Mozart’s choice of key – a key to his creative process?

April 16, 2009

W. A. Mozart’s extremely accurate absolute pitch is a well established fact. Is it possible that this aspect of his hearing influenced the way Mozart conceived his music? Given Mozart’s  outstanding musical memory (which enabled him, for instance, to write down Allegri’s Miserere after just two hearings), one could proceed from the assumption that Mozart would ‘store’ his own music, as well as other music he had heard, at the pitch he had originally conceived/heard it, that is, in association with a specific key. When coming to compose a new piece in a given key, Mozart  would obviously draw on his memory to supply him with ideas. If Mozart’s mental ‘archive’ was somehow sorted by keys, it is natural to ask whether he would tend to use similar material in the same key over and over again.

This hypothesis was put forward by Wilhelm Gloede in 1993 in his article “Motivstruktur und Tonart bei Mozart” (“Motif structure and key in Mozart’s music”, Archiv für Musikwissenschaft 50/1, pp. 26–43). Gloede observes a correlation between five melodic structures in Mozart’s music and five corresponding keys. This correlation, however, is not conclusive; what Gloede’s data indicate could be best described as a fairly strong statistical tendency of certain motifs to appear in specific keys.

My forthcoming dissertation project on Mozart’s use of the keys investigates further instances of the phenomenon of key dependence in Mozart’s music. This site offers summaries of articles I have already published on the subject. The article “An ‘E-flat Major Motif’?” examines the various occurrences of a six note motif in Mozart’s works, showing it to be bound to the key of E-flat major. Further articles, dealing with various key-bound structural elements, are to follow.

A major question involved with the evaluation of Mozart’s use of keys is whether the wide variety of pitches and tuning systems during his lifetime may have interfered with the way he perceived and memorized music in a certain key. I will try to argue that – while pitch fluctuations undeniably modify the actual sonority of a key – Mozart must have developed a firm concept of keys, filtering much of the potential distraction caused by such fluctuations.

Furthermore, the entire complex of key characteristics should be taken into consideration in connection with the phenomena examined here. Following the reduction of the number of modes to just two (major and minor), an elaborate discipline emerged during the 17th and the 18th centuries, assigning different characters to many of the (structurally identical) major and minor scales. Does the concept of key characteristics supply an adequate framework for considering Mozart’s repeated employment of similar material in the same key? While one couldn’t refute that Mozart – like many of his contemporaries – might have been influenced by key characteristics, I will try to show that many types of correlation between key and concrete structural elements in his works are better described by the model presented above than by traditional key characteristics.

An intriguing question is whether one should expect concrete relations between key and musical structure to emerge in the works of just any composer in possession of absolute pitch and a strong musical memory, further, whether such relations should be deemed impossible in composers without these skills. More concretely, Mozart’s employment of key dependent structural elements should ultimately be considered within a broader perspective of the First Viennese School before the phenomenon could be evaluated properly. While my investigation is primarily concerned with Mozart’s music, some instructive evidence has been gathered from essays on Mozart’s contemporaries, suggesting that Mozart’s treatment of the keys may not have been qualitatively different from that of other composers.

Should a future, more extensive examination of key dependent elements in the works of other composers produce sufficient evidence, a reassessment of the phenomenon of key dependence in Mozart’s music might be due. For the time being, it seems that Mozart’s oeuvre is telling a story of its own, and that in this story the key in which a work is written plays a more concrete role in determining its musical structure than has hitherto been suspected.

Key-Related Idioms in Mozart’s Music: A Peek into his Creative Process?

June 19, 2011

Paper to be presented at the annual meeting of the American Society for Music Theory in Minneapolis, October 27–30, 2011, in cooperation with Dr. Saharon Rosset of the Department of Statistics and Opertaions Research, Tel-Aviv University.

Is the choice of key just a marginal aspect of musical composition or could it also significantly interact with musical substance? The issue has long intrigued music theorists, musicians and casual listeners. Whereas the traditional discipline of “key characteristics” examines the connections between specific keys and modes of expression, newer research has started to consider associations between keys and tangible musical structures. However, a systematic, data-driven and rigorous investigation of the correlations between key and structure throughout a composer’s body of works has never yet been attempted.

In this paper, we demonstrate the crucial role of key choice in determining concrete structural features of musical substance as exemplified by the compositions of Wolfgang Amadé Mozart. By performing an extensive survey of harmonic, melodic and rhetoric phenomena in Mozart’s works, we show that associations between keys and musical matter are represented practically at all levels of his compositional thinking, amounting to a statistically significant total.

According to our findings, key-relatedness in Mozart’s music tends to intensify with time. Additionally, we show that by tracking the behavior of “key-related idioms”, one may gain a novel insight into some intriguing chronological, aesthetical and semantic aspects of Mozart’s creative process.

Structural Deformation as a Token of Undercurrent Humor in Mozart’s Instrumental Rondos

June 19, 2011

Paper to be presented at the 7th European Music Analysis Conference (EUROMAC) in Rome, September 29 – October 2, 2011

“Non-referential” humor is prone to manifest in structural irregularities capable of upsetting the listener’s “preparatory set” of expectations (Meyer 1956). Applying this to the First Viennese School, what would typically come to mind are Haydn’s witty formal distortions as, e.g., in the finales of the ‘Joke’ Quartet and the ‘L’ours’ Symphony. In accordance with the widespread view that, among Mozart’s oeuvre, even instrumental works constitute “operas in disguise”, it may be surmised that Mozart’s humor is essentially operatic, opting for caricatures of characters and situations.

