Mozart’s Influence on Beethoven’s Early and Middle Periods

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 Mozart’s Influence on Beethoven’s Early and Middle Periods


Choice of Tonality

As a prolific composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote more than 600 compositions.  However, he wrote only a few works in minor keys. Mozart’s compositions in minor keys include only two symphonies (K. 183 and K. 550), two piano concertos (K. 466 and K. 491), two string quartets (K. 173 and K. 421), two piano sonatas (K. 310 and K. 457), plus some doubtful transcriptions, incomplete fragments and sacred works.[1] The rarity of these works shows that for Mozart minor keys have unique characteristics and significant expressive purposes. Mozart was careful in his choice of keys and used the key based on its special character. For instance, in Piano Sonata in C minor, K. 457, Mozart used the Pathétique character of C minor to express a sorrowful emotion,[2] illustrating the association between his choice of key and musical expression.

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 Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C minor K. 457 was composed in 1784, the year Mozart had several crises of various kinds—psychological, philosophical, and emotional, particularly his separation from Theresa von Trattner, who was one of Mozart’s pupils in Vienna. Theresa was certainly an important figure in Mozart’s life, receiving a special attention and affection from him..[3] In September 1784, Mozart left Theresa’s residence abruptly without apparent reason, maybe seeking to distance himself from Theresa and avoid any possibility of a social scandal. Mozart dedicated Piano Sonata K. 457 and Fantasia K. 475 to Theresa, and also sent her two letters in which he explained how these works should be interpreted. Jorge Cova states, “The dedication of K. 457and K. 475 reveals Mozart’s deep sentiments toward her.”[4] It is reasonable to assume these crises made Mozart choose the dramatic C minor as the key of Sonata K. 457 as Thomas Richner states, “C minor is the ‘Pathétique’ key to Mozart.”[5] Mozart expressed dramatic, dark, sorrowful, and tragic emotions as well as “grim seriousness” in this work.[6]  Furthermore, the Beethoven-like emotional intensity and power of this sonata are obvious. “Beethovenisme d’avant la lettre” (Beethovenism before the fact) is how a French critic described it.[7] Einstein states, “This very sonata contributed a great deal to making Beethovenism possible.”[8] The musicologist Joseph Kerman says, “Back of all these pieces lay on an expressive vision of Mozart’s, in such compositions as the great C-minor Concerto, the C-minor Quintet, and especially the Fantasy and Sonata for Piano in C minor. This latter work was published in 1785. What an effect it must have made on the emotional boy at Bonn (Beethoven)!……”[9] The dramatic tension in Mozart’s C minor works strongly foreshadowed Beethoven’s famous “C minor mood.”[10]

C minor is commonly regarded as a special key for Beethoven. Beethoven wrote a number of works in C minor such as Piano Sonata, Op. 13, “Pathétique”, Opus 10, No.1, and Piano Concerto, Op. 37. As George Grove argues, “The key of C minor occupies a peculiar position in Beethoven’s compositions. The pieces for which he has employed it are, with very few exceptions, remarkable for their beauty and importance.”[11]  

Beethoven often used C minor to express emotions similar to those in Mozart’s C minor works.[12] For instance, Mozart composed Piano Sonata in C minor, K. 457 when he had suffered from various crises. For Mozart, C minor is connected with misery and especially with turmoil, and had been a powerful key. It gives this sonata a beautiful sadness and dramatic intension. Beethoven’s C minor works are also associated with crises and convey similar emotions. As early as 1797, Beethoven began to experience the first symptoms of deafness. By 1798, Beethoven likely realized this would become a chronic disease, since Beethoven wrote to Wegeler on June 29, 1801, “For the last three years my hearing has become weaker and weaker.”[13] Beethoven composed Piano Sonata, Op. 13 in 1798. It is possible that Beethoven wrote this work in response to his growing deafness.

In addition to the tragic mood conveyed in Mozart’s and Beethoven’s C minor works, there are numerous features shared by these works. For instance, the dynamic design of Mozart’s Piano Sonata K. 457 (Ex. 2-1a) is similar to that of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Op. 10, No. 1 (Ex. 2-1b), in which the forte opening is followed immediately by a piano passage. The contrast between forte and piano gives the opening a dramatic effect, which reinforces the emotional character of the key. These C minor works, furthermore, are filled with diminished chords or intervals to add harmonic intensity. In Mozart’s Piano Concerto, K. 491, the opening features a series of upward diminished seventh intervals (Ex. 2-2a), and similarly, a series of diminished seventh chords are introduced in the Grave opening of the first movement in Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, Op. 13 (Ex. 2-2b). In Piano Sonata, Op. 13, the Grave introduction reoccurs in the middle and end of the first movement. Beethoven uses this unique design to create a dramatic recall. It is not customary for an introduction in a classical sonata-form movement to return.As demonstrated in these compositions, it is obvious that Mozart had a significant influence on Beethoven’s choice of tonality. Both of them selected C minor to express a dark and tragic mood and used similar compositional designs to reinforce the character of this key.

