The last of Mozart’s piano sonatas, K. 570 and 576, were written in 1789, two years before his death at the age of 35. Haydn’s piano sonatas 61 and 62 were composed in 1794, in London, at the height of Haydn’s celebrity and entrepreneurial independence. Haydn was 62, and would live another fifteen years. Beethoven’s first piano sonata appeared in 1795 and his 23rd, the Appassionata, in 1805, the year of Haydn’s death. Beethoven’s last piano sonata, the 32nd in C minor, was composed in 1822, five years before his death at the age of 56. Schubert’s final group of three great sonatas was composed in 1828, the last year of his life, and the year after Beethoven’s death. He was 31.
The piano sonata was not a form that Mozart pursued with any recurrent interest. His last two sonatas, K. 570 and K. 576, were composed after an eleven years’ silence in the form. This is also the year of the masterful clarinet quintet in A, K. 581, one of Mozart’s most nearly perfect compositions, completed in September and premiered in December. Between the two dates his daughter, Anna, is born and dies on the same day in November. Moreover, his wife Constanze has been ill a part of the year, and monetary needs outstrip his income.
The 17th piano sonata, K. 570, in B flat major, has three movements. The movements are allegro, adagio, and allegretto, with the slow movement taking up half the length of the piece. The Swiss musicologist and biographer Eric Blom, in his book Mozart (1935) believed that K. 570, although not much of account, presages what Mozart, had he lived longer, might have made of the form; and, in this regard, it warrants study and attention, even though it may not achieve endearment.
The English musicologist and musical scholar Arthur Hutchings, in his essay, in the collection The Mozart Companion (1956), argues that K. 570 “may serve as a test for connoisseurs … [for] it has the perfect workmanship of those fine and happy movements in quartets and quintets which are less memorable than the pathetic ones because we tend to be more impressed by art that is emotionally disturbing than by art that is simply sunny or athletic …. It is therefore one of the sonatas concerning which one often hears a pianist speak with enthusiasm after ‘rediscovering’ it.”
The 18th piano sonata, K. 576, in D, has three movements of approximately equal length: also allegro, adagio, allegretto. K. 576, writes Blom, evidences the “easy application of polyphony that distinguishes much of Mozart’s late music without ever imparting to it the least touch of pedantry…” The finale of the symphony in C, K. 551, written the preceding August of 1788, easily validates this observation.
The late American pianist, writer, and French scholar, Charles Rosen, in his Music and Sentiment, observes that, like in opening movement of the symphony in C, K. 551, Mozart in K. 576 employs “exactly the same device … [of] beginning with a theme with two opposing motifs … [and when the theme is repeated,] an obbligato is added in the soprano that unites the two motifs and removes the opposition of sentiment. Both the brilliance and the conventionality are essential to the conception, and the increased intensity that they impose both contributes to the articulation of the form and is responsible for the clarity.”
British composer, pianist, and author John McCabe, who died last year, recorded all the Haydn piano sonatas between 1975 and 1977, and wrote of them that, unlike Mozart’s, where the brilliance of vocal and operatic elements abound, the sonatas are purely instrumental in nature and are without virtuosity. What Haydn demands, apart from technical competence, are musical intelligence and expressive capability.
Sonata 61, in D, in McCabe’s description is in two movements, approximately equal in length, of which the first in an andante in rondo-sonata form and which relies on flourishes and on tempestuous triplets, and the second a presto rondo, which exploits headily displaced accents, chromaticism, and irregularities of phrasing.
Sonata 62, in E flat, in McCabe’s description, is in three movements, the opening movement approximately one-half again as long as each of the succeeding two movements. It is generally regarded as Haydn’s finest piano sonata. The opening allegro is characterized by exceptional harmonic invention and scope; the adagio by especially fine melodic structure; the concluding presto by vivacity of expressive technique—accents, pauses, pitch, dynamics—that plays upon the singularity of notes or chords and their position, melodic or in the accompaniment, in the music.
Charles Rosen, who is invariably lucid and most refreshingly interesting, in his expanded edition of The Classical Style (1971, 1997) provides a fascinating discussion of the correlation and difference between the first movements of this sonata and Beethoven’s Hammerklavier sonata, Op. 106. Rosen also, in his Music and Sentiment, gives an overview of the contrast, specifically as exemplified in the E flat major sonata, of the compositional technique applied to the emotional significance to any theme, and how this affects the theme’s sonority, dynamics, and extension.
The late English critic, musicologist, and composer Wilfred Mellers, in his The Sonata Principle (1957), considers the E flat sonata “a worthy pianistic counterpart of the London symphonies and the opus 76 and 77 quartets.” He characterizes Haydn’s sonata movements as concerned with “growth and change—with Becoming,” whereas “Bach and Handel—in their different ways—are concerned with states of Being.” Mellers concludes his chapter on Haydn in this manner:
“Often”, [Haydn] once said, “when I was wrestling with obstacles of every kind, when my physical and mental strength alike were running low and it was hard for me to persevere on the path on which I had set my feet, a secret feeling within me whispered: ‘There are so few happy and contented people here below, sorrow and anxiety follow them everywhere; perhaps your work may one day become a spring from which the careworn may draw a few moments’ rest and refreshment.’ And that was a powerful motive for pressing onwards.” His prophecy has been fulfilled; and we find his music increasingly valuable to-day, when belief in life, and in man’s potentialities, is subject to so much discouragement.
An article on the final piano sonatas by Schubert is to be found here.