In reading Ein Musikalischer Spaß K. 522 as a “parody of compositional inadequacy”, Lister (1994) claims the work to have a virtual “hero”, the incompetent Kapellmeister it conjures up. By echoing topics derived from the style of opera buffa, instrumental pieces may incorporate comic elements without necessarily reenacting farcical stage situations. This has been demonstrated, e.g., with regard to subtle “slapstick effects” in the opening theme of the String Quintet K. 593 (Ratner 1980), to buffa-esque gestures in several of Mozart’s piano concertos (Allanbrook 1996) and to the buffo topic in the finale of the ‘Prague’ Symphony (Kenpler 1994, Sisman 1997).

However, it is also possible to trace in Mozart’s music a “non-referential” type of humor, which can be shown to operate along the lines of such complementary concepts as stylistic “markedness” (Hatten, 2004) and structural “deformation” (Hepokoski and Darcy, 2006). In Mozart’s instrumental rondos and sonata-rondos, deviations from formal ‘defaults’ are generally far more pronounced than in his sonata movements proper, and, in observing a selection of such irregularities, I endeavor to challenge the implicit common view that the composer’s musical wit necessarily drew on emulating operatic or opera-like procedures.

In the final rondo of the Trio Piano K.498 (‘Kegelstatt’), a melodic figure, originally “tucked away” inside one of the couplets (mm. 139–145), gradually assumes a higher degree of formal significance throughout the movement, thus provoking the image of an initially shy figure, becoming more and more obtrusive. Whereas this subtle manipulation, which may be likened to Meyer’s concept of “hierarchic migration” (1989), hardly seems to relate to any of the buffa-esque procedures normally utilized by Mozart, it nevertheless lends itself to a humorous interpretation in terms of a witty violation of thematic hierarchy within a piece.

Special attention will be given to the second movement of the Sonata for Piano and Violin K. 302. I will show that the formal ambiguity of measures 17–36, instead of being resolved, is constantly amplified throughout the movement, producing two concurrent, albeit incongruent, overall formal designs, somewhat reminiscent of a cubist painting.

Whereas Haydn’s sense of humor was considered already during his lifetime an essential prerequisite for an understanding of his music (Junker 1776), Mozart’s humor seems to have been less widely acknowledged as a central feature of his style. Allowing for Johann Georg Sulzer’s threefold distinction among ‘low’, ‘middle’ and ‘high’ comic (1777), K. 522 clearly falls under the former category, involving the ludicrous and farcical. Formal irregularities of the kind discussed in this paper, on the other hand, give rise to a more refined ‘middle’ (witty) humor, which may not necessarily be immediately perceivable as such.

Interrelation between elementary cognitive schemata and melodic surface in Mozart’s music

June 19, 2011

Paper to be presented at the annual meeting of the Israel Musicological Society in Raanana, July 3–4

A widespread view in recent research on 18th century music is that the melodic surface of a given composition results from combining and elaborating on a number of elementary cognitive schemata, assimilated by composers of the period during early stages of their career. A possible implication of this approach is that melodic events at the foreground level should be considered variable and open for modifications. This stance is taken up by a current approach in musical interpretation, promoting improvisation on the basis of the original text. My research into the correlation between key choice and musical structure in Mozart’s music supports a contrary view. Apparently, Mozart would perceive two melodic formulations as equivalent (and, consequently, tend to use them in connection with the same key) on the basis of literal resemblance at the surface level and not due to the implementation of common deep-level schemata. This, in turn, invites a closer examination of the concept of “decorability” and of the conditions under which melodic formulations in Mozart’s music permit or prohibit modifications.

Mozart and the Grief Process – Interpreting the String Quintet in G Minor K. 516

April 18, 2009

Mozart and the Grief Process – Interpreting the String Quintet in G Minor K. 516

Uri Rom



This article appears in the collection: Interpretare Mozart, Conveno Internationale di Studi, Milano, 19-21 Maggio 2006, ed. by Mariateresa Dellaborra, Guido Salvetti & Claudio Toscani, Libreria Musicale Italiana, Lucca 2007, pp. 381-387. See:

In this paper I will address questions of continuity and process building in Mozart’s string quintet K.516. I will try to show that this work, probably more than any other composition by Mozart, exemplifies the concept of an overall structure, crossing the borders between the individual movements. I will also try to show that, allowing for a metaphorical interpretation of music along the lines of Nelson Goodman’s symbol theory[1], the G minor string quintet may be viewed as a representation of grief process as described by modern psychology.

One feature which has been recognized in almost all analyses of Mozart’s string quintet is the quite unorthodox succession of movements, shown in the table below:

I Allegro

II Menuetto – Allegretto

III Adagio ma non troppo

IV Adagio/Allegro

This succession of movements shows two outstanding features, differing from the prevailing norm in Mozart’s oeuvre. The minuet appears here before, rather than after the slow movement; further, the finale is preceded by a slow introduction which, due to its extraordinary length and intensity, could be almost considered as a further slow movement. None of these procedures is in itself without precedent in Mozart’s works.[2] The combination of both, however, resulting in two consecutive slow movements, is unique to the G minor quintet. Whereas almost all discussions of Mozart’s G minor string quintet point out the unusual features of its overall structure, analyses have hitherto failed to observe that there is possibly a method to the apparent irregularity of the quintet.

