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Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries


CHAPTER 11 The Composer’s Voice
Richard Taruskin
The Tip Of The Iceberg

ex. 11-6 W. A. Mozart, Concerto no. 17 in G major, K. 453, III, mm. 218–29

The Tip Of The IcebergThe Tip Of The Iceberg

ex. 11-7a W. A. Mozart, Fantasia in D minor, K. 397, mm. 1–22

Mozart’s concertos, for all their superb originality, show him most clearly in a line of succession from the Bach sons—and, in particular, show him as the heir to C. P. E. Bach’s proto-Romantic empfindsamer Stil. Mozart’s keyboard fantasias are even better evidence of this important line of descent. There are only four of them, representing the tip of a huge iceberg of improvised music-making for which they are, along with the concerto cadenzas, our sole precious written remains. The one in D minor, K. 397, composed early in Mozart’s Vienna period, might almost have been conceived in emulation of C. P. E. Bach’s C-minor fantasia (Ex. 8-4). Like it, the work begins with inchoate exploratory strummings (Ex. 11-7a) reminiscent of the old lute “ricercars”, alternatively known, even in the sixteenth century, as “fantasias”—the remote but nevertheless direct ancestors of Mozart’s keyboard improvisations.

Where the marking “Adagio” replaces the opening Andante, the music settles down into a recognizable thematic shape: four bars that break down two by two with complementary harmonies. A contrasting four bars lengthens the emergent theme to a full eight-bar period, ending on a half cadence. The expectation thus raised, of course, is that a parallel eight-bar period will follow, bringing things home with a full cadence on the tonic. Instead, this being a fantasia (rather than, say, a sonata), three chromatic bars ensue that take the harmony from the dominant to its dominant—i.e., farther away from closure: a deliberately puzzling effect. And puzzlement is compounded when that secondary dominant is resolved, through some suddenly agitated passagework, to the minor V, only to break off on a diminished harmony, followed by a rest-cum-fermata, the very emblem of suspense.

In other words, Mozart is doing everything he can to avoid the “logic” of functional harmony (everything, that is, short of denying the functions altogether and producing an uninteresting chaos) the more convincingly to suggest a spontaneous train of musical thought, triggered on the spur of the moment by the player’s actual feelings in all their changeability.

From there on, interruption is the order of the day, with each thematic return—the main theme in A minor and then in D minor, the “agitated passagework” in G minor, producing an unusual FOP—halted in mid-career by some sort of rhythmically unmeasured “outside event,” be it a presto flourish or a diminished-seventh arpeggio to a fermata. The two presto passages, interestingly, have opposite structural (or “syntactic”) functions. The second of them, which precedes a “recapitulatory” idea (the main theme in the original key), is an Eingang or “lead-in,” similar to what one finds in the concertos, if more intense. The first one, however, which breaks off on a diminished-seventh arpeggio to a time-out, could be called an Abgang. It “leads away” from the thematic material to points unknown (Ex. 11-7b).

The Tip Of The Iceberg

ex. 11-7b W. A. Mozart, Fantasia in D minor, K. 397, m. 34

And then, just when interruption is becoming “normal” for this piece, and therefore the expected thing, Mozart switches modes, ups the tempo to allegretto, and throws in a fully shaped and rounded theme of a sort that could easily serve for variation or rondo treatment. In the present context, where nothing can be taken for granted, the very regularity of the theme is a source of suspense (will it last? will the cadence come?). The continuation again seems regularity itself, until Mozart breaks it off on a diminished-seventh chord and follows through with a veritable spoof of a cadenza, replete with an inordinately prolonged cadential trill that never gets to make the cadence, followed by two attempts (the second of them successful) to bring the allegretto melody, and with it the entire piece, to a close.

The D-minor Fantasia, while typical of the genre, is mild. It was probably meant as practice material for one of Mozart’s aristocratic pupils. For an idea of what a real Mozartean improvisation might have been like, we must turn to another piece, and a justly famous one: the C-minor Fantasia, K. 475. According to Mozart’s own handwritten catalogue of his works, it was completed in Vienna on 20 May 1785 and was published later that year (as “opus 11”) together with a piano sonata in the same key (K. 457), completed the year before.

The fantasia is designated as being in C minor, and it does begin on C, but to find an actual cadence in the titular key one must go to m. 173, only eight bars before the end of the piece, for only there is the tonality fully confirmed. Ex. 11-8 shows part of the opening section of the fantasia, and the parallel passage that closes the work. The opening section is harmonically one of the most uncanny compositions of its time—and it is in this, particularly, that it may be presumed to transmit the true style of a Mozartean improvisation, if earwitnesses are to be believed.

The Tip Of The IcebergThe Tip Of The Iceberg

ex. 11-8a W. A. Mozart, Fantasia in C minor, K. 475, mm. 1–22

The opening octave C in Ex. 11-8a is followed by an E♭ that seems to promise a (typical) tonic arpeggio; but the very next note (F♯), coming as it does in a rhythmically strong position, is profoundly disconfirming and destabilizing. (The off-beat G that follows it can only be heard now as a passing tone, not as the completion of the promised tonic arpeggio.) When compounded with the submediant A♭ at the peak of the phrase, the strong F♯ produces a disturbing diminished third—or rather, an inverted augmented sixth, an interval that ineluctably calls for a resolution to the dominant. The call is duly met in m. 2, the dominant thus being firmly established dozens of measures before the tonic.

Now of course it may be argued that to establish the dominant is to establish the tonic as well, since both terms describe not things in themselves but participants in a reciprocal relationship. And that is true—but only momentarily. The fleeting reference to the dominant is disconfirmed and destabilized in the very next measure, by the downbeat B♭, which is voiced exactly like the downbeat C and B-natural in the preceding measures, and seems all at once to be continuing a chromatic descent that they had (as if) surreptitiously begun.

