The Drama, the intrigue . . . Could this really be Mozart?

An analysis of Sonata K. 311 in D major (3rd mvt.)

by Rebekah Jordan

Between the autumn of 1777 and the summer of 1778, Mozart composed seven new piano sonatas (including K.311 in this grouping). This period of composition has been called Mozart's 'Middle Period.' Two of the sonatas (K. 309 and K. 311) were composed while Mozart was in Mannheim, and the other five sonatas were composed in Paris; therefore this period has also been called the 'Mannheim-Paris' period. It was noted that the Mannheim orchestra had a great impact on the compositional techniques of these piano sonatas. The idea of orchestral writing is evident in the K.311 sonata, especially the 3rd movement, because of the contrast in texture and tonal colour.

Click to hear the rondo finale. (MIDI 29Kb)

The rondo is different from many of Mozart's other 3rd movement rondos. In many of the rondos, the A section (the thematic material that returns over and over again) functions as 'just another pretty tune,' which has closure and could stand on its own as a short piece of music. This A section, moves away from that mold. The first time it is stated (mm. 1 - 26), there is a sense of closure, but in the following A section, Mozart uses the end of the first thematic material as a transition. Therefore the end of the A section can be divided into two parts: the A section that is completed with a sense of closure (a), and the A section that goes on to sound like the transition to the other sections (b). In this paper, I will further discuss the function of the transition and how it adds a dramatic quality that is absent from many of Mozart's other rondos.

The Formal Outline


- m. 1 - 26: section ends with closure (a)

- transition to B m. 26 - 40 (new thematic material that places a strong emphasis on V)


- m. 41 - 79

- retransition back to A m. 79 - 85


- m. 86 - 104: section ends in an open manner and uses the material from the end of A to take us to the C section (b)

- transition to C m. 105 - 118 (takes the material from the end of A [m.19] and transposes it to G major [IV]

- he also takes the chord progression that ends A and repeats it 4 times, slowly modulating to b minor [vi])


- m. 119 - 156

- retransition back to A m. 157 - 168 (Codetta and Cadenza m. 68-173)


- m. 174 - 189: cuts the A section down and moves directly to the transition material (m. 179) - (b)

- transition m. 189 - 205 (he cuts the A section short and immediately goes into the first transition material [material from measure 27], except this time the key is G major [IV]


- m. 206 - 244

- retransition m. 244 - 248


- m. 248 - 266: (a) - ends with a sense of closure (this is an abbreviated version of A, ending with the chord progression that ended the first statement of A

- coda m. 266 to the end

Let's begin with the first transition. Before this first transition, the A section has a sense of closure with a chord progression ending in a Perfect Authentic Cadence (PAC) in the tonic key. (Figure 1 - measures 24 - 26)

Figure 1.

Even though the cadence would definitely lead us to believe that this is the end of the A section, the texture is so entirely different from the material that led us through the A section, that it creates a sense of curiosity or expectancy. It is hymn-like in its chordal texture and the contrast between a lilting 6/8 rhythm and the four solemn chords is quite distinct. Mozart also marks it piano - it is not a grand close. The actual transition, which begins in measure 26, is marked by an abrupt change. The dynamics have moved from piano to forte. The texture has also been completely transformed. Mozart now writes an aggressive octave pattern which occurs in measures 26 - 28 and again in measures 30 - 32. The primary function of this transition is to move to the dominant (A major) in order to prepare for the B section which is in V. Mozart emphasizes the dominant by repeating the V/V (E major), as a result, tonicizing V. Following the aggressive octaves, which lead down to G sharp (the leading tone of A), Mozart writes a flourish of sixteenth notes (A-major scale patterns) with broken V/V going to V chords underneath the rapid moving notes, thus forming a tonicization of V. The transition comes to a dramatic conclusion on a half cadence (HC) in A major.

In the next transition (the A section transitioning to the C section - mm.105 - 118), Mozart transforms old material to represent something new. He re-uses the same music, but with tonal changes. Instead of simply acting as closing material, Mozart moves the music, found at the end of the A section, into the new tonal area of the C section (b minor). He concludes the A section in a similar fashion with a perfect cadence and then four arpeggiated D major chords, except this time the last arpeggiation ends on a C natural, which is the 7th of the V7 of G major (the key in which the transition begins). The thematic material is the same as the closing material of the A section (m. 19), even with the dominant pedal point, which is now D because the material is in G major. This passage concludes on a P.A.C. in G major and then moves into the chordal progression that concluded the A section (vi - V/V - V - I). This pattern proceeds to be repeated 4 times, alternating between a piano and a forte dynamic markings, which again enhances the dramatic content of the movement. (Figure 2 - mm. 110-118).

Figure 2.