Looking at the list of Tempi, we may note that it exemplifies a clear directionality from fastest to slowest. Beginning with the Allegro of the first movement and ending with the Adagio of the introduction to the finale an overall process of retardation spans the entire work, offering an absolute exception in Mozart’s Works and possibly also in the entire Viennese classic. The final rondo allegro is excluded from this process and in the course of the following discussion, I will also try to show why.

My claim is that this succession of Tempi could not be a chance product of Mozart’s compositional process: note the exactness with which Mozart differentiates between the Allegro of the first movement and the Allegretto of the minuet and – even finer – between the Adagio ma non troppo of the third movement and the Adagio of the slow introduction to the finale. It seems to me quite implausible that Mozart should have gone into introducing such irregularities in the order of movements and into making such subtle distinctions among the tempi, had he not consciously intended the gradual process of retardation in the quintet.

However, four tempo instructions are still not enough to create a musical process which is also accessible to the listener. In order for that to happen, the composer has to establish a sense of continuity in the work, reaching beyond the movement borders, so that each tempo may be heard in relation to the preceding as well as to the following tempo, in spite of the silences between the movements. Mozart masters this apparently impossible task by applying a variety of musical resources at the joints between the movements, as I would now like to demonstrate.

The first movement ends after a long passage in piano with two abrupt forte chords, giving an impression of interruption rather than conclusion. The second movement opens with a quite unusual dominant chord in the first inversion as an upbeat; this harmonically unstable beginning makes the movement sound as if starting from the middle.[3] Both the abrupt ending of the first movement and the open beginning of the second charge the silence between the two movements with tension: one hears the minuet somehow as a direct continuation of the first movement, also perceiving the new tempo, Allegretto, in relation to the preceding Allegro.

The minuet closes on the middle g in piano, while the Adagio ma non troppo starts on the same note in the same dynamics, only now embedded in an E-flat harmony. I hear also this transition as a kind of continuation, a bridge between the movements, making, once again, the new tempo sound as a calming down of the minuet tempo.

The third movement ends with an E-flat chord with a B-flat as upper tone; this disposition, quite unusual for a concluding chord, has something open about it, calling for a continuation. The next movement – the slow introduction to the finale – promptly responds with the very same chord, transposed a third higher to G minor. The repetitive semiquavers, accompanying the coda of the third movement, are answered by the quavers at the beginning of the slow introduction in an even slower tempo, bringing thus the overall retardation process of the quintet to its lowest point.

Also within the second movement there is a point which poses a challenge to the sense of continuity in the quintet: the transition from minuet to trio and back often involves a break in the continuity of sound, yielding two loosely connected sections. In the string quintet Mozart avoids this break by applying a simple but ingenious “trick”: the closing phrase of the minuet, transposed to G major, becomes the opening phrase and the thematic nucleus of the entire trio, thus making the trio sound not as an independent part but rather as a subordinate section of the minuet.

I have tried to show that the process of retardation in the G minor string quintet, obviously intended by Mozart, does not remain an abstract scheme but is sustained by a variety of subtle compositional measures, integrating the silences between the movements into an arch of musical tension, spanning the entire work. Moreover, the hypothesis of an overall process in the quintet supplies a plausible framework, within which many of its outstanding features suddenly fall into place: Not only the unusual succession of movements, but also the rather irregular harmonies at the beginning of the second as well as at the end of the third movement and the thematic connection between minuet and trio may be interpreted as means to establish the quintet’s global musical process.[4]

Having acknowledged that, we may ask ourselves what Mozart’s intentions behind the quintet’s global process might have been. With Mozart placing in his letters such an immense emphasis on the issue of expression and on music as means to convey ideas and feelings,[5] it is highly unlikely that he should embark on such an irregular musical conception without also wishing to express exceptional emotional contents.

According to my interpretation of the quintet, it is possible that Mozart intended to express in it emotions and mental processes connected with the experience of loss and grief. How much of this was actually consciously planned by Mozart, and to what extent his musical-emotional intuition may have been involved, will probably remain undeterminable. I certainly do not wish to suggest that the quintet should be regarded as an autobiographical work: whatever personal experience might be behind it, the quintet addresses emotions in a generalized way.

Psychologists generally agree that the grief process proceeds in phases, stressing, however, the fluid, non-linear as well as highly individualized character of the process. Bearing this in mind, the following phases may be sketched:[6]

Numbness (shock, denial, flight into hectic activity)
Searching and yearning (anger, pain, anxiety, ‘pangs’ of grief)
Depression (withdrawal, disorganization)
Recovery (acceptance, reorganization)

The first phase, numbness, is seen as a protective reaction, acting as a barrier to immediate pain. Some writers speak of this phase in terms of denial of the loss, mentioning hectic activity as a possible symptomatic reaction in order to block overwhelming emotions. The second phase, an inner search for the lost person, is characterized by strong, violent emotional eruptions of anger and anxiety. Once the intense pangs of grief subside, feelings of apathy and despair predominate. Disorganization as well as withdrawing from others are mentioned in connection with this phase. After having accepted the loss, reorganization of the self and of life may take place, leading to a recovery from the state of grief.

A generally acknowledged aspect of the grief process is the transition from the hectic, hyperactive reactions at the beginning of the process to the apathy of the depressive phase. In my opinion, this progression could be very well matched by the quintet’s overall process of retardation. Further, I would like to show that the attributes of the different movements of the quintet may also be viewed in a rough analogy to the different phases of grief.

