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Piano Trio No. 4 in E major, K. 542

About the Work

Wolfgang Mozart
Quick Look Composer: Wolfgang Mozart
Program note originally written for the following performance:
The Kennedy Center Chamber Players: May 2004 Sun., May 23, 2004, 2:00 PM
© Richard Freed
Mozart composed his last three symphonies and his last three piano trios in the same year. The present work, dated June 22, 1788, is the first of the final three. Only four days later Mozart completed his Symphony No. 39 in E-flat (K. 543), and within six weeks he brought to completion No. 40 in G minor (K. 550) and No. 41 in C major (K. 551, the “Jupiter”); the two remaining trios came along in mid-July and late October. While those final symphonies represented the highest level to which that form had yet been raised, the trios were offered as music designed for amateur performers. There is nothing condescending in the writing, however, or the slightest lowering of Mozart's always high standards; indeed, when they were first offered to the public the trios were compared unfavorably with those by various now-forgotten contemporaries, on the grounds that they were “too demanding,” “unapproachable,” and even “bizarre.”

To be sure, there was a good deal about them that was virtually without precedent: first of all, their sheer substance, and, no less conspicuously, a change in the status of the stringed instruments. While so many piano trios of this period seem to be little more than solo pieces for the piano with occasional embellishment by the violin and cello, Mozart gave the string instruments more substantial material more equal lfooting with the pi generous helping of concertante material, thereby producing a rarity in its time: a piano trio with more or less equal prominence for the strings. He was so pleased with this one in E major that he immediately suggested to his friend and fellow Freemason Michael Puchberg (whom he was forever hitting up for loans) that they perform it at his house, and in early July he sent the work to his sister in Salzburg, asking her to play it for Michael Haydn (the great Joseph Haydn's brother, who was in service to Mozart's own former employer, the Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo. Mozart himself took this trio with him on the German tour in which he apparently introduced his new symphonies; there is a record of his performing it at the Saxon court. Some 60 years later it became a favorite of another pianist-composer, Frédéric Chopin.

E major was a key Mozart sometimes used in his operas to support images of the unusual of the supernatural; he hardly ever used it in his instrumental works, but in this trio it seemed to suit him well for something new in the way of harmonic adventurousness. The two outer movements are striking for their melodic content and (in the finale especially) the concertante writing for each of the three instruments. The central Andante grazioso, in a French rondo form which Mozart used frequently in earlier works, also exhibits a great deal of imagination in its harmonic and contrapuntal treatment; from the Mozart scholar Alfred Einstein and to more than a few others, it has provoked comparisons with the pastoral idylls of Watteau.