I know this will sound like blasphemy to much of the classical music world, but I have not adored the music of Mozart or considered him a genius. Precocious, yes; child prodigy, yes. But genius?
As a young piano student, I played a few of his piano sonatas and found them tricky with all the scale passages. They were to me “dinky”— more of fluff than substance. But he was the revered Mozart, so I dutifully studied them. I was relieved when we moved on, as I saw it, to Beethoven and then to Brahms and even Bartók.
Then in my young adulthood, I began to study voice, and the arias of Mozart were considered “medicine for the voice,” and most opera auditions had to include at least one Mozart aria. Now here was beauty I could sense. Such sinuous, elegance of line, such flights into the heights of range and the depths of drama. I studied most of the arias appropriate for my soprano voice and even some that weren’t. I simply figured that I did not care for Mozart’s instrumental works. Too “facile.’
Now, here I am in the maturity—maybe even the twilight—of my life, and I have discovered the piano sonatas of Mozart all over again! My favorite was the one I studied the most: K.333 in B-flat major. The main theme is much like the soprano arias I studied, and this time I could sense even more the delicate and subtle turns of expression contained in the lines of music. I could hear, in a way I didn’t before, his counterpoint—as if two people were singing a duet. In fact, I sang the right hand part along with the piano, when it was in range. Very singable.
How to explain this change? The obvious is that subtlety was lost on my twenty-something self. As I matured as a musician, I could sense more of that subtlety, which is so much a part of his music.
Another problem has been that too many performers play Mozart’s (and others’) music too facilely, thus making my early criticism valid. It is tempting to play the piano sonatas too fast, as a kind of “technical show.” Rattling off the scalar passages at top speed can be impressive, but the nuances are lost.
As a pianist, speed was never my strong suite. I was limited in that way, and had to play the brilliant passages slowly enough to learn the fingerings with the result that I could “hear” the nuances. Consequently, I know the intricate turns of the scalar passages and their variations and don’t want to miss a detail. In our contemporary world, we are likely to value “flash and dash” over intricate detail. But it is in those subtle turns of phrases that the expression lies.
As a “theory nerd,” I love the elegance of Mozart’s voice leading, Voice leading means that he satisfies or frustrates the ear’s need to hear certain pitches move to certain other pitches. Either way, expression is generated by this satisfaction or frustration. Sometimes Mozart makes a surprising chord change, but always in the context of this beautiful voice leading. It is up to the performer to know these surprising chord changes are coming and prepare the listener for them. To rush through them would be to miss the effect.
Now it’s off to practice so that the scalar passages sparkle with clarity and accuracy and the subtleties are not lost. . .