Mozart composed his so-called 'violin sonatas' with the keyboard part taking precedence over the violin, and they were published invariably as 'for klavier with violin accompaniment'. His earliest works in this genre show so little concern for the accompanying instrument that it may be omitted entirely without undue loss: even the latest are strongly weighted in favour of the keyboard. If the keyboard instrument is of prime importance, which should it be: harpsichord or piano?
Mozart could not have envisaged the developments which were to overtake the piano during the 19th century - iron frames, more massive hammerheads, vastly increased power and evenness of tone throughout its range - so the use of a modern concert grand is emphatically wrong for this music, not only historically but musically, because of its smothering effect on the relatively tenuous violin part. That leaves the possibilities of the early piano - the 'Mozart piano' or 'fortepiano' - or the harpsichord, and here the evidence is confused. At the time these sonatas were composed (1779; 1781) the harpsichord and fortepiano existed side-by-side, and the specification Klavier might have stood for either, since it meant simply 'keyboard instrument'.
The widely-travelled composer, in France in 1763-4, would have met harpsichords with swell devices for the performance of crescendi, but the fortepiano did not arrive in Paris for another decade. In London, however, during Mozart's famous visit in 1764-5, fortepianos were news, and it is likely that the young genius heard and played one. English harpsichords at that time were powerfully-toned and employed the swell and machine-stop to facilitate dynamic gradations. Back home in Austria, and in the German centres Mozart visited, harpsichord development had broadened the range to include, in some cases, 2-foot and 16-foot registers and even the use of three manuals. On the other hand, the fortepiano rapidly gained ground from about 1770, while in Italy the harpsichord remained pre-eminent until the end of the 18th century. The Mozart family itself from 1770 used a large two-manual Friederici harpsichord made in Gera, Saxony. Seven years later Wolfgang praised Stein's fortepianos (writing that he had 'long preferred' Spath's instruments, thus implying close familiarity with the fortepiano for some years) and bought his first fortepiano, a Viennese Walther, in 1785. Yet according to a Dresden authority he performed his 'Coronation' Concerto, K. 537 (1788) at the Saxon Court on a harpsichord.
Since the change from harpsichord to fortepiano came gradually and unevenly throughout Europe and was further complicated in some quarters by the prejudice against the upstart because of its 'bourgeois' connotations, Mozart would have been unwise to risk limiting the distribution of his music by insisting upon one or the other. Even the presence of dynamic gradations in the keyboard writing would not preclude the harpsichord for, as William Newman (The Sonata in the Classical Era, 1963) has written, it could accommodate them 'with its jacks of two different materials, its 'lute' and other stops, its 8- 4- and 16-foot registers...its devices to couple the keyboards...and by the slight but not negligible control of touch...'
In choosing a harpischord, then, Virginia Black provides the opportunity to hear these sonatas as they certainly would have been heard in the 1780s. Matters of balance, often a problem when the piano is used, resolve themselves satisfactorily because the violin part blends better with plucked tone in this music.
© 1990 Robert Dearling
The works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart are generally held to mark the peak of Viennese Classicism. As a composer who excelled in every genre, he can be rightly regarded as one of the greatest composers in the history of Western music.
Born on 27 January 1756 in Salzburg, Austria, Wolfgang received his musical education from his father, Leopold and quickly showed aptitude, playing his sister's piano pieces at the age of four and composing from the age of five. Leopold, fully aware of the remarkable talents of Wolfgang and his sister, Nannerl, took the family around Europe, showcasing his children before Kings and Queens.
Having toured as a child prodigy for ten years and come into contact with all manner of musical styles and practices, including a meeting with J C Bach in London, Mozart began his adult musical career in Salzburg in 1773 in the employ of the Archbishop.
Although the greater part of his job was to compose church music, the young Mozart quickly became the chief composer of instrumental and vocal music in Salzburg and gradually became more dissatisfied with his position. Matters came to a head in 1781 when Mozart realised he could make a living as a freelance musician in Vienna. By the end of 1781, having obtained a release from his employment, he was established as the greatest keyboard player in the Austrian capital.
Mozart's finest works date from the ten years he spent in Vienna, the last years of his tragically short life. His reputation as a composer was immediately established with the opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and shortly after he married Constanze Weber. Their marriage appears to have a happy one, though both were financially naive.
The busiest years were between 1784 and 1788, in a period of financial security. Mozart gave numerous subscription concerts, for which he composed a dozen excellent piano concerti, in addition to private concerts for the local nobility. In 1784 Mozart also became a freemason at a lodge in Vienna and often composed music for meetings, most notably the Mauerische Trauermusik.
Opera, however, was still Mozart's priority and he scored great successes in Vienna and Prague with Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni. These were followed in the final two years of his life by three more operatic masterpieces: Così fan Tutte, La Clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte.
After the death of Leopold in May 1787 and a temporary lull in creative activity, Mozart began to give fewer concerts. His finances suffered as a result and from mid-1788 he was often in debt, forced to rely on loans from friends. However, the Mozarts never had to do without servants or any other luxuries of their class.
Mozart's work was still attracting international interest and was widely published. He was working on a Requiem commission when he died on 5 December 1791 from rheumatic inflammatory fever, but there is no evidence that this was in any way a burden on him as is sometimes suggested. Nor is there any evidence that he was poisoned, by Salieri or anybody else. He was buried in a common grave, as was the usual custom at the time, on a calm, mild day (not the snowy, stormy day of legend).
Mozart's reputation continued to spread after his death with Breitkopf & Härtel releasing a 'collected edition' of Mozart's works as early as 1798. In 1862, Köchel released his thematic catalogue of Mozart's works (works in Mozart's catalogue are thus prefixed by the letter K) prompting Breitkopf to publish a 'complete edition' between 1877 and 1883. His popularity has, if anything, grown to new heights in recent times with the majority of his works occupying prominent places in the repertory.