Commentary Magazine

The Major Minor Mozart

Two-hundred-fifty years after his birth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is in a class apart, perhaps not the most popular of all classical composers—that prize more likely goes to Beethoven or Bach—but without doubt the most admired. Even at the height of postmodernism with its Nietzschean “transvaluation of all values,” no critic ever seriously tried to question his singular stature, or even to revalue significantly any of his major works. He remained, and remains, untouchable.

No less remarkably, composers and performers join with critics in this consensus.
1 One might easily put together an anthology of heartfelt tributes to Mozart's music, were it not that the result would be so repetitious. Suffice it to quote Aaron Copland, writing in 1956 on the occasion of the Mozart bicentenary:

[W]e can pore over him, dissect him, marvel or carp at him. But in the end there remains something that will not be seized. That is why, each time a Mozart work begins . . . we composers listen with a certain awe and wonder, not unmixed with despair. The wonder we share with everyone; the despair comes from the realization that only this one man at this one moment in musical history could have created works that seem so effortless and so close to perfection.

Some part of Copland's wonder, of course, must have stemmed from the fact that its object was a child prodigy without formal education who wrote his first symphony at the age of nine and his last one a mere 23 years later, not long before his early death. All prodigies are by definition interesting, but in Mozart's case the interest is heightened by the fact that he not only died young but left behind an oeuvre so extensive and all-encompassing that it might as well have been the work of a fully mature composer who died at sixty, or even eighty.

In addition, though, there is the still greater puzzle of the apparent incongruity between Mozart's music and his personality. Forget the foul-mouthed idiot savant of Peter Shaffer's movie Amadeus (1984); the real Mozart is elusive enough without benefit of caricature. “It is impossible,” wrote the great English musicologist Sir Donald Francis Tovey, “to exaggerate the depth and power of Mozart's thought.” Yet Pichler, who knew him socially, described a man “in whose personal intercourse there was absolutely no other sign of unusual power of intellect and almost no trace of intellectual culture, nor of any scholarly or other higher interests.” His surviving letters paint a similarly inexplicable portrait of a likable, lively-minded lightweight.

The gap between man and artist is so vast, in fact, that one half-wonders why some ragtag band of ardent pseudo-scholars has not come along to claim that the music of “the man from Salzburg” was really written by a more cultivated and better situated contemporary.


Our feeling of disconnection from Mozart the man—what Copland speaks of as our inability to “seize” him—extends to the works themselves. Except for the greater sophistication that came with age, there is no readily apparent relationship between the expressive qualities of Mozart's music and the emotional landmarks of his life. He was an 18th-century craftsman whose pieces arose not from “inspiration” but as a result of pressing professional demands. In the words of the late Stanley Sadie, whose final book, the newly published Mozart: The Early Years, 1756-1781,

2 was to have been the first installment of a comprehensive two-volume biography:

Mozart . . . never wrote a piece of music simply because he felt like it or because of some “inner need” but virtually always because it was in some sense a requirement.

This deprives the biographer of his usual stock-in-trade, for it means that Mozart cannot be written about in the same way as, say, Beethoven or Schubert (or, for that matter, Shakespeare), interweaving life and work in a psychologically illuminating manner. In particular, whatever quality makes certain of his compositions “deeper” and “darker” than others is inaccessible to speculation.

Yet some are indeed deeper and darker, and one whole group of these latter pieces, to which I want to devote the balance of this essay, stands mystifyingly apart from the rest. These are the comparatively few multi-movement works cast in minor keys: two piano sonatas out of seventeen, two piano concertos out of 27, two symphonies out of 41. While these and other minor-key works of similar scale are not necessarily of higher quality than their major-key counterparts, they do share a special intensity of expression not found in such masterpieces as the C Major Symphony, K. 551, familiarly known as the “Jupiter.”

This intensity manifests itself in many ways, from the turbulence of the first movement of the D Minor Piano Concerto, K. 466, to the crisp austerity of the E Minor Violin Sonata, K. 304. Sometimes, as in the G Minor String Quintet, K. 516, one perceives the minor-key quality as a tint, a single aspect of a carefully balanced, classically poised totality. At other times, as in the unabashedly stern A Minor Piano Sonata, K. 310, it becomes overwhelming, infusing an entire piece with its distinctive coloration. In every case, though, the large-scale minor-key pieces, different as they are from one another, are similar in their power to stir the listener's emotions—just as one feels, whether rightly or wrongly, that Mozart's own emotions were more fully engaged in the act of their creation, and that in them he was somehow playing for higher stakes.

