Analytical and interpretative considerations,

© Fabio Grasso 2021


Go to the end of this page to watch the embedded video of the performance



Mozart's Piano Sonata K. 280, belonging to the group of the first 6 Sonatas composed in München at the beginning of 1775, presents some particular features, from the point of view of the macrostructure, of the compositional techniques and of the expressive meanings.





This is the only Sonata with a central slow movement in minor key (F minor, while F major is the principal tonality of the work).

It is well known that the two Sonatas in minor key, K. 310 in A minor and K. 457 in C minor, have central slow movements in major key. There is only one other case of a Sonata in major key with a movement in minor key, the Sonata K. 331 in A major; however, its Allegretto Alla Turca in A minor is not slow, not central, and after all it ends in A major.

While the other Sonatas always propose various types of alternation between binary / quaternary and ternary rhythms along the succession of their movements, only in this one all movements have a ternary connotation: purely ternary 3/4 and 3/8 are used for the 1st and the 3rd movement, the compound rhythm 6/8 for the Adagio - but obviously the slower a 6/8 piece is, the more its ternary component becomes prevalent in perception.

There is a relationship between the initial motivic cells of the First Themes of each movements: they all consist of at least three repeated notes, C-C-C(-C) in the first movement, C-C-C with turning tone D flat in the second movement, F-F-F in the third movement. Such subtle motivic relations between different movements can be found in various masterworks of the fully classical age - for example in Beethoven's Sonata op. 2 n. 3.





In many of his early sonata-forms Mozart does not place a real Development between Exposition and Recapitulation, but rather a free section with materials not derived from those of the Exposition - for example this happens in the first movements of the Sonata K. 283 and of the Symphony K. 201, just to mention two cases. This solution would be unthinkable in a fully classical sonata-form.

The first movement of the Sonata K. 280 has a quite classical Development, mainly consisting of a modulating progression built on the two contrasting elements of the Second Theme (the 3 quarter octaves of the left hand in triadic relation and the groups of sixteenths of the right hand). Mozart just takes the liberty of introducing a "new entry" at the beginning of the Development, the dotted rhythm, of which there is no trace in the Exposition; it will not be recalled later.

Moreover, in the Exposition and in the Recapitulation of the first movement we cen notice some remarkable cases of ideas generated by means of thematic-motivic elaboration. See the formal scheme below to read about some examples of expositive segments derived through development processes from previous materials, a method that anticipates the fully mature classical style.





An opposite indication comes from the observation of the single structures: all three movements are sonata-forms, and none of them present a general Coda: the final segment of the Recapitulation acts also as conclusion of the movement.

Some interesting considerations are suggested from the analysis of the Modulating Transitions (MT).

The MT of the Recapitulation of the first movement is changed through an accessory variation - that means a variation which, unlike the functional one, does not affect the global route of the MT, whose final harmony is the same as in the Exposition, and can be connected both to the Dominant key (Exposition) and to the Tonic (Recapitulation, see more details below). What is noteworthy in this change is the further pursuit of variety in a passage already characterized by some microvariations in the series of similar but not identical figurations, determined by the slightly different steps of the chromatic progression.

While the MT of the 1st movement's Exposition points directly to the Dominant, that of the Presto's Exposition leads, more classically, to the Dominant of the Dominant; therefore in the Recapitulation it needs a functional variation that changes the goal (from Dominant of Dominat to Dominant) and allows the connection to the Second Theme in the principal Tonic key.

The Adagio has no MT: the Second Theme immediately follows the first one.




with chronometric references based on the video at the end of this page







- E1 bar 1 00:00 1st Thematic Group - 1st Idea = 1TG_1 = FIRST THEME

- E2 b5 00;06 1st Thematic Group - 2nd Idea = 1TG_2, secondary element, with double varied enunciation of the 3 last bars.


- E3 b13 00;15 MT, rhythmically characterized by the triplets. As said above, this is the most simple type of MT that has the Dominant harmony as target (here in contrast with the complex harmonic route of the passage). So, in the Exposition this Dominant harmony immediately becomes Tonic harmony for the Second Theme, in the Recapitulation it comes back to the principal Tonic, through the connection V - I.

With this method the MT of the Recapitulation could also remain unchanged. However, composers very often make accessory variations, in order to obtain a different passage with the same arrival point as in the Exposition.


- E4 b27 00:34 Second Thematic Group - First Idea = 2TG_1 = SECOND THEME (C major)

- E5 b35 00;44 Second Thematic Group - Second Idea = 2TG_2, secondary element derived from MT, both rhythmically (triplets) and harmonically (chromatic progression, here ascending, while in MT it is descending). It is not so usual to find, in the Exposition of an early sonota-form, some elements so clearly derived from previously heard materials. This will become normal in late Mozart and Beethoven.

- E6 b43 00;56 Second Thematic Group - Third Idea = 2TG_3, with double varied enunciation

- E7 b54 01:11 Second Thematic Group - Fourth Idea = 2TG_4, conclusive element of the Exposition.




- D1 b57 02'31 Relatively free opening of the Development, with triplets from MT, and dotted rhythms as new material.

- D2 b67 02:47 Main section of the Development: modulating progression on 2TG_1, with alternance of its two elemtns - the second (figuration of sixteenths) is shortened. This cutting technique is extremely frequent in the Developments of the classical sonata-forms.


