4 Trombones

Paris, 2014

Arnold Schoenberg gave Rudolf Serkin an assignment. (This story is hearsay; worthy of attention, in my opinion.) Consider the opening of Mozart’s A-Minor piano sonata, Schoenberg asked Serkin. What is the right instrumentation for this music, if it were to be scored for orchestral instruments?
Mozart: Sonata in A Minor, KV 310 (300d)

Serkin’s answer included an oboe playing the upper melody line, and strings taking the repeated chords below. Reportedly, Schoenberg became irritated. “It’s four trombones!” he shouted.

It might seem an extreme solution. Schoenberg must have viewed this music as extreme… Was he aware of the genre of Viennese piece that’s always played by four trombones, the eguale? An eguale is funeral music. (And we’ll need 5 trombones for measure 2.)  Did Schoenberg know that Mozart’s sonata was written just following the death of Mozart’s mother? Does the music itself reveal such vociferousness?

The finding of simple causalities — apparent this-led-to-that correspondences in an artist’s life and work — is a too-common practice in classical music. “Brahms had a nice summer vacation, then he wrote a happy cello sonata…”

It is true that in 1777 and 1778, Mozart made a long trip with his mother. In Paris, she died. In his letters written to his family back home, he stage-managed the details, at one point writing that she was very ill when she was already dead. Soon, he did compose the A-Minor piano sonata.

The sonata’s repeated block-chords remind some of piano music by Johann Schobert:

Schobert: Sonata in D Major, opus 3, number 1

Mozart encountered this music certainly. Schobert became Parisian; Mozart’s text associates these sounds with Paris. On the first page of Mozart’s manuscript of the A-Minor Sonata, under his name, we read “Paris 1778.”

The A-Minor Sonata’s first movement is not entirely earnest. Not to be overlooked are the spun-out soprano meanderings of the C-Major second-theme group:MKV310b2
Mozart: Sonata in A Minor, KV 310 (300d)

She won’t let a word in! This is a run-on parody of the melody line of an elaborately chattering soprano in Italian comic opera. (The repeated left-hand chords are transformed, but still present.) This prattle is a balance to the seriousness of the beginning? Another way of remembering/portraying mother?

Mozart’s music consistently attracts and amazes with fluidity of access to, and rapid transition between many and various states of human feeling and experience. Never more than here.

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  1. says

    Bruce, thank you for this interesting history. I do wonder, if Schoenberg did indeed know or eventually come to find out that Mozart’s sonata came soon after his mother’s death, if that would have changed his thoughts considerably?

  2. says

    No way, Schoenberg did not know anything, there are a lot of materials about it. You should read more about it.

  3. says

    I’v often heard the story of the sonata as a sort of funeral music- but that little appoggiatura at the beginning always makes me wonder- given the right tempo, couldn’t this be just another little Turkish excursion? THe tears come with the 2nd. movement.

  4. Brandon says

    Very interesting. Is it known why he withheld the information about his mothers death?