Repertoire in Focus – Mozart Rondo in A minor, K 511

I first heard this work live over 10 years ago at a concert given by the American pianist and noted Mozart specialist Robert Levin, with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. Played on a fortepiano, whose relatively modest voice spoke so elegantly in the Queen Elizabeth Hall, from the opening measures I was completely hooked. The next day, I purchased the music and started to learn it. It took at last three attempts to learn it “properly” – it’s one of those pieces which benefits from being put aside for a few months and then revisited, not once, but time and again to reveal its details and many layers of meaning and emotion. It’s a piece that keeps surprising both listener and performer.

Composed in the spring of 1787, after Mozart returned from Prague, it has been suggested that its composition was in response to the news that one of the composer’s closest friends, Count August von Hatzfeld, had died, and may therefore be a rare example of a personal event in Mozart’s life prompting a composition. The piece is introspective and private, freighted with melancholy and sadness, with a thoughtful, measured elegance throughout. It is touching and beautiful, simple and perfect; but its deceptive transparency offers no place to hide. It requires great clarity and preciseness in order to express its overriding melancholy, and its poignant charm.

The Rondo theme is a pensive melody which looks forward to Chopin – and has even been mistaken for Chopin by a naive listener when I’ve played it. A rising theme, yet it hardly seems to move forward, and with each weary semitone step, there is a dying fall, almost sigh or a painful intake of breath, emphasised by the quaver rests. The dissonance, created by the first ornament (which reappears regularly throughout the piece) further enhances the sense of tragedy.

Each reappearance of the theme is treated slightly differently, further emphasising its pathos and poignancy. The C major phrase is somewhat less painful, but, tinged with poignancy, it is hardly hopeful.

The first subsidiary theme (‘B’), beginning at bar 31, harks back to J S Bach in its use of counterpoint and chromaticism, while the texture is suggestive of string quartets with its different voices. As the new theme pours forth, the mood is now more hopeful and consoling, with a lovely LH cello line which is very different to the haunted bass of the opening melody. There’s an almost operatic grandeur through these measures, immediately dispelled when the music lurches unexpectedly into D-flat major at bar 46. The music then creeps chromatically, recalling the opening theme, and, after an episode marked by plaintive descending and ascending chromatic figures, the earlier ‘B’ material returns, building to a climax in bar 59, marked by the octave figures in the LH. A greater, more full-toned climax at bar 63 is carried through to bar 69 with a grand, energetic arpeggiated figure in the RH. From bars 69-75, the long chromatic notes hark back, once again, to the chromaticism at the beginning of the piece, while from bars 74-80, the music seems hang in suspense in the dominant, in anticipation of the rondo theme, which returns at bar 81.

The second statement of the theme is stripped of its C major sentence, and is even more haunting, with its sobbing, breathless syncopations in bars 86-87, a kind of written rubato, which needs no additional increase or decrease in tempo in the bass line (prefiguring Chopin). The quaver rest in bar 88 can be lengthened in readiness for the A major section (“C”).

Now, we are in more familiar, comfortable territory, for here is Mozart at his most charming and elegant, before a brief shift into B minor, with dissonance created by the ornaments. A more hopeful D major passage (I read somewhere once that Mozart declared D major “the happiest key”) begins at bar 101, reprising some of the material from the A major interlude. At bar 116, the chromaticism in the bass again recalls the opening motif, leading into further chromatic surges and grinding diminished seventh harmonies. The thematic material of the opening is never really forgotten, thus further reminding us of the prevailing sense of sorrow.

At bar 129 the rondo theme returns in its original form, but with more elaborate ornamentation this time, tortured rather than decorative. There’s a real sense of desolation at bar 155, while the repeated A’s and chromaticism in bars 155-157, evoke almost a wailing, grief-laden lamentation.

The Coda, beginning at bar 163, heartbreakingly recapitulates all the elements that have gone before and all the motifs return in a grim, Bachian setting. It is highly emotional, mixing tragedy and frustration, with a final, whispered statement of the opening theme in the closing measures.

More a Fantasia than a strict Rondo in the organisation of its thematic material, the K511 offers many technical challenges, and, as stated earlier, requires absolute clarity in its delivery. Overly fussy playing will only obscure the deeply emotional nature of this work – and this, to me, is the real heart of it. Conveying that sense of melancholy, sadness and grief is the hardest part, while always maintaining honesty and fidelity to the score. For those of us whose early pianistic encounters were with the early works of Mozart, the pieces with the lowest ‘K’ numbers, all smiling childlike innocence and playfulness, the Rondo K511 represents a work of great maturity and profound expression.

The piece contains all the subtleties of Mozart’s music in microcosm: its chiaroscuro, its many moods, some fleeting, passing in the space of a single bar, its storms and its sunshine. Leonard Bernstein said “Mozart combines serenity, melancholy, and tragic intensity into one great lyric improvisation“, a quotation which perfectly sums up the enduring fascination and appeal of the K511.


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