Although he died slightly less than two months before his thirty-sixth birthday, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) was a child prodigy who began composing at the age of five, and taking this into account, his compositional life thus spanned thirty years, a career which can be viewed like that of most composers as a series of recognizable periods.
The compositions recorded here all date from a pivotal time in Mozart’s life, the 1780s. After spending his youth touring Europe as a virtuoso pianist from 1762-73 (ages 6 to 18), Mozart returned to his hometown, Salzburg, Austria, to work as a court musician for Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus von Colloredo. Except for a period in 1777-78 when he visited Mannheim and lived briefly in Paris, Mozart remained in Salzburg until 1781. Unhappy in his work there, he longed to move to Vienna, the cultural center of the German-speaking world at this time, and establish himself as a freelance composer and performer. The opportunity arose when Archbishop Colloredo called Mozart to Vienna in March 1781 for the festivities associated with the accession of Joseph II as the sole ruler of the Holy Roman Empire after the death of his mother, Empress Maria Theresa. In June, after having his request refused the month before, the composer was released from his employment by the Archbishop, and began, at the age of twenty-five, his new life in Vienna. H. C. Robbins Landon, a prominent Mozart scholar, titled one of his books Mozart: The Golden Years, 1781 — 1791, and indeed it was during these years that Mozart fully blossomed as a great composer and created his most profound works.
When compared to other child prodigies, Mozart stands out in his ability to grow as a composer. Throughout his short life he continued to learn, constantly incorporating new techniques and achieving greater and greater depth in his music. Here in Vienna, in the 1780s, Mozart came into contact with a number of new influences that were to transform his musical language.
Noticeable during this period was the increased use of counterpoint in Mozart’s works, not just in the more obvious composition of fugues and fugato passages, but also on a more subtle level, employing counterpoint within the homophonic (melody and accompaniment) style galant textures that were typical of the Classical era. We begin to see in his works of this time a greater independence of the inner parts and canonic imitations between the various voices of the texture, rather than just a reliance on simple Alberti bass chordal accompaniments. To some extent this interest in counterpoint can certainly be traced to the fact that Mozart was introduced to the music of various Baroque composers by Baron Gottfried van Swieten (1733-1803). They met soon after Mozart’s move to Vienna, after a previous encounter in 1768 when Mozart was on one of his early tours, and van Swieten quickly became his devoted patron. The Baron was instrumental in acquiring important commissions for Mozart throughout the rest of his life and they remained close until the composer’s death. Earlier, van Swieten had been in Berlin as ambassador to the court of Frederick the Great, where he came in contact with the music of Bach, Handel, and other German Baroque and early Classical composers. The Baron brought these scores to Vienna when he returned in 1777, where he shared them with Mozart and others and presented this music in recitals.
One of the most important influences on Mozart during these years was that of his great contemporary, Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809). It appears that the two composers first met in 1783 or 1784 and they soon became friends, even playing together as members of a string quartet. It was in fact the quartets, of all Haydn’s works, that most affected Mozart. Haydn’s two sets, Op.20 (1772) and Op.33 (1781), are generally regarded as milestones in the history of the string quartet and Mozart was familiar with these works. In response, during the years 1782-85 Mozart wrote six quartets that he dedicated to Haydn. The composition of these works, meant as a set, occurred over a two-year period, something rather unusual for Mozart, indicating the seriousness with which he took this project. These quartets clearly resemble Haydn in the increased prominence of their inner parts—the second violin and viola—resulting in greater equality between all voices; however, it is Mozart’s expanded use of thematic development that reflects his greatest debt to Haydn. From a young age Mozart was a master of musical timing and his ability to join together a series of beautiful and sometimes contrasting themes was unequaled. Under Haydn’s influence Mozart began to integrate the different themes within a movement by recalling, varying, and transforming motives throughout the work. While Haydn, and later Beethoven, seemed more naturally motivic composers, Mozart, always able to learn, began to incorporate a more motivic manner of thinking into his works during these years.
Another characteristic of Mozart’s Viennese music is its pervasive chromaticism—the use of raised and lowered notes of the diatonic scale. Whether he was influenced in this by the music of another composer, as might have occurred through his new familiarity with the music of Bach, an earlier master of this compositional technique, or it simply came from within himself, may never be known, but the distinctive melodic and harmonic color of Mozart’s later music is largely dependent on this characteristic. In Haydn’s works of the 1790s, written after Mozart’s death, we see an increased use of chromaticism and this is conceivably an example where the younger composer influenced the older master.
Although Mozart was a gifted violinist/violist, his preferred instrument was the keyboard, and throughout his life he produced a steady stream of works for this instrument—sonatas, variations sets, concertos, chamber works with piano, as well as a number of miscellaneous solo pieces. During his early years in Vienna he especially tried to establish himself as a piano virtuoso and achieved a certain level of success. Starting in 1782, Mozart produced a series of seventeen piano concertos, largely meant for himself to perform, which set the standard for all concertos that follow. He was also renowned as an improviser, and many of his solo keyboard works may have originated in this manner. The works presented on this recording were all composed during the period after Mozart’s move to Vienna and fully demonstrate the characteristics discussed above—rich contrapuntal textures, greater motivic unity and thematic development, and pervasive chromaticism.
— Thomas L. McKinley