Lesson 5

The Developing Genius: Mozart and the Piano

This lesson will focus on Mozart and the keyboard. We will begin by examining Mozart’s earliest compositions and the earliest accounts of his performances, then follow the development of his genius at the keyboard as composer and performer.

Keyboards: Mozart’s First Love

Lesson 4 examined Mozart’s developing craft as an opera composer, beginning with his earliest works through what is considered his operatic masterpiece, The Marriage of Figaro. Today’s lesson focuses on Mozart’s relationship with keyboards using his own letters to reveal his discovery of the piano and his views about playing. We’ll also examine some of his first compositions and the earliest accounts of his performances. Then we’ll take a look at Mozart’s Concerto No. 21 (the “Elvira Madigan” concerto).

The Harpsichord

As we learned in our previous lessons, Mozart grew up surrounded by music. His father Leopold was appointed as fourth violinist in the court orchestra of the Archbishop of Salzburg. By 1763 he had risen to the position of deputy Kapellmeister (the second-highest position in the court musical establishment). His greatest musical accomplishment was the violin method book that he published in 1756, the year of Wolfgang’s birth; it was widely used and subsequently translated into Dutch and French, and had two later German editions. Although his compositions were competent but not great, he was an excellent and knowledgeable music teacher proficient at an array of instruments.

Leopold began giving keyboard lessons on the harpsichord to his daughter Nannerl when she was seven. The three-year old Wolfgang was immediately drawn to these lessons, spending hours “picking out thirds and sounding them” on the keyboard. Leopold must have sensed early on the importance of his son’s amazing accomplishments. He reports, with careful detail, that “Wolfgang learned this minuet in his fourth year” from Nannerl’s music book. Even more precisely, “This minuet and trio were learned by Wolfgangerl in half-an-hour, at half-past nine at night on 26 January 1761, one day before his fifth birthday” (quoted in Solomon, Mozart, p. 38).

Only a few weeks later Leopold copied his only son’s earliest compositions into the music book.

For young Mozart, playing the harpsichord and composing were equally important forms of making music. Nannerl wrote:

From early childhood on he liked best to play and to compose at night and in the morning. If he sat down at the clavier (or keyboard) at 9:00 P.M. one couldn’t take him away before midnight; I think he would have played through the whole night. In the morning between 6 o’clock and 9 o’clock he wrote, mostly while in bed; then he got up and didn’t compose throughout the entire day, except when he had to write something quickly. At 8:00 P.M. he always played the clavier or composed (quoted in Solomon, Mozart, p. 39).

All of this tenacity and dedication soon paid off. Franz Xaver Niemetscheck, Mozart’s first biographer, recounts how the little boy amazed all who heard him play so that “people could hardly believe their ears and eyes at the performance” of this “magician.” Mozart even had prepared tricks (choreographed by his father?), and played flawlessly with only one finger on a covered keyboard.

The Organ

Not only was he a virtuoso at the harpsichord, the young Mozart also amazed all who heard him play the organ, apparently without formal instruction. In a letter dated 11 June 1763, Leopold described Mozart’s first attempt at playing this instrument when the boy was seven years old:

The latest news is that in order to amuse ourselves we went to the organ and I explained to Woferl the use of the pedal. Whereupon he tried it stante pede [right away], shoved the stool away and played standing at the organ, at the same time working the pedal, and doing it all as if he had been practising it for several months. Everyone was amazed. Indeed this is a fresh act of God’s grace, which many a one only receives after much labor (quoted in Emily Anderson, The Letters of Mozart and His Family, 3rd edition. London: Macmillan, 1988, p. 20).

Throughout his life Mozart retained a love for the organ. In an often-quoted letter of 17 October 1777, he wrote to his father some of his thoughts about playing it:

When I told Herr Stein I would love to try out his organ because organ playing was my real Passion, he was a bit skeptical, and said: what? a man like you? such a great Clavierist, wants to play an instrument that has no douceur (gentle action), no Expression, no piano, no forte, but always sounds the same? — That makes no difference. The organ is in my eyes and ears the king of all instruments. Well, all right then. So off we went. I could tell from his comments that he believed I would not be able to do much with his organ; I would, for example, play it like a Clavier [fortepiano] . . . I said nothing but this: Herr Stein, do you really think I will just run hither and thither all over the organ? — Well, in your case it may be different. We got to the choire, I began a Praeludium, he broke into a broad smile; then I played a fugue. I can well believe it, he said, that you love playing the organ; when one plays like you . . . (quoted in Robert Spaethling, Mozart’s Mozart’s Life: Selected Letters. New York: W. W. Norton, 2000; pp. 78).