This sequence of chord progressions takes Mozart's initial idea somewhat further. Rather than continuing with all four chord progressions in major keys, Mozart alternates between major and minor sonorities - - within the progression itself (major and minor chords) and between the progressions as well (major and minor keys). He begins with the original harmonies of vi - IV - V - I in G major (IV). He then writes a moment of rest, which permits the decay of the sound and the sense of anticipation. The next progression is VI - viio7- V - i , in e minor (ii), which gives a darker sound. There is then a vi - IV - V - I , again, in D major (I), followed by the progression which guides the listener into the C section. The final progression is in b minor (the starting point in the C section) and the harmonies are viio7 - i - VI - V (HC). There appears to be a focus on the half step (A sharp, B and G-F sharp). This wonderful idea of Mozart's foreshadows the tension created by the minor 2nd prevalent in the C section (tremolo type pattern in the left hand).

In the final transition material (mm. 189 - 205) , from the A section back to the B section, the A material is once again is transformed.

Mozart continues with the A material, as he did in the beginning, with the exception of moving the second statement of the theme down the octave (m. 181), doing this most likely to create diversity. He writes the scalar motive of the D major scale, just as he did before, finishing on the D-major triad. He then skips a section, proceeding immediately into the dramatic octave section (m. 189 - repetition of m. 26). He continues as before with the 16th note passage with the broken chords underneath, except this time he is emphasizing the tonic rather than the dominant (the passage is in D major). Mozart concludes the transition on a H.C., just as before (m. 40), but once again the cadence is in D major (m. 205).

The A material is heard one last time at the end, in the coda and this time Mozart uses the material from the first A section, but only writes the opening material once, rather than repeating it in the 2nd phrase. I believe he cuts down the length of the A section because the audience has listened to it several times and he is using as an afterthought this time, rather than a substantial section. He completes the last entrance of the A section with the hymn-like chord progression, reinforcing the importance of that material, which may have once seemed insignificant.

The retransition also plays an important role in the structure of the movement. It does not contain as much of a connecting line (the material is new to the ear), while the transition uses similar material. Each retransition contains some new material and serves a unique purpose.

The first retransition, connecting the B and A sections, has a strong focus on the dominant, which creates an element of tension because it never resolves to the tonic. This may not have been quite so obvious, except for the fact that the end of the B section could possibly sound like the end of the piece. Measures 75 - through to the downbeat of 79, could perhaps function as a codetta at the end of the B material. It ends on a strong V - I cadence in A major, which is then followed by the retransition material outlining the A major scale (with an emphasis on the G sharp-A) - measures 79 - 85. There is then a 3 beat space of rest, after which Mozart surprises his audience with the return of the A theme in the tonic key. He creates this dramatic surprise in several ways. First of all, Mozart ends the transition with the complete tonicization of V, with no hint of the A material at measure 85, thus naturally it is a shock when the A material returns. The second surprise , as I already mentioned, is the space of silence before the A section. This causes an element of suspense, with the audience not knowing what is to follow. Finally, the transition ends forte and the following material begins piano, so there is quite a distinct difference in the level of sound.

The retransition from the C material back to the A, is the most dramatic. This retransition incorporates material from all of the different sections and themes. The C section ends on a P.A.C. in G major (IV). The material that begins the retransition is taken from the beginning, of the first A section, in measures 16-18 with the arpeggiated chord passage. The continuing material is taken from the A section in measure 19, except now it begins in e minor and it has no dominant pedal point. This material is transposed down a step, bringing the music into the tonic key. In measure 168, a similarity to the B codetta material (m. 75) occurs with an intensity that builds to a full dominant seventh chord with a fermata (m.172). The next measure is mysterious and somewhat obscure, because it comes out of nowhere (completely new material and new texture). Mozart writes a fairly brief but elaborate cadenza at the end of the C section. This would cause the listener to: 1. wonder if there would actually be a B section following the next A section (a cadenza usually refers to the end or extremely close to the end of a piece) and 2. ask why Mozart would write a cadenza in the middle of the piece. As I mentioned earlier, the Mannheim orchestra had a great effect on Mozart's pianistic writing. This cadenza could perhaps give remind one of a piano concerto, which would in turn give the third movement the effect of a tutti and soloist. The final retransition from the second B section to the closing A material is again quite different. The B section ends with a codetta, a V-I motion in D major, but then what follows has not been heard before. There is a small ascending motive, outlining a I - V - I - V progression (See Figure 3).

Figure 3.

The passage begins with single notes in the right hand, outlining D major and then in measures 246-247 the passage moves to thirds. Observe the outline of the top notes (D - E - F sharp- G - A) and the final third has an A on the top of the chord, which connects to the same A'at the beginning of the return of the A section. The thirds just reinforce and bring out the A - F sharp idea.

