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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Frances Wilson AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist talks to the Things Musicians Don’t Talk About, “an online platform and a couple of musicians who have had enough with the silence surrounding topics that affect all of us“.

Listen here:

Do take a look at the Things Musicians Don’t Talk About site

Looking forward, not back…..

2022 is a rather significant year for this site as it marks the 10th birthday of the Meet the Artist interview series. Originally inspired by the Proust Questionnaire in Vanity Fair magazine, Meet the Artist has grown from interviews with musician friends and colleagues to a highly respected and very popular “compendium of surprising, insightful and inspiring thoughts from a wide range of artists”, including pianists Angela Hewitt, Stephen Hough, Ivo Pogorelich, Benjamin Grosvenor and Alice Sara Ott, harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani, composers Nitin Sawhney, John Rutter, Cheryl Frances Hoad and Jennifer Higdon, singers Roderick Williams and Jennifer Johnston, and many more, both established, internationally-renowned musicians and composers as well as young and emerging artists. Prog rock legend Rick Wakeman even makes an appearance!

I have been astonished by the popularity of the series (so much so that in 2017, it relocated from this site it to its own dedicated website) and am grateful to everyone who has taken part. The interviews are remarkably insightful, offering advice to aspiring musicians and giving audiences and others a unique glimpse “beyond the notes”, as it were, into the working and creative life of musicians and composers.

People ask me how I find the motivation and inspiration to continue writing this blog, and it’s true that it takes up a lot of time and effort (for which I receive no payment beyond the occasional donation). As my interest in the piano waned this year, due to the soul-sapping, dis-motivating effect of the lockdown, I did wonder whether there was any point in continuing to write this blog, but it seems I can always find music- or piano-related things to write about. Articles by others, conversations with musicians friends and colleagues, online exchanges, and my listening habits all feed the creative muse, and so while the muse demands nourishment, and I remain interested in writing, this site will continue. I am also very appreciative of the community which has built up around this site, and which has, in some instances, led me to forge significant connections and friendships in real life.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who reads, comments upon, shares and contributes to this site.

Warm wishes for the festive season and the new year.

Frances Wilson, The Cross-Eyed Pianist


Shameless begging bit:

This site is free to access and ad-free, and takes many hours to research, write, and maintain. If you find joy and value in what I do, please consider making a donation to support the continuance of this site

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In this wide-ranging conversation Frances Wilson (AKA The Cross-Eyed Pianist) talks to pianist, recording artist and teacher Eleonor Bindman about the world of the amateur pianist, the pleasures and frustrations of being an amateur pianist, how teaching adult amateurs presents interesting unique challenges for teacher and pupil alike, and much, much more…..


A big thank you to every one who reads, comments upon and contributes to this site (which celebrated its 10th birthday in July).

Some further thoughts on this strange year and how music and musicians have coped on my sister site ArtMuseLondon

Most read post of 2020:

On Being A Pianist

Most visited page of 2020:

Courses for Pianists

Most popular guest post of 2020:

“He was not like other men” – Chopin as seen by his contemporaries (by Walter Witt)

Most read post on repertoire

Liszt’s Sonetto del Petrarca 104

Most read post on piano technique

Mysteries of the sustain pedal

Best wishes for 2021.

Frances

The Cross-Eyed Pianist

I really didn’t expect to be writing this post…

When I started this blog in the summer of 2010, I did so without any expectation that it would be anything other than a place where I could write about the music I was listening to on CD and in concerts, the piano music I was learning and my experiences as a piano teacher. I certainly didn’t expect anyone to read my musical ramblings! But read they did, and some readers left comments and so conversations and a sense of community developed across the internet.

Ten years ago, blogging was still a relatively new form of writing/journalism; today it is almost de rigueur to have a blog, and some have become very well known, often independent voices which provide a refreshing, sometimes non-mainstream, perspective. For many of us who blog, it is simply a way of sharing a passion – whether it is music, food, cycling or knitting – and a means to connect with other likeminded people.

My passion is classical music, and particularly the piano – the instrument, its literature and the exigencies of being perhaps the most solitary of musicians, a pianist. When I first started writing this blog, I had been playing the piano seriously for about four years, having returned to the instrument after an absence of some 20 years. Part of the motivation behind the blog was to share my experiences as an “adult returner”, the pleasures and frustrations, what it felt like to take lessons again as an adult, performing (in both exam and public settings), connecting with other pianists, attending piano courses, and more. Often after a piano lesson, I would rush home to write down what had happened, giving me an important opportunity to revisit the nuts and bolts of the lesson, and distill and share the knowledge with others. I also charted my progress through three performance diplomas via this site, an action which a concert pianist friend of mine described as “very brave”, whereas I just saw it as a way of sharing my learning outcomes in the hope that others might find my experiences helpful, and maybe even inspiring.

As the blog has evolved – and I have always felt that a blog needs to offer plenty of variety and regularly updated content – I have found myself drawn further into the world of British classical music (again, a place I never expected to be!), and in the last five years in particular, with my reputation more established, I realised that this was where I’d always wanted to be. I feel comfortable in the presence of other musicians, whether professional, student or amateur, music professionals, and fellow bloggers, reviewers and journalists in a way I never felt in my previous career, and I welcome and appreciate the opportunities the blog has given me to attend concerts, CD launches, music courses and many other events.

Launching the Meet the Artist interview series in 2012 has given an extraordinary insight into the creative lives of musicians and composers, offering a glimpse beyond the concert platform and the notes on the score into the day-to-day lives of these remarkable people, and debunking some of the traditional preconceptions surrounding classical music and musicians. The interviews are fascinating, honest (sometimes painfully so), entertaining and inspiring.

But for me the most gratifying aspect of blogging is the connections I have made and the wonderful interactions and conversations that regularly take place via this site and also on social media (where I probably spend far too much time!). I’ve made friends through this blog, in both the virtual and real worlds, and I really value these connections which have seemed even more significant during these long months of lockdown.

Just as a concert is not a concert without an audience, this blog would be nothing without its readers, of whom there are now some 25,000 per month (a figure which continually amazes me). So I must first thank everyone who reads, shares and comments on the articles contained here.

A huge debt of gratitude must also go to musicians and composers, not only those who have taken part in the Meet the Artist series, but also those whose music I have heard in concert and on disc, who engage in this remarkable activity in a profession which is tough, competitive and precarious (and never more so than now).

I would also like to thank all those people who contribute guest articles to the site. Your contributions keep the site fresh and give readers an opportunity to hear different voices and opinions.

Whether I will still be writing this blog in another 10 years’, or even 5 years’ time, remains to be seen, but while it continues to interest me to do so, and while there is the inspiration and motivation, I will keep writing.

 

Frances Wilson, The Cross-Eyed Pianist