Once we have noted the descending chromatic bass, we may be reminded (especially if we are eighteenth-century listeners by birth or education) of the old passus duriusculus, the “hard way down” from tonic to dominant, so familiar from the vocal and keyboard compositions of the seventeenth century and their myriad eighteenth-century progeny. Having recognized it, we are led to expect the dominant once more—to expect it, indeed, in the bass and in root position. And of course (this being a fantasia) we are in for a shocking surprise; for the bass gets stalled in the process of its descent, never making G (the dominant) at all, but coming prematurely to a most uneasy rest on A♭. From there it proceeds up by half steps, thus canceling the passus duriusculus and with it, all expectation of a dominant destination.

Will it perhaps, then, lead back to the tonic, establishing it at last? Not a chance. Again the bass stalls one degree short of the goal, on B-natural, and turns downward once more, this time with a greatly lessened sense of an implied goal, if indeed any is left at all. Since one of the notes the bass will now pass through is the G so spectacularly avoided the first time around, Mozart goes to amazing lengths not only to frustrate but actually to cancel the note’s resolution tendency, finally dissolving the listener’s tonal orientation once and (it could seem) for all. A new way of harmonizing the chromatic bass descent is introduced, now based on an older—indeed, “pre-tonal”—concept of harmony: the suspension chain, whereby sevenths resolve not as dominants, along the circle of fifths, but purely “intervallically,” to sixths (see Ex. 11-8b).

The Tip Of The Iceberg

ex. 11-8b W. A. Mozart, Fantasia in C minor, K. 475, mm. 10–6 in harmonic reduction

By the time the G is reached, there has been a precedent for the 7–6 suspension resolution, and so the dominant seventh on G resolves not to the root-position triad on C that we have been waiting for, but resolves instead, hair-raisingly (if only apparently), to an inverted chord of E♭ minor. And now the best, most sophisticated feint of all: that chord, with G♭ in the bass, proceeds enharmonically to the dominant of B major. There has been a passus duriusculus after all, but it has gone from B down to F♯, not C to G. Mozart has misled our ears into accepting the wrong dominant. You might even say that he has transposed our hearing down a half step.

By now it may be needless to add that this ersatz dominant will no more likely achieve a normal resolution than any of the others. In mm. 16–17 resolution comes only on the weak beats, which makes the tonic so easy to trump by the deceptive cadence in m. 18. That deceptive cadence is to G major, of course, which is the original (long-expected) dominant. It comes in “tonicized” form, however, alternating with its own dominant, and devoid of any tendency to move on to C. On the contrary, in m. 21 the chord picks up an augmented sixth (E♯) that forces it back whence it sprang, to the dominant of B, thus turning the whole passage into a tease.

The tease continues past the end of Ex. 11-8a. The F♯ major triad alternates with the awaited B for awhile, but its persisting rhythmic advantage continues to hold off any real sense of closure. Then, almost sadistically, Mozart reiterates the ostensible dominant in the soprano no fewer than six times before failing yet again to resolve it. This particular failure is especially noteworthy: a rare form of deceptive cadence in which the dominant root is held but re-identified as a third, producing an unusual “flat mediant” progression with respect to the anticipated tonic.

This unexpected and remote key, D major, is—perversely!—then given the full functional treatment so conspicuously withheld from the tonic. It is made the bearer of a full-fledged theme (the first in the piece), replete with parallel-period structure and contrasting consequent. It almost comes to a full stop, but in m. 42 its subdominant is suddenly replaced by a replay of the progression that gave access to the key of D in the first place. A dominant on B picks up the circle of fifths left hanging in m. 25, a circle that in the ensuing allegro will go through six more progressions in rapid succession, until the key of F major is reached, and another seemingly random pause is made amid the harmonic flux to accommodate a new theme, unexpected and unrelated to what has gone before.

The Tip Of The IcebergThe Tip Of The Iceberg

ex. 11-8c W. A. Mozart, Fantasia in C minor, K. 475, mm. 167–182

To describe these events, as always, takes much longer than it does to experience them. Suffice it then to announce that there will be another pause along the way for a new theme in B♭ major (Andantino) and a stormy quasi-development beginning in G minor that will eventually refocus on the original dominant to make a retransition to the opening material at m. 167, as shown in Ex. 11-8c. This is in fact the first thematic reprise in the composition, and it cleverly redirects the opening sequential ideas so as to lead back to, and finally confirm, the tonic. An especially effective touch, both witty and poignant, is the abandonment of melody altogether in m. 173, leaving only a bare accompaniment figure to make the long-awaited cadential connection between dominant and tonic in a manner suggesting exhaustion.

To sum up this remarkable composition-in-the-form-of-an-improvisation, or improvisation-in-the-form-of-a-composition: its technique, basically, is that of withholding precisely what a sonata or symphonic exposition establishes, proceeding from key to key and theme to theme not by any predefined process of “logic,” but in a “locally associative” process that at every turn (or, at any rate, until the retransition and recapitulation signal the approaching end) defies prediction. In place of a reassuring sense of order, the composer establishes a thrilling sense of danger—of imminent disintegration or collapse, to be averted only by an unending supply of delightfully surprising ideas such as only a Mozartean imagination can sustain. That sense of risks successfully negotiated is the same awareness that makes a virtuoso performance thrilling. In the fantasia, as in the improvisations it apes, composing and performing were one.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 The Composer’s Voice." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2020. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-11007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 11 The Composer’s Voice. In Oxford University Press, Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries. New York, USA. Retrieved 11 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-11007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 The Composer’s Voice." In Music In The Seventeenth And Eighteenth Centuries, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 11 Aug. 2020, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume2/actrade-9780195384826-div1-11007.xml