W. A. Mozart: Fantasia in D minor for Piano (cont'd)

Stylistic, Structural and Genre Paradoxes in the Fantasia

I would like to start with the quote: “This may sound paradoxical, but I feel that Mozart’s piano music is described best by saying that it is at the same time the most easy and the most difficult music to play correctly.”4 I can definitely confirm that from my teaching experience: yes, paradoxically, working on the Fantasia may seem to be easy but in fact, it is quite a challenge for both the student and the teacher. At the same time, this piece is absolutely invaluable to those who want to learn the genre of fantasia and the Mozart’s style during the last decade of his life (Michael Anderson and Maurice Hinson mention the year 1782, as the possible date when the piece was composed,*) especially in terms of interpretation.

Michael Anderson has also noticed, “Any serious performance of this piece involves confronting major paradoxes.”5 When I first read this statement, I was truly intrigued and was eager to know which paradoxes Michael Anderson mentioned. Unfortunately, from further reading, I did not find the answer I was looking for (like “Paradox No. 1, No. 2”, etc.). Therefore, I have decided to make this list myself using the critical material and my own observations. This is what I have found:

Paradox No. 1: Stylistic: in the Fantasia, Mozart creates a mixture of several historical musical styles (eras):

  1. Baroque:

    1. Introduction (Andante section): seems like these arpeggiated chords with bass notes being held throughout each measure came directly from Bach’s famous prelude in C Major (WTC, Vol. 1, No. 1). (Michael Anderson fairly mentions the “baroque notation” suggested in the introduction.) See Example 1.

    2. Cadenza-like passages–bridges between different episodes of this fantasia: seems like they came from the fantasias/toccatas for organ by Buxtehude, Frescobaldi, and certainly J.S. Bach (unmeasured “free” rhythm, wide ranges, quick tempos, etc.)

    3. “Chordal” episode with a descending chromatic bass line (can also be found in many Baroque fantasias and toccatas – especially in Bach’s works for organ.)

Example 1.* Introduction

  1. Classical:

    The entire Allegretto (D Major) section – typical “classical” homophonic texture, periodical structure, strictly measured rhythm, “terraced” dynamics, etc.

  2. Romantic:

    Major episodes of Adagio section: “aria-like” melody where the three-note chromatic motive of “upbeat structure” (d-d#-e, up-down-up) first appears between the rests in m. 13 (hereinafter referred to as the short-of-breath motive) and the following episode in mm. 23-27 (hereinafter referred to as the agitation episode), which is actually a development of an inverted short-of-breath motive. See Example 2 and Example 3. The repeat of these episodes brings characteristics that are even more romantic: the agitation episode for the second time gets more complicated, chromatic bass line, thicker texture; the whole episode, with its “agitated” rhythm, predicts, in some ways, the Schumann’s fantastic pieces (this can be illustrated perfectly if the rhythmic patterns in Example 4 and Example 5 are compared).

Example 2. The Main Theme of the Adagio Section (Episode A).

The Main Theme of the Adagio Section (Episode A)

Paradox No. 2: Structural: in the Fantasia, Mozart creates a mixture of different forms.

The composer defines the piece as a fantasia, the genre that Mozart intensively developed in the last decade of his life (two C minor Fantasias, Fantasia and Fugue in C Major). The genre of fantasia presumes the freedom of meter, rhythm, structure, etc. All of these elements can be found in the Fantasia: unmeasured cadenzas, a sequence of abrupt contrasting episodes, non-periodic structure in most of the episodes of the D minor section, etc. Still, I would not agree with Michael Davidson’s statement, “The structure of this fantasia seems loose.”

Example 3. Episode B (mm. 20 – 22) and Episode C (mm. 23 - 27).

Episode B (mm. 20 – 22) and Episode C (mm. 23 - 27)

Here the paradoxical aspect occurs: the Adagio section (the main section of the Fantasia) is structurally a mixture of a quasi-rondo form and a quasi-sonata form (very unusual for the genre!) How does it actually happen? The first lyrical theme, being repeated three times, appears to be the refrain of the rondo form (episode A); at the same time, it functions as a primary theme of the sonata exposition being placed in a direct conflict with the next, highly contrasting material (Episode B). The sequence of keys of the A and B episodes is quite typical for classical sonata forms: d – a (i – v). In this highly condensed ‘exposition’, the secondary theme (Episode B) spans three measures only! The repeated E in the right hand part can be easily associated with Beethoven’s ‘fate’ motives. The ‘hero’s answer is adequate: the ‘short-of-breath’ motive has been developed in the next five measures ending abruptly… [I would imagine the opera scene here – the hero, scared by his possible ‘fate’, runs away climbing the stairs, falling and climbing again (mm. 26 – 27) - there must be a wall (or a cliff?) at the end of his way that stops him…this is why the music ends so abruptly… dead end…the first hero’s ‘hell circle’ ends here. The second circle is almost the same, but with inclusion of the Presto passage – apparently the hero, again, is trying to escape his fate – running up and down… what is his name? One could easily imagine Don Giovanni trying to escape from inevitable death… from dreadful Commendatore’s statue waiting for vendetta… Yes, I clearly see him here…one more “hell circle” – episodes B and C ending on the top climactic note (m. 43, top F – E with fermata, see Example 4); abrupt ending again – Commendatore is there, fate wins the battle…the scene ends, and the curtain falls down…]

After a typical rondo bridge (another cadenza), the last refrain (recapitulation of the Adagio section) frames the entire structure. Paradoxically, the “framed” (e.g. closed) structure at the same time remains open…to another, completely different and contrasting section (in D Major).