Many performers have said as much about the minor-key works, including the Austrian pianist Alfred Brendel:

The pieces in the minor do more than just present a dark backdrop to Mozart's brilliance. . . . I know of no other composer fundamentally transformed while writing in minor keys.

But at least as many commentators have been reluctant to ascribe such distinctive qualities to these works, preferring to concentrate on the features they have in common with the minor-key music of Mozart's contemporaries and predecessors. Nor should this reluctance be dismissed as mere pedantry. For all his stupendous gifts, Mozart was a man of his time, and the seeming “perfection” of his music, as Copland reminds us, arises in large part from the fact that he had at his fingertips a fully developed musical language that had yet to be disrupted by the innovations of Beethoven and the later Romantics.

Mozart himself made no known statements indicating that he regarded his minor-key works as exceptional. Does this mean, then, that his use of the minor key was merely an arbitrary classical-period convention? Or did it indeed signify something more? In order to answer this question, we must start by making an effort to hear the minor-key works as they are, rather than as the Romantics thought they were.


To appreciate the difference between Mozart's minor- and major-key works, it helps to look at what they have in common.

To my mind, no one has done a better job of concisely explaining what makes Mozart Mozart than Donald Tovey, whose essay on the G Minor Symphony, K. 550, the greatest of the minor-key works, is a convenient starting point. Tovey offers a seeming paradox that will startle many readers: “We can only belittle and vulgarize our ideas of Mozart by trying to construe him as a tragic artist.” What could he possibly mean, especially with reference to the G Minor Symphony, still widely regarded as the locus classicus of tragedy in music? The answer, Tovey replies, is that Mozart was up to something altogether different: “Mozart's whole musical language is, and remains throughout, the language of comic opera.”

This bald-faced assertion, so surprising at first glance, turns out on closer inspection to be all but self-evident. From the rush and bustle of the outer movements of the G Minor Symphony (whose compositional language Tovey likens to Rossini's Overture to The Barber of Seville) to the wittily “theatrical” exchanges between soloist and orchestra in the later piano concertos, one finds in Mozart's mature instrumental works an abundance of proof that he thought of all his music in dramatic terms—and that the kind of “drama” he had in mind was 18th-century opera buffa, abstracted at times to the point of sublimity but still essentially comic.

For the Romantic of deepest hue, such a claim must necessarily have the effect of trivializing Mozart's minor-key music. But Mozart himself, lest we forget, was not a Romantic—indeed, Romanticism per se did not exist in his lifetime—and thus was not afflicted by the paralyzing idea that comedy is unserious. As Tovey goes on to say:

If we are to understand Mozart, we must rid our minds of the presumption that a tragic issue is intrinsically greater than any other. . . . [I]t is not only difficult to see depths of agony in the rhythms and idioms of comedy, but it is not very intelligent to attempt to see them. Comedy uses the language of real life; and people in real life often find the language of comedy the only dignified expression for their deepest feelings.

Still, there remains a vast difference between the expressive effects of the “Jupiter” and G Minor Symphonies. Though both were shaped in the mold of opera buffa, few listeners will fail to hear lightness and liberation in the one and dark introspection in the other. Can this be explained solely by a failure of historical imagination on our part? Or is the difference between the two works as real as we feel it to be?


While Stanley Sadie does not directly address this question in Mozart: The Early Years, he does deal specifically and in detail with Mozart's youthful embrace of the minor key, and in so doing sheds invaluable light on the style that is heard for the first time in the “Little” G Minor Symphony, K. 183, composed in 1773.

In discussing this work, Sadie is quick to place it in its proper historical context. Not only had other composers of the Sturm und Drang school already turned out numerous minor-key symphonies full of “syncopated repeated notes, snapped rhythms, tremolandos, large leaps, urgently repeated phrases, and forceful orchestral unison passages,” but Mozart himself had included similarly impassioned minor-key passages in his early operas. As Sadie rightly concludes: “[W]e have to be on guard against any facile assumption that Mozart and his contemporaries brought the same emotional associations to such music as we do today.”

