Among diverse practices distinguishing the European music scene in the second half of the eighteenth century, the performance of music for two players on the same keyboard is certainly one of the more remarkable and, in some ways, significant examples.
The rendition of a four-handed piece on the harpsichord or the fortepiano can be considered an example of the direction that music of that time was about to take: light-hearted, convivial, and educational, in which we could find the intention to satisfy the new “galant” tastes of the aristocracy as well as the needs of the rising middle class.
The four-handed genre becomes, in this regard, an ideal setting to express the new musical feeling. Four hands can double possibilities and exploit the keyboard’s full range. The search for expressivity is maintained by combining extended melodies with arpeggios or broken chords. In the case of performance on the harpsichord, the increased opportunity to “mix” the stops facilitates the search for unexplored colors and contrasts.
Mario Stefano Tonda, Alberto Firrincieli
“By a letter from Salzburg, dated last November, I am informed, that this young man, who so much astonished all Europe by his premature knowledge and performance, during infancy, is still a great master of his instrument; my correspondent went to his father’s house to hear him and his sister play duets on the same harpsichord; but she is now at her summit, which is not marvellous; ‘and’, says the writer of the letter, ‘if I may judge of the music which I heard of his composition, in the orchestra, he is one further instance of early fruit being more extraordinary than excellent’”.
The young man and his sister, described in this less-than-flattering report, were Wolfgang Amadeus and “Nannerl” Mozart, as portrayed, around 1771, by an anonymous acquaintance of Charles Burney, the author of two volumes of chronicles about “The Present State of Music” in Europe. While this unknown writer seems to have been singularly short-sighted in qualifying Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s talent as “more extraordinary than excellent” and Nannerl’s gifts as “not marvellous”, the mention of their performance as a keyboard duet is exciting. True, terminology was rather flexible at the time, and we cannot assume that the siblings performed on a “harpsichord” in the strict meaning of the word, since it could apply also to other keyboard instruments. Undeniably, however, the siblings did play Wolfgang’s early compositions for keyboard duet on harpsichords in their youthful years, and therefore the possibility of rediscovering their “original” sound is a real treat for the music-lovers.
In the famous portrait of the Mozart family, realized by Johann Nepomuk della Croce about ten years later, the siblings are seen playing a duet on a keyboard instrument, while their father Leopold, leaning on it, holds a violin in his left hand. While the family is evidently posing and no actual music is being performed, it is intriguing to observe that Leopold’s children are playing with their hands crossed: not, as frequently happens in solo keyboard music, by passing one’s left hand over the right or vice-versa, but by having Wolfgang’s right hand passing over his sister’s left hand. This situation closely corresponds to passages found already in the very first of Wolfgang’s known works to have been written for keyboard duet, i.e. the Sonata KV 19d, written in London in the spring of 1765, when the composer was barely nine years old. The family’s stay in London was part of the so-called “Grand Tour” they undertook in order to display the children’s talent in the greatest European courts, not merely in order to financially exploiting their gifts, but also for allowing them to experience the international musical life of the era. The Mozarts were a sensation in London, as a later magazine (1784) reports: “The first instance of two persons performing on one instrument in this kingdom was exhibited in the year 1765, by little Mozart and his sister”. In London, in particular, Wolfgang spent considerable time in the company of Johann Christian Bach, who was Johann Sebastian’s youngest son, and who befriended the child in spite of their difference in age. Johann Christian Bach’s works deeply impressed and inspired Wolfgang, who made his first important attempts at large-scale compositions on that occasion. In particular, Bach had been among the pioneers of the literature for keyboard duet: it is not unlikely that he had been encouraged to explore this very special kind of ensemble by the very unusual milieu of his own infancy, where music was practised, played and performed by virtually everybody.