Although the adjective “numb” could hardly apply to the first movement, it definitely exemplifies the kind of flight to hectic activity, mentioned in connection with the first grief phase. In my opinion, Mozart creates here a musical representation of obsession which is reflected in every aspect of the music. Most characteristic of the obsession in the first movement is surely the unyielding accompaniment of quaver repetitions, underlining over 70% of the movement and constituting a predominant element in it. Even passages which are harmonically and melodically rather relaxed retain through this accompaniment a tense, obsessive character. Considering that these quavers represent obsession, performers might be well advised not to play them too unobtrusively or lightly.

Another unusual feature of the first movement is its secondary theme which, very atypically, starts in the main tonality G minor, only subsequently modulating to the “correct” tonality of B-flat major. This is no usual secondary theme: it dominates the greater part of the development section as well as the coda. According to my view, this theme assumes the function of an idée fixe, haunting the listener throughout the movement. Mozart’s clinging to the tonality of G minor and shunning the modulation when it is due, may be also seen, in my opinion, as demonstrating an obsessive behaviour on a formal level.

The second movement, with its often interrupted phrases, harsh accents on the weak beats and abrupt changes of dynamics may represent the second phase of the grief process, the phase of violent “pangs” of grief, of yearning, anger and anxiety. The rather smooth G major trio offers a contrast to the character of the main minuet, but, as mentioned above, it draws thematically on the last phrase of the minuet and is therefore perceived as a subordinate section, a repose in the midst of the emotional tumult rather than an outcome.

The third movement, Adagio ma non troppo, is one of the very few movements among Mozart’s chamber music to be played throughout with mutes.[7] This gives the movement an aura of detachment and withdrawal from reality. After the first two movements, which are rather dense and at times almost breathless, the third movement strikes us as a succession of fragmented phrases, separated by frequent silences.

The difference to the customary adagio texture may be seen by comparing the third movement of K.516 with the slow movement of the “Hunt” quartet K.458 written about two and a half years earlier. In the Adagio from the quartet, Mozart “sews” adjacent phrases together using bridge elements; at the analog points in the quintet’s Adagio ma non troppo, Mozart leaves silences. The muted character of this movement, the frequent silences and the fragmented structure seem to correspond convincingly to the phase of disorganization and depression.

The slow introduction to the finale carries the depressive character of the third movement to a powerful emotional climax in bars 20–25 with the longest crescendo passage in the entire quintet. These bars seem to me to represent the painful moment of emotionally acknowledging the loss after having denied, objected to and grieved it; the moment in which the inner parting with the lost object eventually takes place.

Most puzzling is the fact that Mozart uses here, in the moment of culmination, the same harmonies as at the very beginning of the quintet, applying an identical chromatic sixths progression. This chromatic progression, originating from the standard lamento bass figure, here displaced into the upper voice and harmonized in an unorthodox manner, may be regarded as the harmonic “motto” of the entire quintet. Apart from the appearances in the first movement and in the slow introduction to the finale, it also recurs in bars 14–16 of the minuet in another tonality.

In addition to this harmonic “motto” Mozart creates a thematic unity in the string quintet by means of a melodic germ, recurring in all movements. Rather unspectacular, this motive, consisting of a segment of a descending diatonic scale beginning on the fifth or on the sixth scale tone, assumes in the quintet a central thematic role, appearing in each of the movements at conspicuous positions (first movement, measures 30–33, second movement, beginning, third movement, measures 18–21 and fourth movement, beginning).

The semantic role of this figure in Mozart’s works may be deduced from two occurrences in the Magic Flute, both remarkably enough also in G minor. The middle section of the first aria of the Queen of Night and Pamina’s despair aria No. 17 use the very same motive, connecting it with the subject of loss, despair and death.[8] The first movement and the slow introduction to the finale are further connected by a number of motives recurring in both. Some of these cross relations (as, for instance, between measures 18–19 of the first movement and 30–31 of the fourth) have not been pointed out so far.[9]

This thick network of harmonic and thematic cross-relations between the beginning of the quintet and the introduction to the finale may support an interpretation the quintet as an emphatically cyclic work. The overall process of retardation eventually leads us right back to the very beginning, thus supplying a striking musical-metaphorical representation of the fact that the cathartic confrontation with the loss at the end of the quintet is, in fact, the resolution of the same painful emotions, originating from the first movement.

Finally, I would like to point out that an interpretation of the string quintet along the lines of the grief process may also offer an explanation to an aspect of the quintet which deeply disturbed almost all analysts writing on the work. The “lieto fine”, the rather jolly and exuberant G major finale, seemed to many rather inadequate for a work starting off so gloomily, and quite a few attempts have been made to describe it as less jolly than it actually is in order to make it fit better into the quintet. Here may be mentioned Einstein’s “disconsolate major”, Hildesheimer’s “desperate happiness” as well as Bodenheimer’s demonizing interpretation, hearing this finale as a cynical, calculated parody.[10]

Considering these quite extreme interpretations, my hypothesis, based on an analogy to the grief process, seems to offer a much more straightforward view on the finale. Having finally overcome the confrontation with the loss in the slow introduction, a reorganization of life may now take place, this being convincingly depicted by the “back to normal” style of the finale. According to this view, not a failing sense of tragedy, but rather a genuine psychological understanding led Mozart to end one his most moving compositions with a bright, life-affirming rondo in G major.