Yet, having issued this warning, Sadie goes on to declare the “Little” G Minor Symphony to be Mozart's “first ‘great’ work, his earliest, it seems to 20th-century listeners, to enter the realms of serious human feeling.” And for all his understandable wariness about reading Romantic preconceptions into a piece of classical music, Sadie is surely right to use such unabashedly emotive language to describe the “Little” G Minor. However much Mozart may have drawn on earlier examples, however deeply rooted the symphony is in the classical style, it is hard to hear it without sensing that the seventeen-year-old Mozart had for the first time grasped the nettle of life.

To be sure, one may say this without necessarily leaping to the further conclusion that the “Little” G Minor must somehow mirror a specific event or cluster of events. At the same time, however, it would be wrong to conclude that Mozart's life was emotionally uneventful, or that his music had no relationship whatsoever to exterior circumstances. Rather, one must make such interpretations with the greatest of care.

Of particular interest on this count are Sadie's remarks about two important minor-key works written around the time of the death of Mozart's mother in 1778, the E Minor Violin Sonata and A Minor Piano Sonata:

There is no real reason to imagine that he used his music as vehicle for the expression of his own personal feelings: at this period, at least, there is certainly no evidence that he did so—no statement in a letter about the significance of any work to life events. . . . He in fact wrote to Leopold [his father] that in the days of his mother's illness he “had ample leisure for composing, but could not have written a single note.” His letters written on the day of her death and in the ensuing days do not suggest that the emotions he was experiencing were of a kind that he would want to express in music.

On the other hand, Sadie leaves no doubt that the two sonatas embody some form of strong emotion, going so far as to speak of the “bleak qualities” of the E Minor Violin Sonata and—even more notably—declaring that the “sustained urgency and agitation” of the first movement of the A Minor Piano Sonata “seem almost to embody anger and frustration.”


Bleakness, urgency, anger, frustration: these are not words one normally uses to describe 18th-century classical music. Yet just as they flow easily from the pen of a modern-day Mozart scholar fully aware of the need to hear Mozart's music in its historical context, so are they more than likely to spring to the mind of a modern-day listener who hears one of Mozart's minor-key compositions for the very first time.

No less surprising is that we are using them to describe the work of a young man. When artists in their twenties, however talented, succumb to unhappiness, the fruits of their sorrow tend to be self-indulgent. Not so Mozart. From the “Little” G Minor onward, his minor-key music was emotionally disciplined, and as the emotions grew more powerful, so did the discipline become more rigorous and far-reaching.

This progression reaches its climax in the later and better-known of Mozart's two symphonies in G minor. Here the inherent tension between passionate emotion and classical syntax resolves itself in a perfect balance of technical means and expressive ends. Mozart transposes the comic language of his opera buffa style into the minor key in order to say . . . what?

It would be the height of superfluity to try to put into words the “meaning” of the G Minor Symphony. But I have always been struck by what I think of as the stoic quality of this touchstone of Western art. It is as if Mozart were telling us something so profoundly serious that it could only be said, as it is said by Prospero in The Tempest, when accompanied by the saddest of smiles:

The solemn temples, the great
      globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall
And, like this insubstantial
      pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We
      are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and
      our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

That such ultimate truths can indeed be told without recourse to words is one of the supreme mysteries of Western art. That they were accessible to an unsophisticated, unintellectual ex-prodigy who died at the age of thirty-five is a mystery of another kind altogether.

No wonder, then, that Aaron Copland was unable to consider Mozart's achievement without feeling a touch of despair. It is, after all, what most of us feel when forced to measure ourselves against the yardstick of genius.


Mozart in Minor: A Selective Discography

Comparatively few conductors and instrumentalists trained during the 19th century programmed Mozart's music with any frequency, and their interpretations typically ran to the sentimental. It was not until the 1930's that a distinctively “classical” style of Mozart playing began to find its way onto record. Since then, Mozart's minor-key works have all been recorded numerous times in unprettified versions. Here are ten of the best performances currently available on CD:

1933: The Swiss pianist Edwin Fischer, who specialized in the Austro-German classics, was also a gifted conductor who frequently led his own concerto performances from the keyboard (as Mozart himself had previously done). His bracingly dramatic self-conducted version of the D Minor Concerto, accompanied by the London Philharmonic, is one of the most contemporary-sounding of early Mozart recordings (Appian APR 5523).

