture of what artistic performances may have sounded like in the late 18th century. That said, demanding, as some polemicists still do, that one perform Mozart solely on the fortepiano is tantamount to insisting that one use a Commodore 64 to perform those tasks that home computers of twenty-five years ago could accomplish, and reserve the latest PC or Mac solely for video editing and internet browsing.

I suspect he would have killed to have a modern piano at his disposal. Its tonal and dynamic ranges are so much wider, with far more possibilities for subtlety. Fortunately, many pianists today have no problem performing Mozart on a contemporary instrument. However, a major reconfiguring of technique is in order for any traditionally trained player wishing to seriously explore that repertoire. Such issues as expressivity, touch, inflection, and dynamics, even the basic hand position, require special thought and study. The late nineteenth century "competition" pianism so favored by today's younger keyboard athletes and their coaches runs absolutely contrary to what is required for this music.

Mozart was consistently praised for his even technique and musical taste (not to mention his improvisatory powers and his phenomenal memory). He complains in one of his letters about a pianist who lacked a cultivated legato, so he obviously considered that aspect of keyboard performance to be important. In another letter he praises those qualities in Rosa Cannabich, a pianist for whom he wrote his seventh sonata. Nonetheless, legato was a special effect for Mozart, not his standard modus operandi: even during his lifetime, his style of detached playing was fast becoming old-fashioned. Beethoven, who heard Mozart perform in 1787, later referred to his pianism as “finger-dancing,” although he also defended Mozart by saying “of course, he always had terrible pianos to deal with in those days.” In other words, some proponents of authenticity make a fetish of performing Mozart today on an instrument that Beethoven had already found outdated.

Equally importantly, the legitimate (and unanswerable) question remains: was Mozart's detached style truly his ideal way of playing, or was it a reflection of the sluggish action of most pianos he'd come across in his career? In the well-documented contest between Mozart and Clementi in 1781, the outcome was decidedly mixed, and may even have been in Clementi's favour. According to some reports, Mozart was the more tasteful player, but Clementi used his impressive virtuosity and pervasive legato touch to great effect. In any case, his style undeniably pointed to the direction pianism was headed in the near future. Mozart spoke disrespectfully of Clementi's playing, and might not have thought much of Beethoven's either, had he lived to hear it.

Although Mozart used performing directions relatively sparingly, enough of them exist to give us a fair idea of what he may or may not have approved. Those pervasive staccatos and inflective phrase-markings over two or three notes are an important element of the classical style, and must be observed. However, these were never intended by the composer as a substitute for larger-scale harmonic and melodic organization, which also must be delineated with clarity. Observing only the former results in the musical equivalent of a bird picking erratically at its food; similarly, eliminating them and introducing long legato phrases lasting for measures results in a style that in the hands of a fine pianist may be quite beautiful, but is nonetheless seriously outmoded.

With a handful of exceptions, forte and piano are the sole dynamic markings Mozart employed; only a handful of fortissimi, pianissimi, or gradational markings can be found in all the sonatas. Furthermore, the openings of virtually all fifty-five movements are either marked piano, or alternately, there is no indication whatsoever, in which case the first subsequent marking is invariably a piano. In other words, a relatively loud opening is clearly implied where no indication is given, but how loud is loud? Does the delicate 4th sonata begin at the same dynamic level as the stormy 8th? Hardly. There is probably no other composer for whom forte and piano are as relative as for Mozart. The slavish observance of such markings or the lack of them, without regard to musical context is no key to authenticity in performance; more than minimal intelligence and insight are required to determine how loud and soft the music should be at any given time and how to effect the change from one to another.

Above all, anyone performing Mozart on any instrument must remember that Mozart was fundamentally an opera composer, even when he was not composing operas. Drama was in his blood. And what a gripping sense of drama he had! In the past 200 years we have come to know the operas of Donizetti, Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, Strauss, Berg, and so on, but none of that repertoire existed, or was even dreamt about when Mozart’s stage works first appeared. His operas were not considered elegant, or charming. They were not intended to “go down easy,” as opera director Peter Sellars has stated.

In order to perceive Mozart as he must have appeared to his contemporaries, you have to forget all music written since, from Beethoven onward. So it is with the sonatas: Each has its own story to tell. Dialogue, aria, and ensembles abound. His stage must at all times be populated with dynamic characters that interact with each other, often fiercely. His piano must sing; it must speak; it must shout at times. And if that were not enough of a task for the performer, it must also dance.

Sonatas 1 – 6 (1775)

Unbelievable as it may seem, Mozart was a relative latecomer to piano sonata composition in 1775, when at the age of nineteen he set down his first six essays in that form. By then, he had already explored virtually every other genre: eight theater works, about as many masses, a dozen string quartets, and over fifty orchestral compositions.

Since the piano was his first instrument, one must wonder why. Simply, there was no need for the young Mozart to write out a solo sonata, for if called upon to perform one, he could easily do so extemporaneously. His previous sonata output was limited to a few that were composed during his childhood travels in Paris and London, but these were invariably for piano plus violin or flute, whose primary function would be to double the melody line. (There is evidence that he also composed four solo keyboard sonatas around this time, but these apparently have been lost.

