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When Mozart’s first sonatas for violin and keyboard were published in 1764, it was as “Sonatas for Harpsichord, Which Can Be Played with Violin Accompaniment.” This was a rather modish genre at the time that also vividly marked a pronounced stylistic shift from music composed as horizontal layers to music constructed around vertical stacks.

Thirteen years later, the rapidly maturing composer was in Mannheim on a job-seeking tour, where he played six keyboard and violin duets by one Joseph Schuster. “They are not bad,” Mozart wrote to his father. “If I stay on I shall write six myself in the same style, as they are very popular here.” He carried through on this plan with six sonatas (known as the “Palatine” Sonatas from their dedication to the Electress of the Palatine) published in Paris the following year, 1778.

In these sonatas the ensemble balance is much more equitable. Like all but one of them, the Sonata in E-flat is in two movements – uncommon for Mozart, but not among his models. The first is a textbook sonata form, with a thematic development section that begins, dramatically, in the minor dominant. It is filled with the instrumental brilliance for which Mannheim music was famed. (And the urgent “Mannheim rocket” crescendo launched after the repetition of the opening loud/soft phrase, among many other examples in the keyboard part, was clearly conceived for the piano, not the harpsichord.)

The second movement is a rondo, but not the exuberant, Haydnesque sort. Rather it is an expressive Andante grazioso in the galant J.C. Bach mode popular in Mannheim, with a gently solemn refrain tune that Mozart varies simply but touchingly in texture. The extended final return of that theme is a particularly fine example of Mozart’s characteristic talent for taking a popular model and transcending and transfiguring it with genius.

— J. H.