D3 b75-82, in three segments

- D3a b75 02:59 The previous progression is broken by a 3-insertion that cuts the sixteenths and keeps the 3-quarter rhythms, turning chromatically around the Dominant of D minor.

- D3b b78 03:04 Dominant Pedal of D minor, with reference to the triplets of MT

- D3c b80 03:07 Modulation to F major (Dominant), recalling the main melodic fragment of 1TG_2, here in a new metric position - it is shifted to the second quarter of the measure.




- R1 b83 03:12 1TG_1

- R2 b87 03:18 1TG_2


- R3 b95 03:29 Varied MT


- R4 b109 03:48 2TG_1 (F major)

- R5 b117 03:58 Insertion of an element not present in the Exposition: the two components of the Second Theme are superimposed and used to create a progression, with a virtuoso character. This is the most clear example of development techniques out of Development.

- R6 b123 04:06 2TG_2

- R7 b131 04:17 2TG_3

- R8 b142 04:32 2TG_4






- E1 b1 04:41 FIRST THEME, F minor

- E2 b9 05:20 SECOND THEME, A flat major

1st segment b9-12, 2nd segment b13-16, 3rd segment with the characterizing couple of repeated notes b17-21

- E3 b21 06:08 Short Coda of the Exposition



- D1 b25 08:17 Line of the First Theme on different harmonicsupport (Diminished Seventh and interrogative Dominant of B flat minor)

- D2 b29 08:36 Free chromatic progression

- D3 b33 08:52 Sort of "False Recapitulation", First Theme in C minor



- R1 b37 09:12 First Theme shortened (cutting of a repeated fragment). See also the interpretative suggestions below.

- R2 b43 09:43 Second Theme, F minor, with variations of the melodic profile or of the left hand accompaniment in all segments.- the last of them is extended.

- R3 b57 10:40 Slightly varied Coda of the Recapitulation







- E1 b1 11:06 1TG_1 = FIRST THEME, with component A (b1-4) and B (b5-8). The second varied enunciation presents A one octave below and B' completely changed.

- E2 b17 11:15 1TG_2


- E3 b25 11:20 MT ending on the Dominant of C major


- E4 b38 11:29 2TG_1 = SECOND THEME (C major): introductory segment (b38-41), main line (b42-49). In the second enunciation both elements are varied - more evidently the main line.

- E5 b59 11:42 2TG_2

- E6 b66 11:47 2TG_3 Short Coda of the Exposition



- D1 b78 12:43 Unfinished 2-members progression based on the introductory dotted figure of the Second Theme (member 1) and on a passage of broken octaves (member 2). The alternation is stopped after the succession 1-2-1.

- D2 b90 12:52 The progression continues only with the broken octaves in a different distribution between the hands.

- D3 b98 12:57 Conclusive phrase, whose sextuplets beginning with rests are derived from the similar ones of E6.




- R1 b107/108 13:04 1TG_1 = FIRST THEME

- R2 b124 13:13 1TG_2


- R3 b132 13:18 MT with functional variation, that is the modulation to F major at b136


- R4 b149 13:29 2TG_1 = SECOND THEME (F major)

- R5 b170 13:44 2TG_2

- R6 b177 13:48 2TG_3 Slightly extended Coda





1. In this Sonata various kinds of short sounds are often required to be played forte. In general in the classical piano works, and in particular in Mozart, no type of staccato should never be too dry. The arm action must be very soft while playing these sounds, never to be stopped suddenly. For example, the rendering of the left hand octaves of the 2nd Thematic Group of the first movement should be obtained by taking inspiration from dhe sonority of the orchestral cellos, much more than through a merely percussive approach. In some cases very light pedals can be helpful in getting the appropriate effect.


2. Clearly understanding the construction mechanisms of MTs is important for memorization. First movement's MT needs a solid memorization of the harmonic flow; practicing the triplets as trichords can be useful.


3. In R5 section of the first movement the virtuoso extension of the Second Theme is the most difficult passage of this Sonata. Here's a possible helpfule fingering: bars 118 and 120, pass the lower note of the first right hand octave to the left hand, finger 1. For the first three sixteenths of the left hand use 3-4-1.


4. Recurring ideas and Ritornelli of the Expositions create a relevant amount of repetitions. Slightly diversifying some repeated phrases (mainly as concerns dynamics and pedals) is a source of expressive enrichment. Listen to the performance for several examples.


5. The advise n. 4 is particularly important for the Adagio. Its First Theme presents a clear analogy with the initial theme of the second movement of the Piano Concerto K. 488; it is fascinating to think that the nineteen-year-old composer had a premonition of that masterpiece in F sharp minor, composed eleven years later, that is, as for meditative depth, one of the most astonishing culminating points of his production.

In the Adagio of the Sonata K. 280, besides the intrinsic significance of the doleful melodies of both themes (in the Recapitulation the Second Theme in minor key, with its beginning on eighths separated by rests almost seems to foreshadow the painful breath of the last Adagio of Beethoven's Sonata op. 110), just one detail of a varied repetition can suffice to reveal the depth of inspiration: the First Theme of the Recapitulation is shortened by two bars, and this intervention gives it an ineffable sense of resignation, which differentiates it from its more extended equivalent of the Exposition.

Therefore it would seem appropriate to interpret this last apparition of the theme by slightly accentuating the diminuendo, with an almost imperceptible nuance of rallentando, in order to highlight one of the most moving intuitions conceived by the young genius in this so precious and precocious gem.


© Fabio Grasso 2021