Mozart: Sonata in E minor for Piano and Violin, K.304

For modern concert-goers, the term “violin sonata” conjures up an image of violinist and pianist on stage, equal partners performing a hefty and often technically demanding concert work. We think Beethoven, we think Brahms, we think Franck and Prokofiev and Fauré and Debussy. But the eighteenth-century violin sonata evokes a different vision. The setting morphs from concert hall to living room, the pianist gets most of the best stuff, and both length and demeanor are relatively modest, as befits music for an intimate venue. Those “sonatas for the keyboard, which may be played with violin accompaniment” were the norm for Wolfgang Amadè Mozart (1756–91) during his salad days, evidenced by the title sheet of his very first publication, a set of four such sonatas engraved in Paris in 1764 and dedicated to Queen Marie Antoinette.

1778 saw Mozart engaged in yet another European tour, this time to Mannheim and Paris, during which he produced a bevy of violin sonatas in which the violin’s growing independence began to challenge that stubborn “accompaniment” moniker on the title page. As of yet, however, the violin had not yet achieved full parity, as is clear enough by the original title of the Sonata in E minor, K.304 as being for “piano and violin.”

Issues of instrumental priority aside, the Violin Sonata in E minor is one of the jewels among Mozart’s thirty-six some-odd violin sonatas. It’s unusual in a number of ways—in its minor key, in its two-movement layout, and in its concluding rondo-form Minuet, common enough during the 1750s and ‘60s but increasingly rare from the 1770s onward. The opening Allegro opens sternly yet quietly, with a unison melody in both instruments. A dancelike secondary theme provides the requisite contrast, but on the whole the movement is characterized by the delectable Mozartean chiaroscuro that so enchanted the Romantics.

The second-place Tempo di menuetto, initially marked sotto voce (whispered) carries on that interplay between light and dark, making full use of the five-part rondo form in which three statements of a surprisingly brooding reprise are interleaved with two contrasting episodes. The major-mode second episode could almost pass as a Schubert moment musical, given its sighing figures and evocative harmonies.—Scott Foglesong

Scott Foglesong is a Contributing Writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.