The Kennedy Center

Violin Sonata in E minor, K. 304

About the Work

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
© Peter Laki

Some of the earliest Mozart works to be printed were violin sonatas or, as they were then called, piano sonatas with violin accompaniment. Proficient amateur musicians-and there were many of these in Europe at the time-loved to play such compositions in their homes to entertain their guests or for their own pleasure. Publishers in Paris, London, and Amsterdam rushed to print the child Mozart's earliest essays in the genre. When Mozart returned to Paris as a 22-year-old young adult in search of a job, he understandably tried to exploit this still-thriving market, now with mature works showing his genius in full bloom. He published a set of six new sonatas, that again received the misleading designation "Op. 1."

Sadly the French were not very interested in this talented but unknown foreigner (his years as a child prodigy were all but forgotten). Mozart's Symphony in D major (now known as the "Paris" Symphony) was performed once with no immediate consequences. The Concerto for Flute and Harp was commissioned by the Count of Guines, but the Count never paid what he had promised. Mozart's stay in Paris, frustrating and humiliating from the start, ended with a tragedy: his mother, who was accompanying him on his journey, fell ill in the summer of 1778 and died on July 3.

Two works from the Paris period seem to be particularly marked by the hardships endured: the Piano Sonata in A minor (K.310) and the Sonata for Piano and Violin in E minor, K.304. In both works, the use of the minor mode signals emotional turmoil and uncommon dramatic intensity.

The first movement of the E-minor sonata begins rather unusually as the violin and the piano play the opening theme in unison, without any underlying harmonies. It is a theme of a strikingly wide melodic range and rare expressive power. As in all classical sonata movements in the minor mode, the music soon modulates into the brighter major, but Mozart occasionally touches on the minor mode even during the major sections, to prolong the darker, dramatic mood. The brief development section uses contrapuntal imitation in a most poignant way, and the recapitulation begins with a surprise: the previous unison is replaced by the violin playing the melody against a striking rhythmic accompaniment, repeatedly interrupted by suspenseful rests, in the piano.

The second and last movement, marked "Tempo di Minuetto," is based on a descending bass line that evokes what was known as the "lament" figure in the Baroque era. The middle section's bittersweet dissonances, on the other hand, seem to anticipate Romanticism: the melodic contour and the harmonies are very similar to the last of Schubert's Moments musicaux. After this "Trio" in E major, the wistful E minor returns, complete with a coda where the melody becomes fragmented, punctuated by frequent rests, until a few energetic bars provide the final closure.