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

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.


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