Indeed, the physical proximity and close interaction of keyboard duet players are probably unique in Western music; thus, the same familiarity which is observed in the family portrait by della Croce is expressed in sound by the earliest works written by artists who experienced the unifying power of music within the framework of their dearest relationships. In London, besides meeting Johann Christian and studying his works, Mozart had also several other important musical and human experiences, including the opportunity to play, with his sister, on a very special instrument. It was a magnificent harpsichord with two manuals, by the Swiss-born harpsichord maker Burkat Shudi (or Tschudi), destined for the King of Prussia, the great music-lover and patron of the arts Frederick II. A contemporaneous report narrates: “Mr Thudy [sic] has moreover conceived the good notion of having his extraordinary instrument played for the first time by the most extraordinary clavier player in the world, namely by the very celebrated master of music, Wolfg. Mozart, aged nine. […] It was quite enchanting to hear the fourteen-year-old sister of this little virtuoso playing the most difficult sonatas on the clavier with the most astonishing dexterity and her brother accompanying her extempore on another clavier. Both perform wonders!”. In fact, the scoring of the hand-crossing passages in the C-major Sonata, which sometimes is rather awkward due to the frequent collisions between both parts, becomes suddenly much easier and comfortable if the two players use one manual each, as possibly happened on the occasion cited above. The piece, in spite of the composer’s very young age, is delightful, with that kind of tender boldness which is so common in the children’s attempts to do something “important”, but which, in Mozart’s case, was already capable of producing a small-scale, youthful masterpiece. The D-major Sonata recorded here is also the work of a “child prodigy”, since there are not many seventeen-years-old people who can write so beautifully; however, of course, the eight years which had elapsed between KV 19d and KV 381/123a were so rich in musical experiences that this Sonata can be qualified as a mature work. So mature, in fact, that it used to be ascribed to Mozart’s Viennese years for a long period, until it was re-dated to 1773/4. The autograph score was in the possession of Nannerl, who unfortunately divided it and handed the resulting sections over, thus causing the loss of most sheets. Here, Mozart’s style is reminiscent of a keyboard arrangement of a symphony, with a brilliant scoring, rich sonorities, a lavish texture and spectacular contrasts. These traits are found in an even more pronounced fashion in the C-major Sonata KV 521, written in 1787 and displaying clear analogies with two of the most important works composed by Mozart at the time, i.e. Eine kleine Nachtmusik KV 525 and Don Giovanni. Here, Mozart’s mastery at the keyboard, and the extraordinary experience of his Viennese Concertos successfully manage to transform a single instrument into a whole orchestra, with concertante passages and brilliant virtuosity. In this case, too, piano duet music was a family affair, since Mozart at first dedicated this Sonata to Franziska von Jacquin, the sister of his friend Gottfried, and later to a couple of twin sisters, Babette and Nanette Natrop (one of whom would later get married to another sibling of Franziska and Gottfried). In a letter dated May 29th, 1787, Mozart reminded his friend Gottfried to “be so good as to give this sonata to [his] sister with my compliments. She should tackle it right away, as it is rather difficult”; Franziska was however a very skilled keyboard player, as Mozart himself acknowledged, both by dedicating her such a complex and brilliant work, and by nicknaming her Diminiminimi, probably alluding to her ability to play extremely quick passages with dexterity. In spite of the impression of pleasant sociability and joyful social interactions which these letters and this music transmit, however, the moment was very complicated for Mozart: in the very same letter to Gottfried, he added that he had just received the news of his father’s death. Of course, the Sonata could not bear any trace of this experience, having been completed before Leopold’s demise; however, some of the dark atmospheres of Don Giovanni and of the impassionate lyricism of other coeval works do appear in this Sonata, whose imposing construction and magnificent structure are closer to those of orchestral or concertante pieces than to the more intimate features of chamber music. Curiously, in fact, Mozart had probably conceived this Sonata initially as a piece to be played on two instruments, as is revealed by his labelling the two parts as “Cembalo primo” and “Cembalo secondo”. It is likely, therefore, that this particular Sonata may demonstrate yet another aspect of the four-hands duet, i.e. a competition of two accomplished players rivalling each other in skill and expressivity; this is however always framed within a musical dialogue which reveals the close intertwining of the musical ideas, the enjoyment for a friendly proximity which makes interaction so tight and so exciting at the same time, and the subtlety of the musical shades that can be evoked by this very special ensemble. For Mozart, thus, the four-hand keyboard duet was almost a workshop for musical and technical solutions he would develop also in other repertoires and genres; thus, by listening to these enchanting works, we are not only enjoying some of the finest examples of keyboard duet music, but also having a glimpse on the processes of musical creativity and on the generation of new musical languages.
