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Not Bad, for a five-year old

A look at Mozart's first five written compositions.

The resume of the young Mozart is well known--in fact, his exulted status as one of history's greatest composers (THE greatest by some standards), nearly rests on it. By the age of three he was picking out harmonious sounds on the keyboard. By the age of four he was writing pieces for piano and orchestra, and by the age of five he was touring Europe, playing for kings and queens. This last fact is beyond dispute; for the first two, we have the father's excited testimony. Leopold knew very well that people pay attention when a young child demonstrates skills that seem beyond the reach of many adults. He capitalized on the fact, asking the young Wolfgang to do things that were calculated to thrill his listeners, and lure them into awe over items that in many cases were not really so difficult to achieve as they might seem to non-musicians. Leopold's gambit was that his child could wow Europe by seeming to display a talent that came from nowhere; a pure manifestation of the Divine, needing no training and no effort. A clear miracle. And he seems to have believed it himself. When the child Mozart grew older, he found, in fact, that he had outgrown this market and people were much harder to impress. It was then that he wrote his greatest music, for this same fickle audience.

Leopold was right about the persistent thrill that a child prodigy has on people. The myth is so strong that Mozart is chiefly remembered for it today, despite the fact that, even in his own time, child prodigies were crisscrossing Europe, some probably every bit as precocious as little Mozart. Their names are mostly forgotten to history, and certainly to the mass consciousness. It was the development of the talent, not the ability to play the piano upside-down, or through a cloth, or even to play something without music, having heard it only twice, that insures that Mozart will not soon be forgotten.

One rather important item missing from this little equation is the teacher. Mozart happened to be born to a very musical father, a very gifted composer in his own right, who cultivated a very demanding relationship with his son from the earliest sign that Mozart had musical gifts. He set Wolfgang all kinds of musical assignments, even to refashion the solo piano sonatas of other composers as pieces for piano and orchestra that are his first four attempts in the genre. Characteristically, he claimed it was all Wolfgang's idea, and that the pieces were original. In fact, the concertos were simply arrangements of piano sonatas by other composers, not original compositions (still astonishing for such a young child). They were excellent compositional exercises, and a great way to prepare to write such pieces oneself--the kind of exercise a teacher might pose his student. Leopold 'recalled' a scene wherein his young son was discovered at home, setting ink to paper (and making quite a mess with his four-year old penmanship), determined to write a piano concerto, a concerto which the astonished father determined would be nearly impossible to play. "That is why it is a concerto" his undaunted son supposedly said, "you have to practice it a lot!" The legend lives on.

According to the research of Koechel, Mozart's first five pieces were short dances written for the piano alone (or, just as likely, the harpsichord). Four of them are titled "Minuet"; the third one is called "Allegro" from the Italian musical instruction for "fast". They are all generic titles, but they do indicate something specific. The Harvard Dictionary of Music says that a minuet is "an elegant dance movement in triple meter (usually 3/4) of enormous popularity ca. 1650-1800."

It is quite likely that Leopold would have had his son try his hand at this kind of composition--minuets are usually short, and their structure rather rigidly defined. They consist of two parts, this first of which comes to rest five notes above its original central pitch, and the second, which restores the original center of gravity. This is the framework around which many much larger and more complex works (like, sonatas, symphonies, concerti, and so on) revolve; a journey away from the established tonal base and, after some imaginative wanderings (not-so-imaginative in some cases!) a return trip.


The piece given the designation K. 1, which makes it, as far as our (outdated) research is concerned, the first thing that Mozart ever wrote (that survives, anyhow) is in these very necessary two parts, moving in the first away from its home bass in the key of G major, to a temporary stop on D. The section is then repeated. Leopold must have instilled this very important tonal lesson in the young composer; we will invite you to experience it here by clicking, at your pleasure, on the file marked G, which simply plays the original central note, and then on D, to hear where we are going. The shift is more obvious here than it will be in some of the other minuets, because not only the bottom note, where the foundation of the harmony lies, is a D, but the melody does not contradict it by attempting to provide harmony.


G   A  B  C  D                           First Part
Second Part

The minuet proper here is followed by a contrasting section called a trio, which is often in a different (but related) key. In this case, C major. Five notes above C is G, which is, not surprisingly, where we are going to go at the end of the first part of the trio; for, indeed, the trio mirrors the minuet in that it also has two parts, the first of which travels up five notes to rest on its dominant (the theorist's term for the note on the 5th degree of the scale) and the second of which returns to the original tonic, or first note. If you want to check your center of aural gravity, the C and G are provided for your tonal entertainment.

C  D  E  F  G                          First Part
Second Part

After the trio, the minuet is repeated. This gives the whole composition a sense of balance, which was extremely important during the time that Mozart was writing (the Classical period, which is something specific and does not refer to all music written in an artistic vein--as in "I like classical music" but the period from, roughly, 1750 to about 1810).

