About this Piece
Mozart wrote about 35 sonatas for keyboard and violin, including some that were left unfinished. He wrote the first when he was six and the last in 1788, three years before his death. Only one is in a minor key, the Sonata in E minor, K. 304, written in 1778 in Paris. The minor tonality gives this music a dignity and gravity unusual in the sequence of his violin sonatas, and though this music was composed when Mozart was only 22, it is universally regarded as one of his finest chamber works.
Accompanied by his mother, Mozart had set out from Salzburg in September 1777 in search of the position his father was sure would bring him fame. Mozart did not return until January 1779, and the journey—which had taken him through Mannheim, Paris, and Munich—can hardly be regarded as a success: Mozart spent too much money and found no position at all. The true cataclysm, though, was that his mother became ill and died in Paris in July 1778. It was left to the young composer to send his father the news and then to make his way back to Salzburg with nothing to show for his 16-month absence.
He had, however, written seven violin sonatas during this trip, and he published six of these in Paris. The first four were written in Mannheim, but the final two were composed in Paris sometime in 1778. The Sonata in E minor is wistful music, full of a depth of feeling absent from the other five sonatas, and few commentators have been able to resist associating it with the death of Mozart’s mother, though there is no way to know whether it was written before or after her final illness.
Like most of the other sonatas from this set, it is in only two movements. The Allegro takes its character from the somber opening theme, played in unison by violin and piano. The jaunty second subject, first announced by the piano, does little to change the mood, and the opening theme dominates the movement. Mozart marks the second movement Tempo di Minuetto, but this music is far more serious than most minuets. Solo piano plays the gravely graceful opening melody, and soon the two instruments take turns with it—this melody returns continually. At the center of the movement, though, Mozart shifts to E major, and this measured, calm section (Mozart marks it dolce) is the true glory of a glorious sonata. Over two hundred years after this music was written, it is difficult to disagree with Alfred Einstein’s claim that the Sonata in E minor is “one of the miracles among Mozart’s works.” —Eric Bromberger