The entire form of the Adagio section can be presented as follows:

  • A - refrain (rondo) and the primary theme (sonata form) – mm. 12-19;

  • B - episode (rondo) and the secondary theme (sonata form) – mm. 20-22;

  • C - episode (rondo) and the development of the “short-of-breath” motive (sonata form) – mm. 23-28;
    (The first “hell circle” ends)

  • A1 - refrain (rondo) and the primary theme in the development (sonata form) – mm. 29 – 33;

  • Cadenza - bridgemm. 29-34

  • B1 - episode (rondo) and the secondary theme in the development (sonata form) – mm. 35-37

  • C1 - episode (rondo) and the development of the “short-of-breath” motive transposed to G minor (sonata form) – mm. 38 – 43;
    (The second “hell circle” ends)

  • Bridgem. 44

  • A2 - refrain (rondo) and the recapitulation of the primary theme (sonata form)– short cadenza preceding the half cadence…mm. 45-54

As shown in the diagram above, the highly conflicting material of the Fantasia can be interpreted as a concise, “incubated” form of Beethoven’s sonatas of his mature middle period (the conflict between “hero” and “fate”). When listening to the Episode B, one can clearly hear the “fate” motives of the Beethoven’s Fifth or the Appassionata written two decades later – amazingly, there are two circles of developments in the Appassionata too… Paradoxically, the shortest among Mozart’s fantasias, the Fantasia contains more tragic and dramatic collisions than any of his larger fantasias!

Example 4. Repeat of the Agitation Episode.

Repeat of the Agitation Episode

Example 5. Schumann, “Fable” (from “Fantastic Pieces”) (excerpt).

“Fable” (from  “Fantastic Pieces”) (excerpt)

Some musicians also find the inclusion of a D Major section in this piece quite paradoxical. [In my perception, the two sections of the Fantasia (D minor and D Major) can be somewhat paralleled to the two movements of the sonata cycle – and again, Mozart launches the bridge far ahead - to the late Beethoven sonatas or quartets with slow first movements, and Allegretto may function as a light scherzo of the sonata cycle… Indeed, the Fantasia brings about a great deal of associations – jumping threads back to the past (Baroque) and ahead to the future (late Classicism –Romanticism)].

Example 6. Beginning of the D Major Section.

Beginning of the D Major Section

As will be further shown, some pianists skip the D Major section entirely - probably being advised that this section has nothing to do with the genre of fantasia, and therefore should not be a part of it. It is hard to agree with this opinion since the contrast of minor-major holds a very special meaning in the Fantasia. I like the opinions cited in Michael Davidson’s book that in the D Major section “life triumphs over death” (Dennerlein); the fantasy “takes its very life from the polarity between minor and major…of happiness achieved through suffering.” (Paul Badura-Skoda). However, I would not make this statement so straightforwardly. To me, darkness and light in this piece are still not in full balance. In my view, the D Major Section is rather a reminiscence of a happy and light-hearted time that the “hero” experienced in the past. See Example 6. This can be proved by looking closely at the D Major section elements: there is an obvious unifying episode – another Cadenza, approximately at the golden section point of the Allegretto section that creates a clear link to the cadenzas of the Adagio section. At the same time, it is a bridge to the recapitulation of the main theme and, most importantly, it is a climax of the entire piece, with most extreme rubatos as sublime expression of freedom, with the only indication of a gradual tempo change (rall.) in the entire piece. This obviously means - all sections are unified together as a whole. See Example 7. (We need to remember that the piece was not finished…maybe, Mozart still planned to go “back to reality.”)

Example 7. The Last Cadenza—Climax of the Entire Piece.

The Last Cadenza – Climax of the Entire Piece

Paradox No. 3: Genre: in the Fantasia, Mozart creates a mixture of different genres.

The Fantasia is largely influenced by Mozart’s theatrical genres – it reminds us that Mozart was an unsurpassed opera composer. The uniquely expressive primary theme seems to come directly from the operatic aria. The frequent kaleidoscopic change of different contrasting episodes reflects the quick change of dramatic (operatic) scenes. (The described above associations with Don Giovanni, which was written in the same period, speak for that.) Thus, in the Fantasia we have another quite paradoxical mixture – mixture of two different genres – the vocal genre of opera and instrumental genre of fantasia.

All of the above definitively prove that the Fantasia does belong to Mozart (though many critics are doubtful of it) reflecting some unique features of his individual style.

» Next: Interpretative Paradoxes in the Fantasia

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4 Maurice Hinson (editor). “At the Piano with Mozart”. Alfred Publishing Co.

* Unfortunately, the exact date is unknown (Maurice Hinson also assumes 1786-1787)

5 Michael Anderson. Page 226

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