Sonata K. 526 in A major, Molto allegro, Andante, Presto
Edvard Grieg (1843-1907)
Sonata #3 Op. 45 in C minor, Allegro molto ed appassionato, Allegretto espressivo alla Romanza, Allegro animato
César Franck (1822-1890)
Sonata in A major, Allegro ben moderato, Allegro, Recitativo-Fantasia Ben Moderato (a minor)(to f# minor), Allegretto poco mosso
Mozart, Sonata in A Major, K.526
It is well known that Mozart was precocious; and he was precocious in more than one way. He began composing at four, he proposed marriage to Marie Antoinette at seven, and at the age of nine, killing two birds with one stone, he wrote a love song. The key he chose for the song was no accident: A major, which for composers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was most often associated with love.
During that period, more than nowadays, keys were considered to have their own characteristics, which theorists liked to codify. So, for example, we read in Christian Schubart’s Ideas on an Aesthetic of Art Music (1812) that the key of A major “includes declarations of innocent love, satisfaction with one’s state of affairs, hope of seeing one’s beloved again when parting, youthful cheerfulness and trust in God.” The nine-year-old Mozart’s sense of the key’s possibilities was presumably limited to “declarations of innocent love.” However, as he got older, he became sensitive to another shade of love, which Schubart does not mention.
The bass singer Nicholas Hay, on his Operaphenomenon blog, points to two duets from Mozart’s operas, which portray noblemen trying to take advantage of young women of lower social class. In The Marriage of Figaro, the Count, who is married, sings “Crudel perche finora” with Susanna, who is betrothed to his servant Figaro; and in Don Giovanni, the eponymous Don attempts to seduce newly-married peasant girl Zerlina, in “Là ci darem la mano.” Both duets are in A major. It seems that, for the older Mozart, this was the appropriate key for deceptive, insincere love.
Mozart wrote an incredible number of purely instrumental works. But his operas were perhaps his crowning achievements, and it is generally a good idea to try to enrich our understanding of the instrumental among his works by considering the operatic, tracing what kind of music belongs to which kinds of scenes and characters. This is especially true of works written late in Mozart’s short career. By 1787, Mozart was a master of incredible emotional subtlety and variety. This was the year that he wrote, in close proximity, his Sonata in A Major, K.526, and Don Giovanni, K.527.
At the very least, it’s fun, and at best it’s illuminating (or should that be the other way around?), to hear the music that violin and piano play in the Sonata K.526 as a dialogue, a flirtation, a seduction, a pursuit. The opening leans toward the listener without any preamble; is this not like the self-assured address of an eager seducer? The second theme is even jauntier, more Don Giovanni-like, with laughing suggestions, softened by a little, warm promise of love at the end. And then there are the little pursuing sixteenth-note runs toward the end of the exposition.
The finale, on the other hand, sounds more like the scene after a seduction. The pursuing nobleman, having been thwarted in his efforts, is himself pursued by those he has wronged, the crowd of peasants, or the families of women he has seduced. Despite its character, this finale also apparently functions as a sort of memorial tribute. Two months before the sonata was composed, an older composer whom Mozart admired, Carl Friedrich Abel, died. According to musicologist Neal Zaslaw, the movement is modeled after one of Abel’s piano trios.
The middle movement, in D major, is a far more sincere affair: musicologist Alfred Einstein wrote that it “realizes such a balance between Soul and Art that it seems God Almighty has let stop all motion for one minute of eternity in order to allow all Righteous ones to enjoy the bitter sweetness of life.”
Grieg, Sonata #3 Op. 45 in C minor
Edvard Grieg is known primarily as a nationalist and as a miniaturist. He wrote an extraordinary number of small pieces, mostly for piano, with names meant to evoke Norway’s fjords and mountains, its history and legends. At times, however, Grieg seems to have felt a longing to go beyond the bounds of the national and the miniature. He wrote several sonatas, and in this last he found, as he himself put it, a “broader horizon.”
All the circumstances of the sonata’s composition and performance point toward this broader horizon. The work was inspired by sonatas of Franck and Brahms, premiered by a Russian Jew, dedicated to a German painter, and it probably would never have been written had Grieg not received a visit from an Italian violinist by the name of Teresina Tua in the fall of 1886.