1. Nelson Goodman’s views, expressed, among others, in Nelson Goodman, Catherine Z. Elgin, Reconceptions in Philosophy and other arts and sciences, Hackett, London 1988, have been elaborated upon by a number of writers, placing a special stress on metaphorical functions in music. A selection may include: Robert S. Hatten, “Metaphor ‘in’ Music”, in Musical signification: Essays in the semiotic theory and analysis, ed. by Eero Tarasti, Mouton de Gruyter, Berlin 1995, as well as Simone Marenholz, Musik und Erkenntnis, Metzler Stuttgart 1998, and the collection of essays Klang-Struktur-Metapher. Musikalische Analyse zwischen Phänomen und Begriff, ed. by Oliver Schwab-Felisch, Michael Polth and Christian Thorau, J.B. Metzler, Stuttgart 2000.
2. Placing the minuet before the slow movement is not unusual for the Viennese Classic. Mozart recurs to this procedure in half a dozen string quartets and possibly also in the C major quintet K.515, where the state of the autograph doesn’t permit an unequivocal determination of the succession of movements. A slow introduction to the finale occurs in a few serenades of the Salzburg period, consisting, however, of more than four movements, the slow introduction invariably following a minuet.
3. Whereas Mozart very often uses the fifth scale tone as an unaccompanied upbeat (as in the minuet of the “Linz” symphony K.425), he very seldom introduces a complete non-tonic chord at the beginning of a movement, another rare example being the minuet of the C major string quintet K.515.
4. Accepting this hypothesis has a rather trivial but yet crucial implication for the performance of the quintet: whereas interrupting the performance of any work for retuning the instruments may prove disadvantageous for the listener, I would strongly advise to refrain from such an interruption while performing the G minor quintet, as this will inevitably ruin what Mozart went to such pains to establish: the sense of continuity throughout the entire work as well as the overall process of retardation.
5. In a letter to Aloisia Weber from July 30th 1778, Mozart explains to her how to interpret his Andromeda scene Ah, lo previdi (K.272), stressing: “al più le raccomande l’espressione”. In an early letter to his father (November 8th 1777) Mozart claims he can achieve with sounds what a poet expresses with words, a dancer with pantomime and a painter with colours. An analysis of this letter appears in Georg Knepler Wolfgang Amadé Mozart, Annäherungen Henschel, Berlin 1991, pp. 28-30.
6. This presentation is based on views proposed in Colin Murray Parkes, Bereavement: studies of grief in adult life, Tavistock, London 1972, John Bowlby, Attachment and loss, Penguin, London 1980 and Verena Kast Trauern, Phasen und Chancen des psychischen Prozesses, Kreuz, Stuttgart 1986. A good overview of leading grief theories is presented in the Handbook of Bereavement ed. by Margaret S. Stroebe, Wolfgang Stroebe and Robert O. Hansson, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge/New York 1993.
7. The only further examples are the slow movements of the string quartets K.168 and K.171 as well as the string quintet K.174, all three works composed in 1773.
8. Analyzing the complete corpus of Mozart arias in G minor, Steven B. Jan points out that subjects of loss and separation are typical for the last five ones, composed during Mozart’s last decade. In my opinion, the preoccupation with those topics may also be transferred to Mozart’s instrumental compositions in G minor created during this period. This view may, in turn, confirm the interpretation of the G minor string quintet in connection with the grief process (see: Steven B. Jan, Aspects of Mozart’s Music in G Minor, Toward the Identification of Common Structural and Compositional Characteristics, Garland, New York 1995).
9. For a discussion of the thematic and rythmic cross references in the quintet see also: Marius Flothuis, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Streichquintett g-Moll, KV 516 (=Meisterwerke der Musik 44), Wilhelm Fink Verlag, München 1987, pp. 23–24.
10. Alfred Einstein: Mozart, Sein Charakter, sein Werk (Frankfurt am Main 1967, p. 193); Wolfgang Hildesheimer, Mozart (Frankfurt am Main 1977, p. 178); Aron Ronald Bodenheimer: „Der trostlose Tröster“ (Über Mozart, edited by D. Klose, Stuttgart 1991, p. 316).

An ‘E-flat Major Motif’?

April 11, 2009


An ‘E-flat Major Motif’?

Thoughts on Correlation between Choice of Key and Thematic Elements in Mozart’s Music


Uri Rom

This is an abridged version of the article »Ein ›Es-Dur-Gedanke‹? Zum Zusammenhang von Motivik und Tonart bei Mozart«, published in the Zeitschrift der Gesellschaft für Musiktheorie 6/1 (2009) and available through  the following Internet link:

Was Mozart’s choice of key a matter of merely fixing an ‘external’ parameter of a composition, its exact location within a given space of possibilities, or does the employment of a specific key in Mozart’s works also bear substantial implications on the music written in it? Based on an examination of the occurrences of a melodic six note motif in Mozart’s works (see Example 1), I try in this article to establish a correlation between this motif and the key of E-flat major. Taking this case as a point of departure, I attempt to address the general issue of Mozart’s choice of keys and its relation to concrete structural elements in his music.

