Sunday, October 09, 2011

Who Accompanies Whom in Mozart Violin Sonatas?

Ever take a look at the title page on an urtext edition of Mozart violin sonatas? The title reads "Sonaten für Klavier und Violine". Yes, Mozart's early piano/violin sonatas started out as piano sonatas with optional violin obbligato. Throughout the course of his compositional career, he gradually gave the solo violin part more prominence and independence. Susan Tomes weighs in on the subject en route to a November 11 concert in Scotland's brand-new Perth Concert Hall:
Piano and violin, I hear you say? Isn’t it ‘violin and piano’? Well, not according to Mozart who called them ‘sonatas for piano and violin’. In his letters, he mentions playing the piano parts himself ‘with the accompaniment of a violin’. That was how they were perceived until the nineteenth century and the age of the celebrity violinist, when things flipped around. These works, and many others like them, started to be listed as ‘violin sonatas’, and the piano part was suddenly ‘the accompaniment’. Even today the violinist is often the one with their photo on the record cover, the one whose name is in bigger font in the programme, or the only one whose name is mentioned at the end of the radio broadcast. 
Why does this matter? It matters because the re-labelling tricks people into perceiving things falsely. They expect the violin part to be the leading voice, when in fact the meat of the musical narrative is in the piano part. If you approach these works expecting the violin part to be pre-eminent, you experience a kind of cognitive dissonance as you listen: often the violin is doing something quite modest, and you sense that the piano part is full of interest and information, but you don’t understand why such prominent material should be relegated to ‘the accompaniment’. The answer is that it isn’t an accompaniment. If you switch to hearing the music as piano with violin, everything falls into place. Of course you still need an excellent violinist, and perhaps even more importantly, an excellent musician, both of which I’m fortunate to have.

Here is pianist Alex Zhang accompanied by violinist Alicia Ciccone in the first movement of Mozart's Sonata for piano and violin K. 304:


  1. absolutely fascinating!

  2. This is also true for Beethoven's "Sonata for Piano and Horn," Op. 17. Modern editions list it as "Horn and Piano." It is fascinating, isn't it?

    I wanted to point this out to my horn student, who is learning the piece right now, but my edition lists it the "modern" way. I think he gets it that the piece is collaborative, though, and I am excited to get to play the piano part in our studio recital this fall. (Perhaps I should go practice now... lots of notes in this piece.)