Ex. 2-1a. Mozart, Piano Sonata K. 457, Mvt. I, mm. 1-4

Ex. 2-1b. Beethoven, Piano Sonata Op. 10, No.1, Mvt. I, mm. 1-4

Ex. 2-2a. Mozart, Piano Concerto K. 491, Mvt. I, mm. 1-8

Ex. 2-2b. Beethoven, Piano Sonata Op. 13, Mvt. I, mm. 1-4

Beethoven and Mozart employ another similar design in minor works. Beethoven often associates C minor with its relative (E-flat) and parallel (C) majors. While a modulation from a minor tonic to its relative major in the second theme is typical in traditional sonata form, moving to its parallel major is unexpected. The move to the parallel major is an innovative choice of tonality in the sonata form, and Beethoven employs it frequently. In the first movement of the fifth symphony, for instance, the opening presented in fiery C minor modulates to lyrical E-flat major in the second key area. In the Recapitulation, the tonality changes from C minor (first theme) to C major (second theme). Furthermore, the symphony ends in victorious C major rather than C minor, which is Beethoven’s compositional characteristic. As Beethoven explains his choice of tonality, “Many assert that every minor piece must end in the minor. On the contrary I find that in the soft scales the major third at the close has a glorious and uncommonly quieting effect. Joy follows sorrow, sunshine—rain. It affects me as if I were looking up to the silvery glistering of the evening star.”[14] This special tonal design, however, can be traced back to Mozart’s Piano Concerto in D minor K. 466, where the first movement begins in minor but ends in D major. The same design is employed again in the third movement. The music starts in D minor and ends in joyful D major. Both Mozart and Beethoven use this minor-major structure to create a similar effect in minor-key works.


At Mozart’s time, the diminished chord was the most dissonant sound ever heard.[15] He used diminished harmonies to create a sense of tension, particularly for a dark, tragic, or Pathétique mood.[16] The powerful diminished seventh chords that show up in the beginning of the final scene of Don Giovanni, for instance,imply Giovanni’s approaching tragedy (Ex. 2-3). The dead Commendatore’s statue comes back and gives Don Giovanni one last chance to repent, but Don Giovanni firmly rejects. Then the statue disappears and Don Giovanni cries in fear and pain surrounded by a chorus of demons, who take him down into hell. This is the most dramatic and scary scene in the entire opera. Mozart used diminished chords to convey a tragic and dark mood, which influenced Beethoven’s use of diminished seventh chords to create a similar effect.  Ex. 2-3. Mozart, Don Giovanni, the Commendatore’s aria of the finale, mm. 1-7

Beethoven also used the diminished seventh chord in his compositions and was aware of its dramatic effect and expressive potential. A compelling instance can be found in his Piano Sonata in F minor, Opus 57 (Appassionata), where the last two bars (mm. 95-96) of the second movement in D-flat major are interrupted by two E diminished seventh chords transitioning to the final movement in F minor (Ex. 2-4). The first arpeggiated diminished seventh is played pianissimo to evoke mystery and terror, and then the second diminished chord is played an octave higher, a sharp, sudden fortissimo as a crash of thunder breaks the tranquility. This is followed by the fierce storm of a series of thirteen identical E diminished chords opening the final movement. This intense moment, where the music changes from the dreamlike and contemplative second movement to the turbulent and passionate finale movement, is created by both the change in tonality and the series of diminished seventh chords.

