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About this Piece

In addition to everything else – composer of astonishing invention and fluency, virtuoso pianist, all-round boy wonder – Mozart was an accomplished violinist and violist. He could hardly have avoided it, as his father Leopold was a master violinist and the author of the leading violin manual of the day.

So it is hardly surprising that Mozart composed a number of sonatas for violin and piano – or rather, for piano with violin. In the duo sonatas that Mozart composed throughout his career, there is a constant development of equality in the partnership, which initially placed the burden entirely on the keyboard and left the string part almost optional.

In the summer of 1777, Mozart’s simmering feud with his Salzburg employer, the Archbishop Colloredo, came to full boil. The composer asked Colloredo to be released from his job as concertmaster, and the archbishop responded by dismissing both Wolfgang and his father Leopold, the deputy Kapellmeister. Leopold remained in Salzburg, but Wolfgang and his mother almost immediately set out on a tour of prospective employers. After stops in Munich and Augsburg, they arrived in Mannheim, then one of the major musical centers of Europe.

“I send my sister herewith six duets for clavicembalo [keyboard] and violin by Schuster, which I have often played here,” Wolfgang wrote to his father from Mannheim. “They are not bad. If I stay on I shall write six myself in the same style, as they are very popular.”

Mozart did stay on and he did compose a group of four violin sonatas, adding three more when he moved on to Paris.  He gathered six of these seven sonatas together for publication in the City of Light, where they were issued in 1778 as – inaccurately and irrelevantly – his Opus 1. Dedicated to the Electress of the Palatine, they are known as the “Palatine” Sonatas.

The one sonata from Mannheim that Mozart held out was this one, K. 296, which he had written for the piano-playing teenaged daughter of a Mannheim official in whose house he stayed. He saved it until the summer of 1781, when he pulled together another set of six sonatas for publication in his new home, Vienna. (Tellingly, this publication was dedicated to a pianist, Josepha von Auernhammer, not a violinist. The Viennese publisher identified this set, logically enough if again inaccurately, as Opus 2.)

“These sonatas are the only ones of their kind,” an anonymous reviewer wrote in the Hamburg Magazin der Musik in 1783. “They are rich in new ideas, showing traces of the great musical genius of their author.... Moreover, the violin accompaniment is so ingeniously combined with the piano part that both instruments are continuously employed; and thus these sonatas demand a violinist as accomplished as the pianist.”

That is immediately apparent in the nimble give-and-take of the opening movement, where the two instruments play off each other with light, bright glee. Mozart makes the development section largely an athletic exercise in chromatic sequences, leading vigorously into the recapitulation, where there is only more joy and charm.

The middle movement is a gentle reverie in A-B-A song form, with a magical coda that is almost proto-Beethoven in its gapped silences and dynamic contrasts.

Mozart elaborates on the typical rondo finale here, with an expanded episode-within-episode form capped by a tautly compressed coda. It is so constantly in motion, however, that the impression is one of organic flow rather than segmentation. It dances, with athletic humor, in transparent three-part writing that balances poise and zest.

— John Henken