The first six “official” sonatas date from 1775, while he was in Munich for premiere of his opera La Finta Gardiniera. He composed five in short order, and added a sixth a few weeks later. (These are referred to in the Mozart family correspondence as the “difficult” ones.) The numbering was by Mozart himself, and probably has more to do with the ordering of their keys than with chronology. He undoubtedly meant them to be published as a set of six—a fairly standard practice at the time—because there are far more performing indications here than in the later sonatas. (Like so many of his projects, this plan came to naught.)

Sonatas 7 - 9 (1777-78)

In the mid-18th century, the city of Mannheim enjoyed a rich musical life and could boast of having Europe’s finest orchestra. Resident composers turned out well-crafted works that took advantage of the court orchestra’s virtuosity and dynamic energy. Mozart was 21 when he and his mother sojourned there for several months in yet another fruitless effort to secure Wolfgang a European court position, and he was mightily impressed with the Mannheim style of music making.

Then it was onto Paris. Again, the same dreary story: high hopes, local musicians and authorities making a fuss over him, public success, universal praise for his immense gifts, but in the end, niente. As Baron Friedrich Melchior Grimm wrote Leopold from the French capital:

“He [Wolfgang] is too sincere, not active enough, too susceptible to illusions, too little aware of the means of achieving success. Here, in order to succeed, one must be artful, enterprising and bold; for the sake of his fortunes, I wish he had half as much talent and twice as much of the qualities I have described . . . You see, my dear sir, in a country where all the mediocre and detestable musicians have made immense fortunes, your son could not manage at all.”


A little more than two years had passed since Mozart had composed the Durnitz Sonata. During this hiatus he produced about sixty compositions, and being Mozart, the quality of his output benefited from the activity. The four sonatas dating from this brief period are fully mature works that give lie to the conventional wisdom that Mozart’s sonatas are minor pieces. On the contrary, they are as harmonically rich, structurally strong, and as melodically inspired as anything he had composed to date. Furthermore, the variety of moods these twelve movements convey—from the tragic to the joyful, from the profound to the simple—must have left his listeners shaking their heads in wonderment.

Sonatas 10 - 14 (1783-84)

After a break of about five years, Mozart again returned to piano sonata production. Originally, it was believed that the sonatas, K. 330 – 332 were written, like K. 310, during the 1778 Paris visit, but scholars are now quite certain they were composed in 1783, either in Vienna, where he had resided since 1781, or in Salzburg during a visit home that year to introduce his new wife to his family. The fourteenth sonata in C minor dates from about a year later, in the fall of 1784.

Mozart was now in far better circumstances, enjoying his early rush of success in Vienna as pianist and teacher, and of course, as a composer who turned out masterpieces on a regular basis. In other words, by 1783 his compositions for other media had become as fine as the ones he had been writing for solo piano since 1777. As a consequence, the difference in quality between the previous four sonatas and these five is not huge; the hand of the master is evident from first note to last. Still, one might argue that in Sonatas 12 – 14 he achieved an artistic level even richer than that of its predecessors, and just perhaps – pace – even its successors.

Sonatas 15 - 18 (1788-89)

If one defines the oft-used word “canon” as a collection of works generally considered to be representative, as well as the best of a particular form, and in which one can detect a coherent development (not necessarily improvement) from work to work, there indeed exists a canon of Mozart’s piano sonatas. However, that canon concludes with the Sonata No. 14. The following four are, in a sense, post-canonic.

By 1788, Mozart was fully at the peak of his artistry, creating one masterwork after another. The “Prague” Symphony No. 38, Figaro, Giovanni, the six quartets dedicated to Haydn, the two piano quartets, and the piano concertos Nos. 20 through 25, were now all behind him, as they had not been when he wrote the preceding C minor sonata. Moreover, considering what was to come—Cosi, Die Zauberflöte, the final three symphonies, the last piano concerto, the two great clarinet works, and the Requiem—even the most unapologetic admirer of his solo piano music must admit that the assertion that the sonatas do not represent his very best work had more validity in 1788 than in 1784. Henceforth, piano sonatas would no longer be in the forefront of his artistry as they had been. Nevertheless, the final sonatas are hardly minor works: they exemplify a great composer at the height of his mastery and maturity.

Coda (1791 - present)

Mozart did not live to compose another piano sonata. There probably has never been a music lover who has not contemplated what wonders may have been created if Mozart had been granted the opportunity to acquaint himself with Haydn’s late works, as well as the earlier ones of Beethoven and Schubert, and to interact with all three composers, as he surely would have done. One can only dream, while remaining forever grateful for the miracles we do have…

About the author of this article

In a career spanning more than five decades, Robert Silverman has climbed every peak of serious pianism: lauded performances of the complete sonata cycles by Beethoven and Mozart; concerts in prestigious halls across the globe; orchestral appearances with many of the world’s greatest conductors; and award-winning recordings distributed internationally.

Recognized as one of Canada’s premiere pianists, Robert Silverman has reached a level of musical and technical authority that can only be accomplished after years of deep commitment to the instrument and its vast literature. Many aspects of Silverman’s playing are frequently noted: a polished technique, an extraordinary range of tonal palette, an uncanny ability to sing his way into the heart of a phrase, and probing interpretations of the most complex works in the repertoire.

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