During the twentieth century, the question of Mozart’s use of keys has been approached mainly from the point of view of traditional key characteristics, a discipline assigning different expressive attributes to specific keys (a few examples may include F.O. Souper 1933, Alec Hyatt-King 1937, Roland Tenschert 1953, Martin Chusid 1968, Petra Bockholdt-Weber 2003 and Steven B. Jan 1995 – the latter publication is mainly occupied with structural aspects). The discipline of key characteristics, going back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, figures in the writings of Mozart’s predecessors and contemporaries (e.g. Johann Mattheson 1713, pp. 231–253, Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart 1806, pp. 261–265), however, there is no direct evidence that Mozart actually composed with key characteristics in mind. A short footnote in Leopold Mozart’s Violinschule (Leopold Mozart 1756, p. 59, fn. 1) betrays the latter’s pragmatic approach; Leopold seems to acknowledge the existence of key characteristics, but not to attach to them any major aesthetic significance.

Against this backdrop, it seems appropriate to seek a different approach towards Mozart’s use of keys, an approach based on an analytical evaluation of structural aspects of his music. One of the first contributions to this approach may be seen in Wilhelm Gloede’s article “Motivstruktur und Tonart bei Mozart” (“Motif Structure and Key in Mozart’s Music”, 1993). Explicitly rejecting key characteristics as an inadequate framework for considering Mozart’s use of keys, the author presents five motifs which seem to entertain a close relationship with specific keys. The current examination of the instances of the motif in Mozart’s works shown in Example 1 generally follows Gloede’s example, but extends the inquiry’s scope, which is in Gloede mainly restricted to the beginnings of movements (or of large structural units), to include Mozart’s oeuvre in its entirety. 


 Example 1: The six note motif (shown in C major)

The six note motif in question appears around fifty times in Mozart’s works, but it is mainly the ‘pure’ form of the motif, without any ornaments, that will occupy us here. The literalness of the employment of the motif also plays a decisive role in establishing its relation to the key of E-flat major. The eight unornamented occurrences of the motif are listed in Table 1; the corresponding ‘main’ instances (i.e., the first instances in each of the listed movements) appear in Example 2. Most of the listed occurrences are already referred to by earlier studies (e.g. Otto Jahn 1856–59, p. 633, fn. 50, Alexander Ulibischeff 1859, 3. vol., pp. 109–110, Alfred Heuß 1930/31, pp. 188–189, Ellwood Derr 1997, p. 289 and Joachim Brügge 1992, pp. 79–80), however, the representation in Table 1 seems to be the first comprehensive survey of the phenomenon in Mozart’s complete oeuvre.


Table 1: Unornamented instances of the six notes motif in Mozart’s complete works

Example 2: Main instances of the six note motif


Example 2a: W.A. Mozart, string Quartet in E-flat major K.160 (159a), 1st movement, Allegro, mm. 24–28


Example 2b: W.A. Mozart, Divertimento in D major K.205 (173a, 167A), 3rd movement, Adagio, mm. 1–4 (violin, viola and bass)


Example 2c: W.A. Mozart, String Quartet in F major K.168, 1st movement, Allegro, mm. 31–35


Example 2d: W.A. Mozart, string Quartet in E-flat major K.171, 1st movement, Adagio-Introduction, mm. 1–8


Example 2e: W.A. Mozart, Serenade in D major K.203 (189b), 4th movement, (Andante?), mm. 1–5


Example 2f: W.A. Mozart, Idomeneo, Dramma per Musica in tre atti K.366, No. 11, Andante ma sostenuto, mm. 1–6


Example 2g: W.A. Mozart, Symphony in G Minor K.550, 2nd movement, Andante, mm. 1–8


Example 2h: W.A. Mozart, Die Zauberflöte, Deutsche Oper in zwei Aufzügen K.620, No. 3, Larghetto, mm. 3–10

The instance in the third movement of K.205 is slightly ornamented, in that the first note of the six tone sequence is broken into a leap connecting two pitches an octave apart. Conversely, the anticipations in K.205 and in K.203 could hardly be considered a significant deviation from the unornamented form; two later instances of the motif in Ilia’s aria contain similar anticipations, whereas the first occurrence in the orchestral introduction of the aria (Example 2f) employs none – the coexistence of equivalent versions with and without anticipations in the same piece shows the modification resulting from the addition of anticipations to be rather insignificant for the definition of the melodic model in question.

The eight main occurrences in Example 2 show an outstanding dominance of the key of E-flat major; four of the eight cases share this key. Considering that E-flat major is one of the less frequent among Mozart’s seven common keys (still less frequent are G and A major), these findings seem even more striking.

A detailed analysis of the eight instances in Example 2 underlines the existence of three different types among them. The early Allegro instances in the string quartets K.160 and K.168 seem hardly related to the remainder of the cases, which are characterized by slower tempi. The slow introduction in K.171 constitutes a special case, introducing the motif in majestic quarter notes, completely unharmonized and beginning on a strong beat. The remaining five instances are characterized by lyrical breadth and moderate to slow tempi. Three of them are in E-flat major: the second movement of K.550 and the two arias from Idomeneo and Die Zauberflöte. A detailed harmonic analysis shows that these three instances further resemble one another in that the subdominant harmony, supporting tones 2–4 of the six tone sequence, is strongly articulated with an A-flat in the bass (in the two other lyrical instances, K.203 in G major and K.205 in A major, the bass sticks to the tonic throughout the presentation of the motif, belittling, as it were, the weight of the subdominant).