But, as we’ve seen again and again throughout this course, Mozart never confined or restricted himself when it came to music. As instruments, especially keyboards, continued to evolve, so did his genius. Soon he had the chance to play the fortepiano, the forerunner of today’s modern piano.

What’s a “K.”?

Ludwig Ritter von Köchel (1800-1877) was a devotee of Mozart. Trained in law, he became a famous mineralogist, and in 1862 published his famous catalogue of Mozart’s music — the first chronological and thematic catalogue of the music of any composer. His original catalogue has already been revised five times; another new edition is in progress. Out of respect for his groundbreaking work, we continue to identify Mozart’s music with “K.” numbers.

Mozart and the Fortepiano

The fortepiano was favored over the harpsichord because it allowed for more expressive control of loud and soft playing — thus its name (forte = loud, and piano = soft). By the late 1770’s Mozart had seen the fortepianos of several builders. But he was especially impressed with those produced by Johann Andreas Stein of Augsburg.

Mozart’s enthusiastic letter of 17 October 1777 cites both the mechanical advantages and musical qualities of Stein’s fortepianos; especially interesting is how Stein insured the stability of the soundboard:

Before I had seen Stein’s work, I favored Spät’s Claviers. But now I must give Stein’s Claviers preference because they have a much better damper than the Regensburg instruments. If I strike the key hard, I may keep my finger down on it, or lift it up, the sound stops the instant I produced it. No matter how I play the keys, the tone is always even. There is no jangling noise, the sound will not get louder, or softer, or stop altogether, in one word: everything remains even. It is true, he won’t see a Piano forte like this for under 300 gulden, but the effort and care he puts into the instruments is beyond any price. What distinguishes his instruments from all others is that they are built with an escapement. Not one in a hundred will bother about this, but without escapement action you cannot possibly have a Piano forte that will not have a clangy and vibrating after-effect. When you press down on the keys, the little hammers fall back the moment they have struck the strings, no matter whether you keep the keys down or release them. He told me himself that after he has finished a Clavier, he will first of all sit down and try all sorts of passages, runs and leaps, and then he goes on filing and fitting until the Clavier does everything he wants it to. He works truly for the Good of Musique, and not alone for profit, otherwise he would finish them much more quickly. He often says: if I were not such a Passionate lover of Musick and were not able to play a little on the Clavier myself, I would have long ago lost my patience for this kind of work. But I love instruments that are reliable and wear well. And indeed, his pianos really last. He guarantees that the soundboard will neither break nor crack. When he has finished a soundboard for a Clavier, he puts it outside and exposes it to the weather, to rain, snow, the heat of the sun, and all the Devils of hell, so that it will crack; he then inserts a wedge and glues it in to make it all strong and firm. He actually likes it when the wood cracks; it gives him the assurance that nothing else can happen to it. Sometimes he cuts into the wood himself, glues it together again, and thereby strengthens the whole thing. He has three Piano fortes finished; I just played them again today . . . (Spaethling, Mozart’s Mozart’s Life: Selected Letters, pgs. 77-78).

Wouldn’t it be great if we could hear how Mozart played rather than just read what he wrote?

Mozart the Pianist Dazzles Audiences

“This here is a true Clavier land,” Mozart wrote (2 June 1781) about Vienna to his father, who remained in Salzburg. From the outset he attracted Viennese audiences: “Yesterday, after the concert, the ladies kept me at the piano for an entire hour — I think I would be still sitting there if I hadn’t made a secret getaway. — I thought I had played enough for free –” (28 April 1781). On several occasions he describes what he thought distinguished mechanical from good, and even great, playing.

