I discovered Mozart’s Fantasia and Fugue in C Major, sometimes titled Prelude and Fugue, while looking for a non-sonata Mozart piece to learn in college (at the time I settled on the C minor Fantasia, K. 396). I’ve wanted to write about this one for a while, but I always had a fundamental problem: I like the fugue a lot, but most of the fantasy is just bad. I’m not even sure if this is a “hidden gem” because the first half is so flawed. But it’s worth studying as an example that not even our most revered composers are perfect.
In 1782, Mozart was having a Baroque moment, discovering the music of J.S. Bach and Händel. In a letter to his father he mentioned that he was collecting Bach’s fugues. He even transcribed some of them for string quartet. This Fantasia and Fugue was one of the results from his interest in counterpoint. He absorbed what he learned and put his skills on display in later works like Symphony No. 41.
The Fantasia’s Adagio introduction opens with gestures that begin grandly and finish with elegance. A moment of sustained diminished-chord harmony creates instability, and then closing gestures lead to a quiet cadence on G. What’s next?
Mozart then wakes us up with hammered triplet chords. A full eight beats of an A dominant chord! The left hand crosses over with a slow arpeggio, then rumbles around in the bass. Mozart repeats the pattern over two different harmonies. This is the first part that feels predictable and laborious. If the alternating lines over the triplets were a call and response between, say, violin and cello, there’d be a little more interest. Otherwise it’s up to the pianist to inject as much life and character as possible into the gestures.
Next pattern: more triplets. This time they trace a path up into the high treble register. We get that a few times, and then finally two meager measures where something actually seems to be starting, with harmonies progressing every beat instead of every bar. Then we’re back to more triplet frivolousness. Literally just descending scales with pedal tones in the right hand. Really, Mozart? You couldn’t think of anything better to move this along?
The triplets develop into some little half-step call and responses, and then the next two pages of the score give way to some really nice sequences. But it gets cut short by a very Bachian set of dotted-rhythm chords and a diminished arpeggio swooping up and down. Mozart seems to like that and repeats it twice more, then dispenses with the chords altogether and just starts arpeggiating all over the place. By the time the dust clears, we have been up and down the keyboard for no less than eight modulations of a diminished arpeggio, and then Mozart keeps the arpeggios coming as he arrives in A minor. I understand that diminished arpeggios were sort of a vogue thing with pianist-composers even through Liszt’s day, with that complicated, unstable sound, but today they’re just exhausting. They’ve aged as badly as some scenes in Hitchcock movies where some wealthy elites stand around and talk about a theoretical murder, as if that’s supposed to titillate us.
Anyway. After all those arpeggios, the next section reiterates that banal descending-scale/pedal thing. If you listen you’ll know what I’m talking about. The final page of the score unfolds with some more interesting harmonic logic to carry it to a close.
Phew. That was rough. Now we can talk about the fugue.
This fugue is simply astonishing. From a simple, unshowy subject Mozart begins layering on the dissonance almost immediately. The two perfect-fourth leaps in the subject create many of the biggest clashes. When I say “dissonances”, I’m mainly talking about major seconds, which are considered dissonant in traditional counterpoint. It’s not as edgy as a minor second, but the prevalence of this sonority makes it sound less like Mozart and more like…I dunno…one of Shostakovich’s fugues?
The first countersubject, which sort of folds in on itself, gives Mozart a lot to work with. He uses it to color some intricate chromatic passages with even more bold dissonances on strong beats. A whole host of characters emerges from the working out of this material: melancholy, nobility, determination.
As the fugue progresses, we see Mozart employing both augmentation and diminution of the subject, mainly in the bass (sorry for the counterpoint-class jargon). His obsession with the countersubject continues as he states it in thirds, then in octaves at the end. I know I can’t seem to get through a blog post without talking about pedal bass, but I like how Mozart turns to a G pedal briefly to set up the coda.
Overall, the fugue flows confidently, with a well-judged sense of when to lighten the texture, and with occasional details that make me listen more closely. It’s the Baroque filtered through a Classical lens of added boldness, and the dissonant messiness of this piece will be fascinating to any fan of Mozart (or Beethoven, the real fugue champ of the Classical/early Romantic era).
Special thanks to this blog for being a big source of insight.
Brendan, Wow. I realize how confident you are, and how knowledgable, to pan a piece by one of the greats. Always entertaining and Uber- informative, as usual. Bravo. Dad
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Regarding your point on how Mozart “couldn’t think of anything better”, the harmony is really what makes it interesting, just like Beethoven’s moonlight sonata or bach’s prelude in C from his WTC.
We heard this piece played live by Grigory Sokolov in Barcelona, and it was an amazing composition. Of course the fugue is astonishing but the first part was very good too. Great music!
In the Fugue, why does the 2nd exposition starting on measure 3 start on a C with a dotted quarter note instead of a D with a dotted quarter note? It seems like Mozart or a copyist must have made a mistake. It doesn’t match the other expositions.
Thanks for pointing that out! Very curious indeed. I’ll have to read up on it and see if there’s a reason.