Mozart Fantasia in D Minor: A Closer Look & Analysis

In today’s episode, we’re going to look at the Mozart Fantasia in D minor. We’re going to talk about the history of the piece, the controversy of the ending, and then listen through bits and pieces of it and discuss some musical and technical aspects.

I generally make these analysis videos to be non-musician friendly – so if you’re just a casual music fan, with no knowledge of music theory or any of that, you should be able to follow this video pretty well.

Let’s get started!

Mozart Fantasia: General info

Mozart’s Fantasia in D minor, K. 397, was composed in 1782 and was left unfinished at his death. Despite that, it’s one of Mozart’s most popular piano pieces.

The last ten measures of this piece were probably written by a man named August Muller, who was a fan of Mozart. The ending was first discovered in an unauthorized print in 1806, about a decade after Mozart’s death. This version is what you’ll most commonly hear in performances of the piece.

This was one of Mozart’s pieces that was discovered after his death (since it was unfinished, it wasn’t published in his lifetime). The 1782 date of composition is an estimation based on its style in relation to other Mozart works (he was really into writing and learning Baroque music at the time).

As for the genre, Fantasias are improvisation-style compositions. They’re very free-form, and don’t conform to specific writing structures (like, say, a minuet or a sonata). Sometimes they serve as introductory material, paired with a fugue (Bach in particular wrote these, and so did Mozart).

Mozart Fantasia: Difficulty

This fantasia is quote doable at a Henle level 5/6, and RCM grade 9.

Part of the reason it’s so popular is because many piano students learn this piece somewhere along their journey. It’s a step up in difficulty from his sonatinas, but isn’t quite as challenging as most of his sonatas.

In addition to being very playable to the early advanced student, it’s also very likeable in its depth and emotion. Mozart seldom wrote moody music, but when he did, he went all out.

Mozart Fantasia: General structure

This piece is short and sweet, and performances are about five minutes long.

It moves through various sections:

Composition history

As mentioned, historians estimate that this fantasia was composed in 1782, mainly because of its similarities to his Prelude (Fantasy) and Fugure in C major, K. 394, also written in 1782, as well as another fantasy and a suite.

When Mozart moved to Vienna in 1781, he began to seriously study the works of Bach and other Baroque composers. This study would influence many of his later compositions (he liked incorporating counterpoint and polyphony into his later works, just like the Baroque style).

Mozart left behind a lot of unfinished fugue fragments during this time period – a fugue is a baroque counterpoint style written with multiple melodies as opposed to chords/melody.

These fugue fragments, as well as Mozart’s immersive study of Baroque music, is why it’s generally thought that this Fantasia was written during this time period. It’s also thought that it was meant to have an accompanying fugue section to go with it, and wasn’t meant to be a standalone fantasia. However, we’ll really never know, since all of these details have been lost in time.

Mozart and the key of D minor

A lot of composers tended to associate specific keys with specific moods or feelings. Mozart didn’t use the key of D minor often, but it’s the key that some of his darkest, weightiest compositions are written in. It’s Mozart’s preferred tragic key – his famous Requiem, for example, was also written in D minor and has very overt death themes.

I always find Mozart’s minor key compositions to be extra interesting because he composed so few pieces in minor keys. When we think of Mozart, we tend to think of very light and exuberant music, so these minor key works feel extra special.

Mozart Fantasia

We’re going to take a look at this fantasia section by section, and I’ll share audio clips of the various sections along the way. I’ll share any interesting tidbits about the various parts, which will hopefully give you a deeper understanding of this piece.

As mentioned, there are 3 main parts to this piece, and they’re all extremely different. You have the andante opening which is very slow and solemn, then the Adagio which is the bulk of the piece, and it finishes with the cheerier, major-sounding allegretto section.

We’ll take a look at each of these sections in turn. Let’s get started!

Mozart Fantasia: Andante (mm. 1-11)

The opening Andante section is clearly meant to be an introduction. We’ve actually done a tutorial of this section on the channel before if you want to check that out.

A word that I think describes this section well is “dreary”. The moving arpeggios are played low on the keyboard, and the sustained bass notes add a lot of weight to this part.

It opens in the key of D minor (the key of this composition), but ends on an A, the dominant. The fifth note of a key (D E F G A) tends to give us a sound of inconclusion – when we hear this tense, high arpeggio at the end, it makes us feel like something is around the corner. We’re not at rest, we’re waiting. The fermata on the low A exaggerates this tense, waiting feeling.

Let’s take a listen so you can hear what I’m talking about.


