Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 15 in F major, K. 533/494

Written for the Tippet Rise Art CenterNot to be reprinted without permission.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s 15th Piano Sonata begins like a child’s exercise: right hand, melody alone, in a perfectly balanced question-and-answer phrase. He slips a simple accompaniment into the left hand as the melody continues, and then tries the oldest composition trick in the book: the hands simply swap, with the bass repeating the melody and the treble now accompanying. This time the continuation is abbreviated, and pretty soon the two voices are imitating each other in a canon—a surprising move from naiveté to sudden contrapuntal rigor. But then a new theme cuts in, teasing at this serious turn, before the first theme re-entrenches in a more elaborate canon. The whole movement is built on this tension between play and strictness—imitation, after all, being fundamental to both. And though on the surface this movement is a paragon of Mozartian sparkle, you might find a thread of disillusionment running deep. The minor-key development section is surprisingly dark, and then when the opening returns, the left-hand response flickers back to minor, suggesting that the darkness isn’t really gone. There’s something faintly cynical about the whole movement: taking a childlike idea and twisting it into something quite adult.

The Andante follows with a beautifully gloomy melody, built on a neglectful, empty accompaniment. Mozart builds this into something more chromatic and gnarled, growing upward toward a climax, only to have the melody decay down an arpeggio into silence. Then the opening returns.

Mozart wrote these two movements over the new year of 1788, entering them into his personal catalogue on January 3 as “an Allegro and Andante for piano solo.” This was in the months after the premiere of Don Giovanni and the death of Mozart’s father, Leopold, which some biographers link to a relatively fallow span for the 31-year-old composer. To make a complete sonata, Mozart paired the movements with a standalone Rondo (K. 494) he’d written a year and a half earlier. Serving as the finale, it draws a connection back to the opening movement with another canon: this time as a grand culmination before a cadenza and coda.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.