The Magazine

The Wonder Man

A second opinion on Mozart’s final days.

Oct 22, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 06 • By JOHN CHECK
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For seven pages, Wolff discusses the context of this “ambitious” and “extraordinarily sophisticated” sonata, whose technical demands, he holds, were “without parallel.” Why did Mozart write it as he did? Part of the reason had to do with his conception of himself as an artist: He wanted to be taken with the utmost seriousness. Celebrated as a wunderkind piano virtuoso, Mozart wanted, in Wolff’s view, to prove that he had grown up and mastered the craft of musical composition in its full complexity. Such mastery necessitated absolute fluency in the polyphonic techniques that were a hallmark of the work of earlier composers, J. S. Bach chief among them.

But there appears to be another reason why Mozart wrote this sonata when he did and as he did. He wanted to please his boss: “The composer knew well that Joseph II was especially fond of the strict polyphonic style, not only in church music but also in instrumental works.” Equipped with training in music, reasonably proficient as a keyboardist, and proud of the composer in his employ, the emperor would have realized, within a matter of measures, that Mozart in this sonata was up to something out of the ordinary—and, one assumes, he would have been deeply flattered by the appeal to his aesthetic sensibility.

Given that the first movement of the K. 533 was such a stylistic departure for Mozart, it is somewhat striking that he should have appropriated a previously written work, a rondo (K. 494), for the third and final movement. Interesting, too, how he modified the rondo to bring it into stylistic agreement with the opening movement. Chiefly, he inserted a newly composed section near its end marked by the energetic use of imitative polyphony. The original K. 494, in Mozart’s judgment, must have lacked sufficient heft for it to serve as the finale to his big sonata; something was needed to lend it greater weight, greater moment. This is exactly what the insertion provides.

Mozart’s forward-looking nature is ably demonstrated in Wolff’s discussion of two works from the composer’s last year. The Magic Flute, he insists, was not so much an ending as a beginning: 

From the perspective of a completed oeuvre, it seems natural to view [it] .  .  . as a culmination or even the teleological goal of a line of development rather than a conscious fresh start. Yet, when Mozart conceived the work, he definitely had his eye fixed on the future—albeit a future whose artistic progress and end eludes any speculation.

As for the Requiem, Mozart seems to have welcomed its commission, viewing it as an opportunity to compose the kind of sacred music he felt sure he would be called upon to write once he had obtained a more influential position. It was not to be.

While Wolff’s writing is clear, a knotty sentence here and there calls for untangling. (Wolff’s first language is German.) Academic locutions appear, but in pardonable number. The few genuine lapses stand out all the more because they are so rare: the use of “valedictorian” when “valedictory” would have been better; the use of “politically correct” when the less charged “politic” seems to have been intended. The book contains little in the way of musical examples set out in notation, always off-putting to readers without musical training. 

Mozartians—a category that includes nearly everyone who loves serious music—will profit immensely from Christoph Wolff’s splendid book.

John Check teaches music theory at the University of Central Missouri.