Mozart is probably the most celebrated composer from the Classical period of music. His output contained over six hundred compositions, many of which were for the piano, an instrument he played extremely well.
Some of these were written as chamber or solo pieces, others within an orchestral setting. In this article, I will tease out some of the most well-known piano works with a brief look at their characteristics and context.
Famous Piano Pieces By Mozart
- Rondo a La Turka (from the Sonata for Piano in A Major; K. 331)
This extremely famous Mozart composition is the final movement from a mid-period Piano Sonata in A major. It is the eleventh Sonata that Mozart wrote for the instrument and typically consists of three movements in a fast-slow-fast pattern. Unlike many nick-names, Mozart is supposed to have actually chosen this one himself for the final movement, likening the sound to that of a Turkish Marching band.
The piece has a compelling opening theme that seems to find Mozart enjoying a lighter moment. The Rondo form allows for Mozart to show his limitless powers of invention as after each thematic restatement he invents another new melody. The Coda section is the final part of the piece but it loses none of its spirit and energy closing the sonata in a rousing and delightful manner.
2. Fantasia in D minor K.397
Thought to have been composed by Mozart in 1782, this short piano work has proved itself to be amongst the composer’s most popular. It is as the name suggests a fantasy piece meaning that it’s musical form is full of twists and turns that would not usually be expected in a Classical piece. The Fantasia is composed in one of Mozart’s darker keys and the opening arpeggios reflect an uncertainty, leading into an Adagio that feels like an operatic aria. This is in turn interrupted by a presto section in which Mozart’s imagination seems to take flight briefly before returning to the original tempo.
Many thematic elements of that can give the impression that the piece is somewhat sketchy, are carefully interlinked and related. This only becomes apparent when you know the piece more intimately. Sadly, the final bars of the Fantasia was not completed by Mozart, the works were left unfinished at the time of his death. Perhaps Mozart had other movements in mind or a completely different conclusion; we shall never know.
3. 12 Variations on “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman”; K.265
The title of this piece may not be familiar to you until you hear the opening bars and recognise the immortal children’s song “Twinkle, twinkle, little star.” This is where the confusion perhaps starts when it is claimed that Mozart, in fact, wrote that melody. In this relatively early piece of Mozart, we find the composer in a jolly mood demonstrating not only his compositional skill but clearly his pianistic gifts. The original melody is never entirely lost as both left and right hand take it in turns to vary the theme. Only by variation eight do we encounter a darker moment as Mozart turns towards the minor.
The clouds soon part and Mozart leads us back to the original tune in cheeky canon. As we reach the eleventh variation Mozart marks the tempo as Adagio, allowing a brief thoughtful moment before entering the light and quicker final variation. In this last variation, Mozart pulls out all the musical stops just when you might suspect he has run out of ideas, bringing the piece to a rousing conclusion.
4. Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major K. 467
It would not be unreasonable to perhaps claim that this Concerto has become famous for reasons other than it’s innovation and brilliance. The arguably overly sentimental use of the central movement in the film “Elvira Madigan” could lead the listener to simply assume it was a pretty but unremarkable work. This could not be further from the truth. From the opening passage for the solo piano, we are acutely aware of Mozart’s skill as a composer. This initial entry by the piano is a short cadenza that leads into an embellishment of the first theme.
Mozart fully exploits the dialogue and development of musical material between soloist and orchestra, with some wonderfully expressive coring for the wind section. The Andante (2nd movement), is littered with carefully placed dissonance that adds bitterness to the whole movement. It is full of magic and mystery, far from the sentimentality it is associated with. In the Finale, Mozart does not disappoint either. The sense of vitality in the fast moving solo passages underlined with a touch of mischief. Chromaticism is used to great dramatic effect but eventually, the Concerto winds its way back to some triumphant scales in the tonic and a brilliant conclusion.
5. Piano Sonata No. 15, in C K.545
This Sonata is probably the most famous of all Mozart’s Sonata for the piano. It is often, and wrongly, associated with being appropriate for beginner pianists. This is to overlook the remarkable structural form of this work that really does not conform to the ideals of the Classical Sonata. Consider the fact that the recapitulation does not return in the tonic key but in the sub-dominant of F major. It is also worth noting that Mozart had also just completed his 39th Symphony at the same time; a remarkable work in its own right.
The apparent simplicity of this Sonata is deceiving and serves as a reminder that the surface of many of Mozart’s works may glitter with memorable melodies but a little further in are constructed in a rigorous and thoroughly novel way. The Sonata is in three movements marked Allegro; Andante and Rondo: Allegretto. The Andante is in G major and finds Mozart at his melodic best. With the time signature of three/four, there is a quiet echo of a slow Minuet that requires complete control and balance between the hands. The Finale takes us into a rondo, which was perhaps Mozart’s favourite musical form as it offered him the almost endless opportunity for new musical material. It is a really memorable and playable rondo that is sprightly but always with a subtle sense of decorum.
The pieces here represent a tiny fraction of the piano music that Mozart composed during his brief lifetime. Each work seems to turn a new corner and offers any aspiring pianist a wonderful challenge.