After he moved to Vienna, for example, Mozart wrote the following to his father on 16 January 1782 about a “competition” between himself and the famous Italian pianist Muzio Clementi, set up by Emperor Joseph II:

Now about Clementi. — He is a very solid Cembalo player. — but that is all. — he has great facility in his right hand. — his best passages are Thirds. — apart from that he doesn’t have a penny’s worth of taste or feeling — he is a mere Mechanicus.

The emperor declared, after we had paid each other quite enough compliments, that He should go first. He said La santa chiesa Catholica, for he is a Roman. — He began with a prelude and then played a Sonata; — after that the emperor said to me: allons, fire away! — I also began with a prelude and then played variations. Then the Grand Duchess handed us sonatas by Paesiello that were poorly written out in his own hand; from these I had to play the allegro and he the Andante and Rondo. Then we had to choose a theme from the sonatas and develop it on 2 pianos. — The strange thing is that I had borrowed the pianoforte of the Countess Thun, but I could use it only when I played alone. That’s how the emperor wanted it. — and N.B., the other piano was out of tune and 3 of its keys stuck. — it doesn’t matter, said the emperor. — Well, I am giving this a very positive interpretation, namely that the emperor already knows my pianistic skills and expertise of music, and he wanted to hear what the foreigner could do (Spaethling, p. 301).

Throughout his career Mozart wrote keyboard compositions for himself, and sometimes for his students too. Compositions for solo piano were most often sonatas (three-movement works); a good example is the Sonata in F Major, K. 332/300k, probably written in 1783. The first movement of this sonata is notable for its simple yet elegant opening melody, contrasted with the stormy quality and heavy accents of the following section. This movement also follows a pattern known as “sonata form,” as also do all but one of his piano sonatas. (We’ll discuss sonata form in Lesson 6, so don’t worry about it for now.)

Pianos vs. Fortepianos

A revolution has been taking place in the music world. Instead of using modern instruments, performers are now playing historic instruments or copies, reasoning that music ought to sound best when played with instruments that sound the way the composer intended. You can find recordings of Mozart’s mature keyboard music played on either the modern piano or the fortepiano. Listen to some of each; do you agree with this premise about “historically informed performed” music?

More Listening

The second movement of this sonata, a slow movement, shows Mozart at his most melodic and ornate. The melody spins a musical line of grace and expressivity, the exact opposite of the “mechanical” playing that he criticized in Clementi’s play. Listening to this sonata might be a good way to compare the differences in sound and character between a fortepiano and a modern piano. Here are several recommended performances for you to buy these recordings:

On fortepiano-: Richard Fuller’s recording of Mozart’s Keyboard Works, vol. 2 (Ambitus am 97 908) or

Malcolm Bilson’s performance (Hungaroton HCD 31011-12)

On modern piano: Mitsuko Uchida’s performance (Philips 412 123-2)

Mozart also wrote 27 concertos for solo piano with orchestra. One of the most famous is the Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467, written in 1785. Its slow second movement, famous during Mozart’s lifetime and also because of its use in the soundtrack to the movie Elvira Madigan, finds Mozart at his most tender and lyrical. The first two tracks of Mozart: Concertos for piano No21 by Murray Perahia contain the first and second movements of this Concerto.

Just as he did with his operas and orchestral compositions, Mozart took the world of piano music that he inherited and extended its emotional range and substance.

Assignment : Mozart the Pianist

An interesting view of Mozart’s piano music and concert life in 18th-century Vienna can be found in Chapter 19, “The Impresario,” in Solomon’s text. I think you’ll enjoy reading this section. If you do, you may want to may read several chapters in H. C. Robbins Landon’s Mozart: The Golden Years 1781-1791 (especially Chapter II, “The musical scene in Vienna, 1781-82”; Chapter V, “Concerts in Vienna; interlude in Salzburg”; and Chapter VIII, “The string quartets dedicated to Haydn; Mozart and the piano.”

As you’ll soon see, Mozart was not only extremely talented, he was tenacious and dedicated as well. How do you think that 18th-century Vienna influenced Mozart? How do you think that Mozart influenced n18th-century Vienna? Do you think that Mozart’s career might have been different if he hadn’t discovered the fortepiano? Why or why not? Share your thoughts with your classmates and, as always, if you have any questions, please feel free to ask me.


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