Mozart also tries to keep the outlines of his piece clear by constructing each of his musical sentences (phrases) so that he gives out a simple rhythmic gesture, repeats it, and then accelerates to the end, when the phrase comes to a graceful stop. Listen to the parts separately, and notice their similarity to one another in this regard. The major difference between the two parts is really their harmony, not their rhythm.

 Once the major theme of the piece has been established (and repeated, for the sake of clarity), it is often necessary to break new ground, or the ear will tire (notice the back half of each part of the trio; if one of Mozart's less gifted contemporaries had written it, it might have sounded like this).  Was Leopold able to instill this all-important lesson in the young Mozart, or did Wolfgang somehow figure this out on his own? It was, at least, a lesson he learned well, and distinguishes him from many other composers of the time, who, once they'd come up with a good opening idea, seemed to run out of things to say. Mozart, as is often the case with truly gifted composers, makes his musical phrases get longer and his rhythmic drive increase later in a section, rather than present his one good idea up front and then let it stall completely or repeat it to death, as is frequently the case in pop music or the so-called classical stuff that history has forgotten about. It may be easier to memorize such an oft-repeated idea, but it makes the piece itself a whole lot less interesting. In any case, here is the entire composition again:

Minuet, K. 1

Mozart's K.2 is not a musical mountain. It is much shorter than K.1, actually; it does not even have a trio section, but only the two parts of the minuet.

It is less ambitious than the first one, and seems to grapple with the idea of a thorough working-out of a small gesture, which is only one measure long.

You'll notice that Mozart does not follow up this elegant gesture by doing something random, like this but rather repeats the same da-da dum dum rhythm two more times before settling on a very stylish cadence--a sort of musical punctuation mark. Then he starts afresh with a gesture that has the same rhythm as the first, but now climbs upward. He repeats it, climbing one note higher, and a third time. Thank heaven he accelerates the rhythm just a little bit, giving us all a nice surprise just when all seemed lost. (here is what the passage would sound like otherwise)

Now begins part two. You'll recall that part one ended on the "Dominant"; that place five notes above where things started (actually, here is that cyber-pitch-pipe again so you can check it)

F                 C                    Part one

The journey this time has been a bit different than in the first minuet. In K. 1, Mozart actually forecast what was going to happen later in the piece by making the opening a sort of harmonic palindrome. He answers the first gesture (which hints at the "dominant" harmony) with a second that neatly wraps up the loose end, sort of like answering your own question, and explains why I feel that Mozart's music often seems to "rhyme". It is hardly the last time he will begin a composition that way. Some examples:

the opening of the c minor sonata            outline of the harmonic palindrome    c    G   G   c
the opening of the G major sonata           outline of the harmonic palindrome    G   D   D   G
the opening of the third movement of the D major sonata, k311   outline of the harmonic palindrome:  D  A   A  D

If Mozart had chosen to do the same thing with this minuet, it might have gone like this; instead, Mozart begins the second half of the first part by rapping on the C three times in the bass to get our ears there, but it is a less convincing, and less conclusive cadence, and Mozart knows it. He continues on into part two by traveling through a minor key and then repeating the process one step lower. If you compare this spot to the same spot in the first minuet you'll hear that he is doing the same thing harmonically, only it is taking him twice as long to get there because he makes an entire phrase out of the first "level"  before moving a step down and doing the same thing with the second.

Now Mozart, apparently stalled for something new, and determined to finish the way he began, repeats the opening idea twice. The first time he realizes that if he ends there, that section of the piece will be a stand-alone and will sound incomplete because it does not have a second phrase to balance it, and so he chooses to play it again, but he does not want to simply repeat it because it will sound gratuitous! (an odd problem--more musical material needed for the sake of balance, it is a bad time to go off and do something new, but the piece can't end before it is over. How many grade-school children have ended their book reports by saying "well, I guess that is all I have to say" because they can't think of a good ending, but they still feel they need an ending, at least?). His rather clumsy solution to this is to but a D in the bass instead of an F, which prevents the piece from sounding like it can be finished since we are on the wrong harmony (called a "deceptive cadence" in the biz since we weren't expecting it); then he repeats the phrase and, merely by changing one note (the final bass note now becomes an F) we are back where we started, and everybody's happy. Except the almighty reviewer! (Ok, I give this one two stars out of four; it is still pleasant enough, and too short to sound really really repetitive, though it is remarkable what can be accomplished in a short time.)