The composer had recently built a new house, Troldhaugen (Norwegian for “Troll Hill”), and he called Tua “the little fiddle-fairy on my troll-hill.” She seems to have been a highly convincing personality, as we can discern from a rather catty New York Times review of her American debut, the year following her visit to Troldhaugen: “Teresina Tua … revealed herself last night as a nobly constructed woman of some eight or ten sweet summers more than her managers modestly mention. She has a face that will be music to the unmusical, and an unfailing knowledge of the value of her delightful smiles, which she rained down on the front rows in a manner calculated to diminish whatever soundness of judgment the young men in that neighborhood possessed when they entered the hall. She has a pair of splendidly developed arms, which she graciously permitted to be viewed undraped, and a pair of handsome brown eyes … She is the possessor of a fine bow arm, and she knows how to use it … There is a notable dash, a brio, about her work that is quite irresistible, and goes far to atone for some failings in the elementary part of her playing …”
If we can be grateful to Tua for the sonata’s existence, we have Adolph Brodsky to thank for its premiere in Leipzig in late 1887, with Grieg at the piano. Further, we can thank Brodsky (or, that is, an unpublished biography of Brodsky) for one of music history’s great anecdotes. At about the time of the Grieg sonata’s premiere, Brodsky was also rehearsing one of Brahms’ trios with its composer, when Tchaikovsky (whose violin concerto Brodsky had premiered) arrived. “‘It would’ as Mrs Brodsky has observed ‘be difficult to find two men more unlike,’ Tchaikovsky a nobleman both elegant and refined in his bearing and Brahms a short powerful figure, an enemy of ‘good manners’ and one whose expression was often sarcastic. The two composers were introduced and Tchaikovsky politely asked: ‘Do I disturb you?’ ‘Not in the least’ said Brahms, in his peculiarly hoarse voice, ‘but why are you going to hear this? It is not at all interesting.’ Oddly enough, Tchaikovsky liked the personality of Brahms but, to Brodsky’s keen disappointment did not care for his music. The atmosphere was becoming a little strained when Grieg and his wife, a simple and charming couple arrived and the situation was saved.
“Later on at the dinner table Grieg’s wife sat between Brahms and Tchaikovsky but after a few moments she sprang up saying: ‘I cannot sit between these two. It makes me so nervous.’ At this Grieg quickly stood up saying: ‘But I have the courage’ and so the three famous composers sat together. Mrs Brodsky relates that it was more like a children’s party than a gathering of great composers. She recalls Brahms getting hold of a dish of strawberry jam and saying he would have it all and no one else should get any. After the meal was over and as they all sat drinking coffee and smoking cigars Brodsky brought out a conjuror’s chest, a Christmas present to Mrs Brodsky’s little nephew, and began to perform tricks. Brahms in particular was fascinated and demanded to know from Brodsky the explanation of each trick as it was performed.…”
Grieg had heard Brahms’ A major violin sonata, and Franck’s, around the time that Tua visited him. (Both sonatas were written that year, 1886.) He wanted to write a work of similar heft; but rather than the loving key of A major, he chose C minor, which drew forth a dramatic and even swashbuckling character in the sonata’s first movement. The second-movement romanza begins as a miniature, but detours into a sort of urgent and sighing dance. The finale seems to evoke a narrative–perhaps a Norse legend–without having any exact storyline.
The sonata is dedicated to Franz von Lenbach, who made at least two portraits of Grieg.
Franck, Sonata in A major
It is entirely appropriate that a sonata in the key of A major should have been given as a wedding present. Franck gave the piece to Eugène Ysaÿe when the great violinist married on September 26th, 1886, and Ysaÿe played it as part of the ceremony. According to some, this present, unlike most, was specifically requested by its recipient.
Franck was fifty-four when he wrote the sonata, a beloved organ and composition teacher at the Paris Conservatoire, with a circle of devoted students and former students, including d’Indy, Duparc, and Chausson, who called him “Père Franck.” He was in the habit of dedicating his works to fellow composers, and seldom to performers. But Ysaÿe, at twenty-six, was already an extraordinary artist (he had a knack for attracting dedications, and eventually counted Chausson, Debussy, Fauré, and Kreisler among his fans.) And besides, despite a great difference in age, the two men shared important things: a social circle (Ysaÿe was close to some of Franck’s students, especially Chausson) and a birthplace: Liège, Belgium.
During the December following the wedding, a public premiere was given. Another violinist in attendance wrote of the composer: “Never have I seen this simple, gentle and modest man in such joy. He was literally drinking his music and did not know how to express his satisfaction to the performers, especially to Ysaÿe.”
Meanwhile, a critic in attendance wrote: “This is not a sonata, but it is damned beautiful anyhow!”
In fact, the sonata is unlike any other of its time. Like many Franck works, it is cyclic; that is, themes recur from one movement to the next. The layout of the movements is slow-fast-slow-fast, highly unusual for its period; violinist Paul Tulloch suggests that with this pattern the composer is evoking a Baroque church sonata (which, since Franck was a devout Catholic and an organist, seems plausible.)
The character of the first movement is dreamy; the music takes a long and deliberate path to get anywhere. The second movement, in D minor, is fiery, bubbling up and nearly exploding with passion, and modulates wildly to keys other than the original. The third movement is improvisatory at first, before showing a sustained patience and deliberation to more than match the first movement’s. The finale is the only movement that might find a natural place in a wedding ceremony; it is full of joy, a joy magnified by the canonic treatment of its theme.
This sonata is the most popular of Franck’s works, and so beloved as to lead to criminal behavior: other instrumentalists, especially cellists and flautists, are always stealing it for their own.