Mozart Fantasia: Adagio (mm. 12-54)

As previously outlined, the adagio section serves as the bulk of the piece. It has a few distinct sections:

  1. Adagio (the bulk of the piece)
    1. Theme 1 and 2
    2. Presto (fast improv section)
    3. Tempo primo (variation of theme 2)
    4. Presto (fast improv section)
    5. Tempo primo (theme 1)

Which we’ll take a look at.

The first theme is very mournful – it’s got a lot of 2-note slurs, which tends to give a melody a “sigh-ing” quality. The left hand chord pattern is very simple and very sad, providing a perfect backdrop to the tragic high melody.

Adagio Theme 2

Theme 2 still has a bunch of those “sighing” slurs, except now everything is agitated. We start off with a powerful and dissonant forte section, immediately contrasted with a piano section that, while quiet, still has much more movement than the first theme.

This theme gives us the real drama of the piece (in addition to the presto passages between sections), which we get from the mix of a louder volume, lots of rests, and chromatic passages.

Adagio: Presto section

There are a couple of these presto passages in this fantasia. They don’t have any bar lines or time signatures, meaning they’re meant to be played in a free-form style without a specific beat. These passages are called cadenzas, and Mozart uses them very effectively here to break up the different parts.

Adagio: Tempo primo theme 2

After that exciting cadenza, Mozart takes us back to the second theme – only this time it’s in a different key. It’s pretty much the same otherwise (with some changes at the end of the section).

Adagio: Presto, tempo primo theme 1

The second presto cadenza is even more of a ride than the first one – it follows a similar trajectory (downward then upward), but it’s twice as long.

After this presto, we return to tempo primo, which is the first theme again. I’ll play you an audio clip of the second presto, and then we’ll jump ahead to the third and final section of this piece.

Mozart Fantasia: Allegretto (mm. 55-end)

The allegretto section is really quite different from the deep, dark drama of the rest of the piece – it transforms to the key of D major. Dolce tells us this section is to be played sweetly – it almost feels like a happy ending here.

But despite the cheerful change of pace, we still have some sighing two-note slurs. I think if this part were isolated from the rest of the piece it would sound more like standard happy Mozart music, but in the context of the previous two sections, it really gives us the feeling of the calm after a storm. Mozart holds back here – he doesn’t dive into full enthusiasm – it’s more like a sense of tenuous peace is achieved.

Allegretto part 2

Immediately following the peace is a lively section with 16th notes in the left hand. Even though this gives the section more energy, it’s still got a light and legato sound to it – it never gets too boisterous or vigorous, which I think would ruin the mood set by the previous two sections.

This 16th note part leads us to our final presto-style cadence, and then the ending. Here’s a clip of the fast section – we’ll discuss the ending in depth in a moment.

Mozart Fantasia: Ending

So we have two endings here – Mozart’s “ending” – though it was considered incomplete – and the ending added by Muller some years later, which most people perform.

At the dominant chord with the fermata is where Mozart’s writing stopped. Let’s take a listen to this part – you’ll find that when the audio is over, it really doesn’t feel resolved. It feels like there was still more to come – maybe Mozart just couldn’t figure out what to do.

Added ending

Now let’s take a listen to the final 10 bars, which were probably written by Muller. Then we’ll get into a bit of a discussion regarding the controversy of this ending.

Mozart Fantasia: ending controversy

For nearly a century and a half, people had no idea that Mozart didn’t, in fact, actually write the last 10 bars of the piece. It was called into question in 1944, since scholars noted that the first published edition from 1804 showed the piece as 97 measures long, ending on that dominant note we just looked at. It was really not regular for a composer at the time to end a piece with the dominant, since it just sounds too unfinished.

In that first edition, the title was also “Fantaisie d’Indroduction”, implying that this piece was meant as an intro for another piece (which is why many think Mozart intended to write an accompanying fugue).

Two years later, they discovered, the fantasy was published again in 1806 – this time with an ending. The general consensus is that it was written by Muller, a Mozart admirer, for a more complete and pleasing publication.

Apparently Muller did a good job, since no one questioned that ending for a century and a half. However, once it came to light that Mozart didn’t actually write the ending, it was criticized for “not being completely satisfying” and that there’s “something rather abrupt about it”.

However, having an ending is better than no ending, which is why virtually everyone learns it with Muller’s ending. Some performers and composers have branched out with their own versions, but this is what we’ve got.

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this analysis of Mozart’s Fantasia in D minor. For further reading/watching, be sure to check out:

A Brief History of Mozart
Mozart Fantasia Introduction: Tutorial
Sonata form (Using Mozart’s K545 as an example)
The Music of Mozart

And here’s a video performance of the whole Fantasia:

xo,
Allysia

Audio credits

Performer: Stefano Ligoratti (piano)
Publisher: Classica Viva
Copyright: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.