Skip to main content

Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.

We think of Wolfgang Amadè Mozart (1756–91) as being a composer first and foremost, but in his day his reputation relied as much on his expertise as a musical performer. He was widely acknowledged as one of the finest pianists of his day, and his works for that instrument show rare insight into the instrument’s possibilities.

When he wrote his first keyboard compositions, at age five, the instrument he would have played was the harpsichord. But the fortepiano would soon push the harpsichord to the side, and by the mid-1770s, Mozart’s keyboard writing was unmistakably geared to the piano, making abundant use of the instrument’s capacity for contrasting dynamics and shadings thereof.

His output for piano is crowned by his concertos for the instrument, which include quite a few of his most irreplaceable compositions. But he also wrote many pieces for solo keyboard—sonatas, variations, and such “oddball” pieces as preludes and fugues, fantasies, and standalone movements. These have often received rough treatment from commentators, some of whom have dismissed Mozart’s solo piano works as occupying the second or third rank of his compositions. Compared to his finest operas, his mature symphonies, his most masterful chamber works, or his most beautifully crafted concertos, many of the solo piano pieces probably are lesser works. We should remember that in this context a lesser work may still tower above much that surrounds it. And a handful of Mozart’s solo piano works escape that designation in any case: in the proper hands, a number of his sonatas can resound as masterworks, such as the B minor Adagio (K.540) or the Fantasies in D minor, K.397(385g) and C minor, K.475.

The A major Sonata K.331(300i), very likely written between late July and late November 1783, is the middle entry in a group of three

Mozart piano sonatas published in Vienna in 1784. They are very different from each other, the first in C major, K.330 (300h) offering Classical balance and ebullient delight, the third in F major, K.332 (300k) pushing Mozart’s then-current limits of expressive drama and virtuosic fireworks. The A major Sonata has a distinct flavor, beginning with its unusual sequence of movements: a set of variations to open, then a minuet, and, to conclude, a march-finale. Typical keyboard sonatas of the 1770s and ’80s—including “standard” Mozart sonatas—consisted of an opening fast movement in sonata form; then a slow (or slowish) middle movement, probably of some emotional depth; and a quick finale structured as a rondo or perhaps some modification of sonata form or possibly a set of variations. This piece departs so far from that expectation that, one might say, the only reason it is a sonata is that Mozart calls it that. In a structural sense, it is the oddest of Mozart’s nineteen piano sonatas, the only one coming close in its unorthodoxy being the earlier Sonata in E-flat major (K.282/189g), written in 1775.

Each of the three movements is distinctive. The first unrolls as a set of variations, perhaps based on the Czech song “Hoˇrela lipa, hoˇrela.” The winsome tune is enunciated forthrightly—both of its halves being repeated—after which it is ushered through six variations, each with a distinct flavor (marked successively rhythmic alteration, changes of tempo, hand crossings, and so on). The Menuetto-and-Trio is far from a standard-issue dance item; instead, it is carefully wrought in its details, sometimes cast in abbreviated phrases, with the chromatic leanings of the Trio section imparting a dreamy quality. The concluding march (not so called in the score) bears the heading Alla turca (In the Turkish Manner). This did, however, become famous under the rubric Marcia alla turca or Rondo alla turca, and few are the pianists who did not play it early in their development, delighting in its devil-may-care brashness. Mozart intended it to evoke the sounds of Turkish Janissary bands, noted for their jangling percussion instruments.—JAMES M. KELLER