Liner Notes by Chiara Bertoglio
Alberto Firrincieli: He is an Italian pianist, harpsichord player, composer and scholar. Winner of the second prize in the International Contest “SIMM 2018 – New Music for Harpsichord”, he devotes himself to performance, composition, pedagogy and research.
He is currently a full-time instructor in the Department of Music Program at Assumption University of Thailand, where he teaches major courses in Composition and Classical Improvisation and Harpsichord. Besides, he is the Artistic Director of IKA – International Keyboard Academy.
He started to play the piano when he was 8. After graduation at the age of 20 he dedicated himself to the study of ancient keyboards, and he graduated in Harpsichord, Composition and Electronic Music as well. Through these experiences he specialized in baroque and classical music.
He attended masterclasses with Christa Butzberger (piano) and Enrico Baiano, Bob van Asperen, Michele Barchi and Emilia Fadini (harpsichord). He completed his education, graduating in Musicology at the University of Pavia, Italy, integrating his practical knowledge of performance with theoretical and historical musical aspects.
His repertoire ranges from baroque to modern music. He has performed many recitals as soloist and with orchestra for renowned institutions in Europe and Asia; he is a member of different ensembles and chamber music groups. Regularly, he plays basso continuo on harpsichord and organ. He also dedicates himself to modern composition using computers and audio technologies.
He collaborates with UT ORPHEUS for the realization of basso continuo scores, and he recently published the Opera Omnia of the Italian composer Carlo Antonio Marino.
Mario Stefano Tonda: Fortepianist, harpsichordist and musicologist, is graduated in piano and ancient keyboards at Conservatory of Turin and in musicology at University of Pavia. He has studied with O. Dantone, E. Fadini, G. Tabacco, B. van Oort and M. Bilson, and he collaborates with musical institutions such as Rome Symphony Orchestra, Verona Philharmonic Academy, Academia Montis Regalis Orchestra, Conservatory of Turin, and IKA - International Keyboard Academy. He has held recitals playing harpsichord and fortepiano in prestigious concert halls around the world (Europe, USA, Asia), performing as soloist and alongside musicians and conductors like Lior Shambadal, Marco Fornaciari, Giorgio Tabacco, Berislav Skenderovich, Vadim Brodsky. Besides, alongside the acknowledged cellist Christophe Coin, he run a unique project based on the discovery of XVIII century Italian music for cello and fortepiano. Mario Stefano Tonda has been selected and invited to inaugurate the EXPO Milano 2015. For the occasion, he has played the fortepiano “L. Hoffer” belonged to G. Rossini, restored for the event. He has played as soloist the 5th Brandenburg Concerto by J. S. Bach and Chamber Sonata for Harpsichord and 10 Instruments by G. Petrassi and recorded O. Respighi Ancient Airs & Dances (Brilliant Classic) and G. Petrassi La Follia di Orlando (Naxos Records) with Rome Symphonic Orchestra; for RAI - Radio Televisione Italiana he has recently recorded some pieces for the TV program “Meraviglie – La Penisola dei Tesori” at the fortepiano. Alongside Alberto Firrincieli he has founded Harpsichord for two - www.harpsichordfortwo.com, a project dedicated to the four-handed repertoire performed on the harpsichord. The first CD of the Duo is labelled “Jommelli, Clementi, Rutini, the music for four-hands harpsichord” (Tactus Records).
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: (b Salzburg, 27 Jan 1756; d Vienna, 5 Dec 1791). Austrian composer, son of Leopold Mozart. His style essentially represents a synthesis of many different elements, which coalesced in his Viennese years, from 1781 on, into an idiom now regarded as a peak of Viennese Classicism. The mature music, distinguished by its melodic beauty, its formal elegance and its richness of harmony and texture, is deeply coloured by Italian opera though also rooted in Austrian and south German instrumental traditions. Unlike Haydn, his senior by 24 years, and Beethoven, his junior by 15, he excelled in every medium current in his time. He may thus be regarded as the most universal composer in the history of Western music.