Major Mozart works in Minor Keys

For a prodigiously  prolific composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote only a few minor-key works and even fewer that do not lead to a final resolution in the major but end in the tonic minor. Music lovers and musicologists have been wondering why, and trying to rationalize in vain.

Between the K 65 Missa Brevis  in D-minor(1769)  and the unfinished K 626 Requiem in the same key and finished shortly before his death,   Mozart’s most popular major compositions in minor keys included only 2 symphonies out of 41 or more,  2 Piano Concertos (out of  27), 1 String Quartet, 1 Piano Quintet, a Piano Sonata, plus some obscure transcriptions, incomplete fragments and sacred works. It is regrettable, because even some of his lesser known minor key works stand out among the best in the genre.

The G-minor Symphonies

Any average music lover would find the familiar Symphony no. 40 in G-minor to be tragic, sad, nostalgic or whatever other emotions the music triggers, but Mozart most likely was indifferent to extra-musical feelings. He was the true pre-romantic ‘classical’ artist always maintaining balance and equanimity of spirit in his creation.  Just as he did not seek to express religious feelings overtly like many other classical or baroque masters, yet some of his masses and church works are deeply moving. Mozart’s effortless creative genius was often awe-inspiring to others; he was said to be able to produce the most sublime music while in the midst of the most crude or vulgar surroundings.

Mozart’s only other minor key symphony, no. 25, is also in G-minor like no.40, but is nowhere as well known or popular. It can be imagined as an  ‘angry young man’  kind of work,  is almost ‘Beethovenian’ in spirit, and sounds so strikingly different from his other works of that time, its  relative obscurity and neglect can hardly be justified.

Mozart : The minor key Piano Concertos

Some experts argue that practical and technical reasons of limitations in piano design rather than aesthetic considerations dictated key preferences  in Mozart’s music as well as that of his contemporaries. It was not just major vs minor key, but among different  keys in the same mode, for example in the K 310 Piano Sonata the very  top note and the penultimate bottom one had to be used, and no other minor key but C is admissible. Similar shortcomings of other instrumental designs as well, particularly wind and low strings, had comparable effects. Such prosaic but practical reasons, rather than emotional considerations, are given as the  reason  why  Mozart wrote so few minor key works.

The preceding reasoning is however specious. Haydn was 24 years older than Mozart, with similar  musical environs, but the limitations of instrument design, if anything worse for his time, did not bother him. Out of Haydn’s  104 plus symphonies about 11 are in minor keys. In many respects  In fact Haydn was much more adventurous than his younger friend, and a trendsetter almost like his pupil Beethoven. It’s tempting, even quite fashionable, to dismiss his  innovations and contributions, and   to belittle him in comparison with Mozart. This is  historically wrong.

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Of all Mozart’s compositions regardless of mode, genre or key the  Piano Concerto no. 20 in D-minor is arguably the most revolutionary and strikingly ‘modern’. It sounds unusually personal, even ‘romantic’ for Mozart. It foreshadows Brahms’ first Piano Concerto in the same key with the same  intensity. Musicologists and critics have noted that it was part of Brahms’ repertoire and must have influenced his writing, but no explicit acknowledgement from Brahms .
The Piano Concerto no. 24 in C-minor (K-491) was a particular favorite of Beethoven who considered it as one of Mozart’s greatest works;  his own Piano Concerto no.3 in the same key seems to have been modeled after this Mozart masterpiece. Once, while  listening to it  during  a concert performance, Beethoven is reported to have turned to his pianist friend J B Cramer and lamented   ‘Cramer, Cramer, we shall never be able to do anything like that!’

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Mozart in Movies

Although both Haydn and Mozart were Freemasons,  Haydn hardly contributed much musically. Mozart on the other hand was deeply involved in the brotherhood and wrote some impressive masonic music some expressly so. Quite a few of these are in minorkeys, and some have been transcribed or re-scored for different purposes.

The  haunting Adagio and Fugue  in C-minor, K546, was adopted as a Masonic music by his Lodge, but Mozart’s original rationale for the music was purely academic. Also, posterity often viewed this music as deeply personal and  tragic, rather than with Masonic or overtly spiritual connotations. For example,  this was the featured music in  Le Bonheur , Agnes Varda’s French art house movie from the sixties, with the very interesting credit “Music : W. A. Mozart” ! It is  noteworthy that  the daring soundtrack also  included  some of Mozart’s other minor-key works, in particular the C-minor Serenade  for winds (K 388) in both the original as well as the version transcribed  for string quintet (K 406).

So sublimely unlike the  potboilers like Elvira Madigan, this must be a strikingly original homage to the universality of one of the greatest.