In view of the above, it seems fit to describe the motif in Example 1 in its unornamented form as a melodic structure with a strong affinity to E-flat major. What happens if we attempt to interfere with the original sequence? Let us first consider in what ways this could be achieved. The six note motif may be split into various structural strata in the following manner:

picture17Example 3: Structural strata of the six notes motif 

The first and the fourth note can be seen as harmonic and metric upbeats as well as a prolongation of the tonic; notes 2 and 5 are introduced as chromatic suspensions, resolving into notes 3 and 6 respectively (the unharmonized instance in K.171, beginning on a strong beat, is an exception to this rule). There are many ways to vary this basic structure. Substituting the chromatic suspensions from below for diatonic ones from above yields a melodic line such as the one in K.283. As opposed to the yearning, melancholy character of the original structure this variant is rather boisterous:

picture111Example 4: W.A. Mozart, Piano Sonata in G major K.283 (289h), 1st movement, Allegro, mm. 1–6

Substituting one of the upbeat notes and embellishing the other one may lead to the following solution, probably the earliest among Mozart’s works: 

picture10Example 5: W.A. Mozart, Sonata for Piano, Violin (or Flute) and Violoncello in A major K.12, 1st movement, Andante, mm. 5–8

In addition, there are a few dozens of other melodic formulations more or less closely related to the original motif. This fact shows clearly that restricting the findings in Table 1 to ‘unornamented’ instances constitutes an essential measure in order to establish a connection between the melodic structure in question and the key of E-flat major. Small licenses in the original model definition of the motif are enough in order to expand the group in such a way that no affinity to whatever key can be determined.

This, in turn, seems to indicate a crucial trait in Mozart’s attitude towards melodic schemata in general. If we accept the correlation between key and melodic structure in Table 1 to be more than a ‘happy coincidence’, we must assume that Mozart’s mental image of the ‘E-flat motif’ in question (and perhaps of other motifs as well) was pinpointed to its literal, ‘pure’ form, since even small changes led to instances of a different – or of no – key orientation.

Three instances that present the original six note motif in an only slightly modified form deserve individual consideration. Built into the theme of the oboe quartet K.370 (Example 6a), the motif is preceded by a circulatio figure and has its first and fourth tones split in two ‘elegant’ eight notes. The theme of the solo piano entry in the first movement of K.413 (Example 6b) renounces the circulatio figure of K.370, maintaining, however, the ‘double upbeat’ (on the basis of these two examples, it is tempting to see a connection between the motif variant with the double upbeat and the key of F major). Finally, no. 10 of the minuet series K.585 (Example 6c) presents the motif in E-flat major, reiterating tones 1 and 4 of the sequence in fiery dotted rhythm. Considering that these three instances differ from the ‘literal’ ones in Example 2 mainly by allowing for additional tone repetitions, they seem close enough to the original melodic structure to justify their inclusion in the evaluation of the key orientation of the group as a whole. However, broadening the original group of instances along these lines will only slightly affect the ‘hegemony’ of E-flat major among its members.

Example 6: Slightly modified instances of the six notes motif


Example 6a: W.A. Mozart, Oboe Quartet K.370 (368b) in F major, 1st movement, Allegro, mm. 8–14


Example 6b: W.A. Mozart, Piano Concerto in F major K.413, 1st movement, Allegro, theme of the solo entry, mm. 56–62
(also corresponding to mm. 235–241)

picture14Example 6c: W.A. Mozart, Minuet K.585 No. 10, mm. 1–8

The fact that a time interval of about 18 years spans the E-flat major occurrences of the six tone motif in Mozart’s works (from K.171 to Die Zauberflöte) raises the question of how and at what point the connection between key and melodic structure may have formed in the first place. To a certain extent, it seems plausible to assume that a correlation of such persistence may also reach deep into the past. On the basis of some chronological considerations, it is possible to show that – other than the ‘official’ dating in Table 1 suggests – Mozart may have been occupied with the conception of K.171 prior to the (hasty) composition of K.205. This hypothetical order of events makes it possible to identify the E-flat major instance in K.171 as the first instance of the motif in slow tempo (the two instances in fast tempo in K.160 and in K.168 are not taken into account in this context). Whatever its origin, the correlation between key and melodic structure seems to have intensified throughout Mozart’s creative career; the later one looks, the bigger the chances to encounter cases confirming it. At the end, even the last of the ‘slightly modified’ occurrences, the minuet K.585/10, succumbs to the ‘gravitational field’ exerted by E-flat major.

These findings agree with Steven B. Jan’s conclusions based on his examination of Mozart’s works in G minor:

On the basis of the areas of enquiry chosen […], it is clear from the summary that there is no career–wide or pervasive objective/structural characterisation of G minor in Mozart. On the other hand, it is possible to argue that the summary shows [that] increasingly towards the end of his life the composer was moving toward such a characterisation. (Jan 1995, p. 319)

Considering Mozart’s move towards a stronger correlation between key and structural elements as a process, it seems appropriate to describe it in terms of ‘fulfillment’ of a key’s potential; at the same time this process involves a narrowing down of the variety of possibilities to compose in a given key. It is hardly surprising that the process should further reach its final goal in the Zauberflöte, a work that, probably more than any other one by Mozart, could be regarded as a compendium of the composer’s motifs and types (compare Ludwig Finscher 1985, p. 278).

Generalizing from the correlation observed in the case of the six note motif between key and concrete structural elements, one may ask whether this phenomenon is unique to Mozart, or whether it may be seen in a broader context, involving also other composers of the First Viennese School (or even other composers still). An extensive research on the oeuvre of each of the composers in question might be necessary in order to answer this question, although some positive results concerning Haydn and Beethoven may be gathered from existing studies (compare Michael C. Tusa 1993, Petra Bockholdt-Weber 1990, James Webster 1991, p. 172).

