The subtle drama of emotion and intellect in Mozart’s G major sonata, K. 283

“I don’t want to be overheard, and there are lots of people here who know me, but it is dull,” says Rameau’s nephew of his uncle’s music in Diderot’s eponymous book. He continues: “It’s not that I care twopence about dear uncle, if ‘dear’ he be. He is made of stone. He would see my tongue hanging out a foot and never so much as give me a glass of water, but for all his making the hell of a hullaballoo at the octave or the seventh—la-la-la, dee-dee-dee, tum-te-tum—people who are beginning to get the hang of things and no longer take a din for music will never be content with that. There should be a police order forbidding all and sundry to have the Stabat of Pergolesi sung. That Stabat ought to have been burned by the public hangman. Lord! these confounded Bouffons, with their Serve Padrone, their Tracallo, have given us a real kick in the backside. In the old days a thing like Tancrède, Issé, L’Europe galante, Les Indes and Castor, Les Talents lyriques ran for four, five or six months. The performances of Armide went on for ever. But nowadays they all fall down one after the other, like houses of cards.” This impassioned passage ties in with the central question of this entry: should music be treated as an intellectual or emotional experience? Rameau’s neurotic nephew takes a clear position against the perceived formalism of his uncle and the values his music supposedly espouses. Even though Diderot is writing about the question of how music should be composed, and I am writing about how a known work of music should be thought of, the fundamental question remains the same. I won’t be taking a stand against any point of view. Rather, I will try to show that the conflict between “emotional” and “intellectual” in music, whether it has already been composed or is yet to be, is a false one.

I, for one, believe that rather than be at odds with each other, the emotional and intellectual aspects of the musical experience go hand in hand. Moreover, I believe that these two layers are as two roads leading to the same destination.

Between the summer of 1774 and the spring of 1775, around the same time as Rameau’s Nephew, during his stay in Munich, Mozart composed his first batch of six keyboard sonatas. Although they were not published as a single opus, they constitute a cycle, or as Mozart called them, “the six difficult sonatas”. Works of music were frequently published in batches of six, with their scope and complexity often increasing from the first piece to the sixth. This gradual increase can be seen for example in Bach’s English Suites if we compare the first suite to the sixth, and even though Beethoven’s F major quartet, Op. 18/1 is anything but simple, Beethoven left his most ambitious writing for the B-flat major quartet, Op. 18/6, culminating in its exhilarating finale, the Malinconia. The tradition of cycles of six eventually petered out, but it had still not disappeared in the first half of the twentieth century, as we see in Debussy’s Six sonatas for various instruments, of which he completed only three, or Bartók’s six volumes of Mikrokosmos, which unlike the sonatas in Debussy’s cycle but in accordance with past tradition, increase in difficulty and complexity.

Likewise, Mozart’s “six difficult sonatas” progress in complexity, even if not linearly like the Mikrokosmos. The first sonata, in C major, K. 279, is relatively simple, and by contrast, the sixth sonata in D major, K. 284 is a work of enormous ambition, whose finale is Mozart’s single longest instrumental movement. Going back two Köchel numbers from there we see a much shorter sonata, but still an incredibly ambitious one, in E-flat major, K. 282, which is the only Mozart sonata to begin with a slow and ponderous movement. Between the deviant K. 282 and the prodigious K. 284, we have the G major sonata, K. 283, which has been somewhat overlooked. It lacks the scope of the D major sonata and the structural uniqueness of the E-flat major sonata, but nonetheless, it is a work every bit as worthy. Wherein lies its brilliance, then? In many places, of course—as is the case with all great music.

One common attribute that all great pieces of art have (a shockingly rare thing!) is that one can’t fully grasp the scope of their greatness. That said, this sonata has one detail that creates subtlety and drama in the most simple and almost inconspicuous way. In many first movements of sonatas by Mozart and Beethoven, the length of the development section is significant: either noticeably short (as in Beethoven’s Op. 110 sonata), or noticeably long (as in Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata). The question that ensues is: Will the composer in the following movements relate to this structural detail or not? And if yes, how? Often, this detail ceases to be relevant (as it does in the two aforementioned Beethoven sonatas). But this is not the case in Mozart’s G major sonata. The development of the first movement is only 18 bars long (compared to the 53 bars of the exposition, in a movement of 120 bars). Unlike other short developments, it starts in the dominant and does not venture anywhere other than back to the tonic key. The simplicity of this development is much in line with the character of the leisurely and elegant first movement. But is it really over after 18 bars? After reintroducing the first theme, Mozart “remembers” that he didn’t modulate in the development section, and makes up for the lack of action by briefly albeit dramatically modulating to A minor, just to bring us swiftly back to the tonic key. Even in the recapitulation of the same movement, Mozart already relates to the character and scope of the development section.

If an eighteen-bar development in the first movement was short, the second movement has a development of a mere nine bars (out of 39). But unlike in the first movement, a whole lot happens in these nine bars, namely an unexpected pause, chromatic motion, and the most dissonant-sounding harmonies heard in the whole sonata. Nevertheless, it is only nine bars before the original theme is reintroduced. And just like in the first movement, the development “spills over” into the recapitulation, as Mozart keeps developing the harmonic and thematic material after the reintroduction of the theme.

So what will the development of the jubilant third movement be like? Will that thematic question still be at all relevant? As Mozart proves in the finale, that question is indeed relevant, as for the first time, the development is both extended (69 bars out of 277) and adventurous. It hops between keys and characters, ending in a short and serene section in C major which makes a perfect contrast with the rest of the rapid and virtuosic nature of the finale.

Thus, Mozart creates a sense of suspension and drama across all three movements of the sonata. By the end of the second movement, we have already become used to the exposition and recapitulation being the centers of gravity, and the developments being merely a channel from one to the other. And so, in the fifth bar of the development of the finale, when Mozart strikes with an unexpected diminished chord followed by a cascade of right hand arpeggios, we immediately ask ourselves, consciously or not, “how long is this section going to last?” And we become even more confounded when towards the end of this already extended section, Mozart diverges from the patterns set in the previous movements twice: the C major section is at odds with the jaunty character of the movement, and for the first time, the development has many sub-sections. Fittingly, the third movement is the only one to have the recapitulation strictly repeat the exposition.

What I just described is the way Mozart manipulates sonata form to create drama and achieve balance in a multi-movement work. To the Mozart lover, this is utterly insignificant, because lovers of Mozart love him not for his technical facilities as a composer, but for the excitement he creates with unique elegance. In the case of this thrilling, elegant, and fulfilling sonata, how is this very effect created? As I mentioned in the beginning, in numerous ways, many of which cannot be clearly pointed out, but rather just remain present in the aura of the work. But the variety in the development sections across all three movements creates an atmosphere of suspense that listeners subconsciously feel, and thus, Mozart manages to excite us time and time again. It shows us that the “intellectual” and the “emotional” aspects of music are but two different ways of approaching the same issue. The emotional aspect of his music is the reason that lovers of Mozart love him. But what does Mozart do to excite them anew, centuries after his time? This is precisely what we strive to discover with the intellectual aspect of music. In the case of Mozart, these two aspects lead us listeners and performers to react the way Rameau’s nephew did to Opéra comique: “Isn’t that beautiful! God, isn’t it beautiful! How can anyone wear a pair of ears on his head and question it?”

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