As I mentioned earlier, the A section, in this rondo, does not have the structural significance that many other Mozart rondos possess, in that it doesn't hold the movement together. One might ask, 'What is the function of the A section and why is it there, if it is not significant?' I believe the reason for the A section is to provide the listener with a distinct contrast in sound and texture (compared to the B and C sections).

If the A section was daring harmonically and if it always had a dramatic introduction and a grand closing, it would take away from the shocking characteristics of the other sections. Another function of the A section is to bring the dramatic content back down after the intense episodes. It acts as a calming device and this is effective because the opening theme is quite light-hearted and playful, so the listener feels joy and relief each time it returns.

One very interesting structural tool, that I have not discussed yet, is the underlying emphasis on the minor 3rd, which is prevalent throughout the entire rondo movement. One might say that thinking of the minor third as a motive is ridiculous, because it may be completely unnoticeable to the listener. This is true. It is very difficult to hear in the context of the entire movement. The primary minor third that Mozart draws from for melodic material is the A to the F sharp, which is the top of the D major triad (D- F sharp - A). Why did Mozart not focus on the major third (D-F sharp)?

The first occurrence of the minor 3rd motive arrives as early as the very first entry of the theme (the A going to the F sharp) and then in the left hand chords that follow (the D- bottom note - going to the B).  See figure 4a and b.

Figure 4.

I discussed previously how the transition and the retransition connect the A section and the episodes, which provides a more noticeable connecting element throughout the movement. The minor third is a discreet device to unify the entire movement and it occurs in every section of thematic material. Another example of this is in measure 7 with the 16th note descending scale passage to the half cadence. This is where we could use the Schenkerian analysis model. If you look at beats one and four you can see a descending minor third (D down to B). See figure 5.

Figure 5.

This same example also occurs in measure 14. The minor third motive happens again at the end of the A section, before the transition. This example may be more obvious because the minor third is solid, functioning as a neighbor tone. The motive occurs once more in the A statement in the final chord progression. Look at the top voice of the V - I cadence (the 'a' going to the 'f#'). See example 6a and b.

Figure 6.


The final minor third in the A section is important to the structure of the entire movement because it is used again in the finale and adds closure to the piece, an idea I'll return to. The motive also occurs in the opening theme of the B section. In measure 44, you can see, and it may seem obvious, the minor third in the right hand harmonies (the B and D in a solid chord), but what is not quite as obvious is the minor third immediately before that (the F sharp and the A), because it is hidden in the inner harmonies. There are many other occurrences in the B section but, in the interest of space, I'll move on to the C section and the coda. The C section is where the minor third motive comes to life, and this is partly due to the fact that this section is in B minor (vi). It is somewhat easier to write a number of minor thirds in a minor key rather than a major key.

The very opening of the C section (m. 119) has a descending minor third pattern in 16th notes, giving the effect of a minor tremolo. This enhances the drama considerably. Everyone knows the old horror movie scene where the minor third tremolos are introduced into the music and the candelabra shakes with intensity and who appears? The Villain! Mozart even writes the trills above the tremolos to add to the trembling effect.  See Figure 7.

Figure 7.

Mozart continues by moving us into the secondary thematic material of the C section, where he transforms the theme to G major (IV). The listener and performer can relax. After all, we are out of the dramatic minor section in B minor. Even though we are in the safety of a major key, right in the beginning of this new section Mozart includes his minor third motive once again. See Figure 8 - mm. 139-140.

Figure 8.

I had mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph the notion of the minor third motive that occurred at the end of the A section, closing off the entire piece. I will go into further detail with this idea now. If you look at measure 264-266, one can see the chord progression that ended the first A section and one can witness, as before, the minor third in the top voice (A going to F sharp).

Following this there is a one and a half bar tremolo effect, taken from the C section with a minor third in the top voice, ending on a V I cadence in D major. One might believe this is the end that they have been anticipating. But no! There are two chords that still follow. I'm sure you can imagine what interval is in the top voice. Of course, the minor third and the notes are A going to F sharp, which, if you remember, is the same pattern of the top voice of the hymn-like chord progression.

I briefly discussed the importance of the cadenza at the end of the C section and how this related to the effects of the Mannheim orchestra. The cadenza can also be related to the minor third motive. The cadenza is basically an arpeggiation of an A7 chord with ornamentation (skips, steps, turns, scales, chromatic scales). However, if you eliminate all the 'fancy notes,' you are left with an extended A7 chord, with the G pointing down to a resolution on F# at the A theme, and the high B leading to a resolution on the A- thus the cadenza could be seen as an elaborate decoration of the A-F sharp motivic idea, foreshadowing the return of those notes at the end of the piece (Figure 9).

Figure 9.

The rondo, which may have, at first, appeared simple in structure and standard in harmonic development, has proved to be something far more complex. This rondo provides a perfect dramatic conclusion to the rest of the sonata.


Copyright 2001 by Rebekah Jordan.