In this context, one may further question the ‘source’ of the six tone motive and its relation to E-flat major. Did Mozart come upon this motif – either in its fast version in K.160/I or in the slow one in K.171/I – of his own, or was he following a model? The intriguing truth is that among the compositions Mozart may have heard during the 1760ieth–1770ieth there are no less than four works containing the six tone motive in its ‘pure’ form, on top of everything, three of these works are in E-flat major.

While eight years old Wolfgang was staying in London with his family for parts of the years 1764 and 1765, Johann Christian Bach’s symphonies op. 3 were performed and published there (it seems that all six symphonies originate form Bach’s earlier period in Italy, see Ernest Warburton 1984). Example 7 shows the beginning of the second movement of op. 3, no. 4, an Andantino, sempre piano in E-flat major; the six note motif appears here at the position of the sixth and seventh phrase of the theme:

picture15Example 7: Johann Christian Bach, Symphony in B major op. 3, no. 4, 2nd movement, Andantino, sempre piano, mm. 1–9

Taking into account the sympathy and the mutual esteem the two composers had for one another, it seems reasonable to assume that Johann Christian Bach’s melody found its way into Mozart’s repertory and gained a long lasting influence on his writing (it is a common assumption that influences absorbed at tender age hold longest). However, considering that many of the earliest cases in Table 1 are taken from string quartets, one wonders whether Joseph Haydn’s quartet cycles op. 9, 17 and 20, with which Mozart became acquainted no later than 1773 in Vienna (see Wolfgang Plath 1966, p. XI and fn. 30) – works that influenced Mozart’s own quartet writing a great deal – may have also played a role. Example 8 shows the beginning of the third movement of the C minor string quartet op. 17, no. 4, an Adagio cantabile in E-flat major:  

picture16Example 8 Joseph Haydn, String Quartet in C minor op. 17, no. 4, 3rd movement, Adagio cantabile, mm. 1–10

Just to make things even more complicated, the slow movement of the trio sonata in B-flat major H 584/Wq 158 by Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, a Largo in ¾ time, introduces the same six note motif also in E-flat major (this is the only work in E-flat I have been able to locate references to in the literature as a possible source for Mozart’s motif, see e.g. Hermann Abert 1955/56, I, p. 364; however, there is no evidence that Mozart actually knew it). A further instance of the motif in an opera by Paisiello – this time in F major – is referred to by several authors (see Abert 1955/56, I, p. 364; the source in Paisiello’s works is not mentioned).

Which of these three E-flat major movements should be regarded as ‘the’ model for the motif occurrences in Mozart’s works (the F major variant by Paisiello is hardly to be considered seriously in this regard)? There is no unequivocal answer to this question, however, taking into account that none among Mozart’s instances in Table 1 is in ¾ time, Johann Christian Bach’s Andantino (see Example 7) seems the most likely candidate. This hypothesis has, however, a major flaw: the occurrence in Bach’s movement resembles the instances in K.205 (A major) and K.203 (G major) much more than the first instance in E-flat major among Mozart’s works, namely K.171, with its solemn, somewhat rigid quarter notes. Only as late as the aria from Idomeneo does Mozart attain a comprehensive typological resemblance to the melody of Bach’s Andantino, at the same time also sharing its key.

The fact that each of the three ‘foreign’ E-flat major movements mentioned above may theoretically account for Mozart’s employing the six tone motif mainly in this key is rather puzzling in view of the thesis presented here. Is the affinity between motif and key not a Mozart-specific phenomenon after all? Was Mozart following here a much broader ‘fashion’ of his time? And does this imply that key dependent structural elements might constitute a much more common practice than writers on key characteristics have hitherto suspected? In this context, Alfred Heuß’ reference to the motif in terms of a “true E-flat major idea” (1930/31, pp. 188–189) seems symptomatic.

However, restricting the field of enquiry to Mozart, it may be possible to interpret the correlation between key and structure in his works as a consequence of his extraordinary musical gifts. The following explanation has been suggested – probably for the first time – by Wilhelm Gloede:

Owing to his absolute pitch, Mozart surely conceived his musical ideas not in an abstract tonal space, but rather in connection with concrete keys, and also his memory will have functioned in this way. (Gloede 1993, pp. 40–41, author’s translation)

Considering Mozart’s well documented absolute pitch as well as his phenomenal memory, it seems quite plausible that his musical thinking was basically key-oriented, and that this was responsible for the emergence of a Mozart-typical correlation between keys and specific musical material in his works. The various instances of the six tone motif are, indeed, hardly enough evidence in order to support a general theory, however, these findings seem to fit into a larger perspective of Mozart as a key-bound composer (more results, regarding key dependent melodic, harmonic and formal phenomena in Mozart’s works, will be included in the author’s forthcoming dissertation on Key dependent elements in Mozart’s music). The highly non standardized situation regarding pitch and tuning systems during Mozart’s lifetime (it is well known that Mozart and his contemporaries were exposed to ‘differently pitched’ keys depending on the city and on the instruments involved) poses a serious challenge for this thesis, without, however, discrediting it.

How a certain motif may have found its way into Mozart’s repertory and establish a long-term relation to a certain key is a question that cannot be completely resolved, since we shall never have a complete knowledge of the works Mozart knew and was influenced by. However, staying within the boundaries of Mozart’s works, these seem to tell a story of their own. Deducing from the six note motif as to the nature of Mozart’s oeuvre in general, key dependent elements seem to play in it a non-negligible role.



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