Mozart’s Rondo in A minor, K.V. 511

Beth Levin

[October 2003.]

A melancholy dance of childlike hearts, delicate steps that shimmer even as they brood — to ask an eternal question, then listen as Mozart answers in cascades of pearls.

The ear is doubly drawn to the poignant opening melody in A minor by the simplicity of the bass line, a naïve chordal accompaniment. The 6/8 rhythm feels like a dance but is not quite. One trait of the melody, a crescendo, abruptly returns to piano. The sound climbs to a level it maintains until the final moment when subito, or sudden piano, returns. Beginning at the first note, trills and turns embellish the rondo — emeralds and rubies against the melody’s bare flesh.

Stark forte and piano continue from measures 10 through 12: no slow diminution of sound but rather a precipitous drop. Here the performer struggles with an impulse to finesse so abrupt a change of dynamic in order to honor the music’s harsh dictates.

If we understand rondo form as ABACA, Mozart stays with the plan. But nothing else is predictable. By measure 30, the composer has presented his theme once and again, exquisitely ornamented. The oomp-pah-pah of the left hand clears the path for the glistening melody. The precise articulation — two-note slurs, staccato triplets falling in scalar motion and portamento eighth notes at measure 15 — demand exactitude. This is no mere blueprint, but a note-by-note instruction of creative intent.

Further, the performer must execute the score’s demands without succumbing to preciousness. Clarity is at the heart of the matter, yet one must not lose sight of the emotion’s depths, the melodic line’s lengthy path, and the harmony’s riches, all in lucid coexistence with delicacy.

At measure 31, Mozart departs for F major, not the relative major key of A minor, but of its subdominant, D minor. By developing the opening material (an upbeat landing on an expressive turn around the same note) he creates an altogether new character. Mozart traverses the musical language the way a great writer tells a story, knowing just when to introduce a new element, when to make us laugh or cry by means of one phrase over another.

At measure 37, a middle voice of three falls from a held C suggesting a sigh. A two-note slur (“Ah me …”) counters in the bass, creating a tug at the heart. This motif weaves itself into the development at every turn and is repeated in stretto, the voices almost toppling one over the other, until at measure 81, Mozart returns us to the original melody, the sad and elegant A-minor theme.

Measure 88’s A major feels like sleight-of-hand, a sudden “Aha!” Again, the combination of precise articulation, dots followed by slurs, a simple bass line, and the silence of rests produces a world of crystal and porcelain yet with a dark underpinning. Mozart, the composer of opera, understands how to make drama from simple elements. For the pianist, finding the perfect sound to match the music’s character is a matter of urgent priority. One needs slippers of silver and gold to tread the path of this magician’s rondo. I don’t dare glance at my heavy oxfords.

Visually, the score presents a sea of scales and arpeggios, trills and turns. If we examine the opening theme from which all ensuing material stems, we find a scale ascending to an eighth-rest, creating the illusion of something suspended, a held breath. The descent occurs in gentle two-note slurs of sixteenth notes, as pure as water bubbling from a spring. Here Mozart takes the most basic elements of harmony, melody, dance form and the keyboard and transforms them into timeless expression.

Another marvel appears after an extended section of arpeggios, crescendi and chromatic movement in the bass, all building in nonstop sixteenth notes to a transitional moment at measure 127. A lilting triplet pattern emerges, accidentals coloring each group of three, a lessening of sound, more diminuendo, and then, in a dove’s breath, we return to the original theme.

The final statement is more embellished than ever. Mozart, the master of invention and improvisation, takes the basic material and grants it even fuller, more intricate variation. The effects only heighten the underlying mood. Nowhere do we discover a frivolous or out-of-place note.

The denouement is an inevitable falling-away, the ebbing of a tide. They say he worked out complete forms in his head and wrote them down whole with little need for polishing. The word “perfection” comes to mind: the enactment of a drama within a flawless form.

[As before, Beth’s voyage inside a work leaves one anxious to try some CDs. ArkivMusic (, a superb mail-order resource, shows 46 entries. Schnabel’s 6-4-46 studio version is variously coupled, in all-Mozart recitals or “the 1946-47 HMV solo recordings.” On midpriced RCA, Rubinstein’s 1959 rendition joins the Mozart piano quartets. Among the HIP discs, Colin Tilney’s fortepiano sparkles. I’d commend Christian Zacharias’ MDG account for its thoughtful program, splendid sound and potent playing — neither Romantic nor tinkly. W.M.]

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