here it is again: Minuet, K.2

It is hard to know with these pieces where Leopold leaves off and Mozart begins. Leopold was clearly concerned that Mozart learn the proper procedures for various kinds of composition. As with Newton's laws governing the behavior of celestial bodies, it was widely believed that music must subscribe to commonly agreed upon methods of construction in order for a piece to be of excellent quality; if it was cleverly done, that was what mattered. The expression of an individual personality was not prized. And Mozart, like all children, was an imitator. He happened to be a very good one! And yet, it is interesting to ponder whether a bit of Mozart's persona made it into the writing of K. 3, the only non-minuet in the bunch. It is a fun, spirited, almost silly piece which I loved to play as a child. Certainly, the opening gambit this time makes it so, but also the treatment of the a very lively second gesture, which is repeated, causing the phrase to be out of balance. I will play you the opening section without the repetitions in it -- it is not as funny this way. Mozart has also chopped up the opening measures so that there are now two ideas following one after the other. The second is not easily anticipated by the first--it sounds a bit like a cadence, as though the piece were over already, after only two measures, which must contribute to the comic effect.

The same tonal journey that occupied the first two minuets--indeed all five pieces--is on display in the first part; we are not so concerned with it here, but you can check the pitches for yourself

original key: Bb                dominant key:  F

The second part begins in a manner...well, it is exactly like the first two pieces! You can compare them yourself (K. 1, K. 2, K. 3)

Evidently, at this most dangerous juncture, when a composer, faced with the need to turn the tonal stagecoach around and prepare for a smooth return to the original key while also playing with the opening idea in a way to invite a bit of variety without threatening the piece's consistency--this was too much for Leopold's nerves, and he insisted that Mozart adhere to the same harmonic formula each time. Each place is a "sequence"; the files you are hearing each come unscrewed in the middle; they are the same thing repeated a step lower, which leads us safely back to the place where we can regain the opening idea.

It is at the ends of both the first and second parts that we find Mozart at his most impish; true to the construction and spirit of the opening measures, he repeats the second idea, but this time it is with a few ornamental notes, which give it a ticklish quality. And we may nod our heads knowingly and say, "that is pure Mozart for sure!"

an encore performance: Allegro, K. 3

If we want Mozart at his most straight-laced the next selection is sure to hit home--K. 4 is again a minuet, and it is not burdened by any attempts at light-heartedness. To my ears, it seems to suffer from redundant phrases--every idea is repeated, sometimes up an octave, but straight repetition nonetheless.

The opening measures are different however in that each of the four measures (you'll hear them as two ideas of two measures each) is unique; there is no repetition here. It is as if Mozart is learning to write in longer sentences. He repents of it by repeating the next idea before going on to the cadence. There is always a danger in giving the listener too much information at once; repeating a short idea is usually catchier, but it is less of a challenge for the composer.

The second part begins differently than it does in the first three pieces we've discussed--Leopold must have been listening to our critique of the other pieces. This time, the sequence--an idea repeated a note or two higher or lower--goes up. It takes us right back to the opening idea, but this time Wolfgang repeats the first half of that long opening sentence which increases the tension while we wait for that pent up energy to release in a flurry of notes. We will have to wait while Mozart dishes out the second idea, exactly as it was near the beginning of the piece--we want symmetry here, after all, and he repeats it just as he did before. For my money, this repetition could be gotten rid of, as I think it stalls the piece's momentum. Curiously, I think it works well in the first part of the piece.

Leopold, having some experience with various styles prevalent in different courts in Europe, may have introduced Mozart to different styles of composition and different problems with putting them together. I am not an expert in minuet styles. But I have noticed a likeness between both K. 4 and K. 5. The graceful triplets are still there, of course, but harmonically they are identical. In fact....

Here, I will show you. I'll play them both simultaneously. They fit together pretty well. (For the sake of clarity, I have to play one in the low register and one up higher, like a piano duet; I can do this because I have a multi-track recorder. Both pianists are actually me.) This is because except for a minor change at the end, the "chord changes" are identical--the same progression of harmonies in the same order.

Leopold may have used a harmonic template, as teachers often do, suggesting that Mozart try various experiments with rhythm and melody while keeping to a preformed pattern in the harmony. (Here is a bare-bones version of what the chords alone sound like for this piece--and the other one).

I find the virtuoso flights of notes particularly refreshing after the straight-jacket of ultra-elegant triplets in the beginning. How about you?

For me, the miracle is not that Mozart was only five when he wrote these pieces. For one thing, it is not certain how much of these pieces were truly his idea, and how much his father's. That is really not the point. The point is that young Mozart was able to absorb and imitate, to begin making compositional decisions, and ultimately, to find not only his voice, but to write effectively in a number of styles and fashions and so make music the world is still talking about, and more importantly, listening to. These five are not the great masterpieces of his later years; they might, in spots, already show us some superior musical apprehension, but they are not great. They are, however, very nicely done, especially if you are only five. Even if you are twenty-five.

Frankly, I'm impressed that a five-year old could even sit still long enough to write these!


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