1934: Artur Schnabel was one of the first celebrity instrumentalists to make Mozart's music a central part of his repertoire, both in concert and on record. In addition to several concertos and sonatas, he recorded the G Minor Piano Quartet, K. 478, with members of the Pro Arte Quartet, a Franco-Belgian ensemble with an old-fashioned Romantic ensemble style that the group modified in response to Schnabel's passionate directness (Pearl GEM 0104).

1937: Ignace Jan Paderewski, who like Schnabel studied with the celebrated piano teacher Theodor Leschetizsky, was a Chopin specialist widely considered to be the quintessential Romantic-era virtuoso (though his technique was in fact notoriously erratic). His only Mozart recording, made near the end of his career, is a graceful, rhythmically free version of the A Minor Rondo, K. 511, in which the 19th-century view of Mozart can be heard at its most attractive (Pearl GEMM CD 9499).

1950: Dinu Lipatti would have been the greatest classical pianist of the postwar era had he not died of cancer at the age of thirty-three. Among the handful of recordings he left behind is a taut yet lyrical version of the A Minor Sonata that confirms his reputation as an artist of unrivaled purity (EMI Classics CDU 5 67003 2).

1962: Glenn Gould recorded only one Mozart piano concerto, the C Minor, which he claimed not to like. Be that as it may, his performance, attractively accompanied by Walter Susskind and the CBC Symphony, is noteworthy for Gould's electrifyingly incisive playing of the solo part (Sony SMK 52626).

1968: Benjamin Britten, one of the few major 20th-century composers to have distinguished himself as an interpreter of music other than his own, made many Mozart recordings, the finest of which is his version with the English Chamber Orchestra of the G Minor Symphony. Unusually, Britten takes all the repeats indicated by Mozart, thereby expanding the scale of the piece in a manner consistent with his vigorous yet classically balanced conducting. This recording is available as part of a two-CD set that also includes Britten's equally impressive 1971 conducting of the “Little” G Minor Symphony (London 444 323-2LF2, two CD's).

1973: In addition to recording extensively as a soloist, Arthur Grumiaux, a Belgian violinist of uncommon stylishness, also led a trio whose recorded performances of Mozart's six string quintets (augmented by the violinist Arpad Gérecz and the violist Max Lesueur) remain definitive three decades later. The jewel of the set is the lucid, supremely elegant G Minor Quintet (Philips 470 950-2PTR3, three CD's).

1989: At the very end of his long life, Vladimir Horowitz recorded the B Minor Adagio, K. 540, in a session that took place in the living room of his New York apartment. Though the arch-Romantic Horowitz played little of Mozart's music in public, he was fascinated by the “seriousness, solemnity, and pathos” of this free-standing minor-key movement, and not least by the chromatic inflections that he found to “foreshadow Chopin and Wagner.” Perhaps not surprisingly, Horowitz's interpretation, if rhythmically freer than what one would expect from a younger pianist, is both shapely and disciplined (DGG 427 772-2GH).

1994: Since the 70's, many recordings of Mozart's music have been made on replicas of 18th-century instruments played in a musicologically informed style that seeks to reproduce that of the composer's own time. Comparatively few of these performances, however, have been as effective or memorable as those given on modern instruments. Among the few is William Christie's recording with Les Arts Florissants, the French period-instrument ensemble, of the unfinished D Minor Requiem, K. 626, in the standard version completed by Mozart's pupil Franz Xaver Süssmayr. The lean and transparent instrumental textures of this highly dramatic performance, whose vocal soloists include the tenor Christoph Prégardien and the contralto Nathalie Stutzmann, let the choral parts come through with unusual clarity (Erato 0630-10697-2).

2004: Hilary Hahn, the most gifted of today's young violinists, recently released an album of four Mozart violin sonatas that includes a pristinely fresh version of the two-movement E Minor Sonata (the composer's only work in that key), sensitively accompanied by Natalie Zhu, her regular recital partner (DGG B0004771-02GH).


All of these recordings can be purchased online by viewing this article during the month of January on COMMENTARY's website:



1 I know only one sweepingly negative remark about him by a well-known musician. Noël Coward, who in addition to being a comic playwright was also a songwriter of note, claimed after a visit to the Glyndebourne Festival that Mozart's operas sounded like “piddling on flannel.”

2 W.W. Norton, 644 pp., $35.00.

3 Recommended recordings of these and other minor-key works by Mozart are listed in the discography at the end of this piece.


About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

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