Ex. 2-4. Beethoven, Piano Sonata, Opus 57, Mvt. II, mm. 90-96 and Mvt. III, mm. 1-4

Mozart’s chromatic harmony, which was rare until his last decade, also influenced Beethoven’s harmonic design. As the nickname of Mozart’s String Quartet in C major, K. 465, “Dissonance” suggests, the composition is full of dissonant chords created by chromatic harmonies and cross-relations. As seen in the second measure of the introduction in the first movement, the first violin plays A against A-flat in the viola (Ex. 2-5).[17] The second violin plays chromatic motive (Eb-D-C#-D) in response to the viola (Ab-G-F#-G) (Ex. 2-5). Mozart’s use of chromaticism foreshadows Beethoven’s avoidance of harmonic resolution which gives rise to harmonic ambiguity. As Lewis Lockwood suggests, the introduction of Mozart’s string quartet “Dissonance” “is unmistakably Beethovenian every lineament.”[18] In addition, Mozart uses chromatic figuration to evoke dark and sad emotions. In Piano Sonata K. 457, a descending chromatic line in mm. 8-12 represents a sorrowful motive (Ex. 2-6). He also used chromaticism in mm. 44-45 to create a dramatic contrast, where an ascending chromatic line in forte is abruptly inserted after a quiet passage (Ex. 2-7).  

Ex. 2-5. Mozart, String Quartet in C major, K. 465, “Dissonance”, Mvt. I, mm. 1-5 

Ex. 2-6. Mozart, Piano Sonata, K. 457, Mvt. I, mm. 8-12 

Ex. 2-7. Mozart, Piano Sonata, K. 457, Mvt. I, mm. 36-47

Like Mozart, Beethoven integrates chromaticism in the introduction to project harmonic ambiguity and an unstable mood. The introduction of the first movement in Piano Sonata Op. 13, for instance, is harmonically ambiguous due to the chromatic chords (Ex. 2-8). The introduction ends with a long descending chromatic scale leading directly into the Exposition (Ex. 2-9).

Ex. 2-8. Beethoven, Piano Sonata, Op.13, Mvt. I, mm. 5-9

Ex. 2-9. Beethoven, Piano Sonata, Op.13, Mvt. I, m. 11

Like Mozart, Beethoven uses harmony to enhance emotional effects. Both composers employ the diminished seventh chord and chromaticism to convey sadness and turmoil and to create harmonic ambiguity in the introduction of their compositions.




Thematic material

Regarding Mozart as his source of inspiration, Beethoven studied all of Mozart’s major works and imprinted themes from Mozart’s works in his head. In October of 1790, Beethoven wrote down a short two-staffed C-minor passage in 6/8 and, in the middle of the staves, he noted, “This entire passage has been stolen from Mozart’s Symphony in C, where the Andante in six-eight…” While he rewrote the passage and signed it “Beethoven himself” later, this instance shows that Beethoven realized he was coping Mozart when composing. Nothing can reveal more than this instance his admiration for Mozart: his musical god and artistic father.[19]

Beethoven borrowed Mozart’s themes in his music and modeled many compositions after Mozart’s pieces. The first movement of Piano Sonata, Op.10, No.1 is an excellent example. This Sonata opens with a powerful C-minor chord followed by the right hand’s ascending broken chord in dotted rhythms (Ex. 2-10). This heroic theme recalls the ascending arpeggio that opens the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata, K. 457 (Ex. 2-11). The thematic resemblance between these two movements is reinforced by their same choice of the forte dynamic and key tonality. The beginning of the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C minor, K. 491 also exemplifies his thematic influence on Beethoven. The orchestra plays the theme in unison, piano dynamic, and staccato articulation (Ex. 2-12).[20] These characteristics also comprise the opening theme of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto in C minor, Opus 37 (Ex. 2-13). Both pieces are in the same key of C minor and open with the strings softly playing a rising figure. 

Ex. 2-10. Beethoven, Piano Sonata, Op.10, No.1, Mvt. I, mm. 1-2

Ex. 2-11. Mozart, Piano Sonata, K. 457, Mvt. I, mm. 1-2

Ex. 2-12. Mozart, Piano Concerto in C minor, K. 491, Mvt. I, mm.1-12

Ex. 2-13. Beethoven, Piano Concerto in C minor, Opus 37, Mvt. I, mm. 1-4


The music of Johann Sebastian Bach greatly influenced both Mozart and Beethoven.  Mozart was familiar with Baroque music and had showed tremendous interest in J.S. Bach and his son C.P.E. Bach.[21] Mozart introduced a fugue as the finale of Sonata for Piano and Violin in A major, K. 402.[22] This sonata was composed in 1782, the year in which Mozart and his wife discovered the fugues of J. S. Bach and G. F. Handel. On April 20, 1782, Mozart wrote to his sister, “Baron van Swieten, whom I visit every Sunday, gave me all the works of Handel and Bach to take home… when Constanze heard the fugues she was completely enraptured…She would listen to nothing but fugues….”[23] In K. 402, Mozart used counterpoint to link the violin, the piano’s right hand, and the left-hand parts. This contrapuntal writing is rare in the Classical period which is characterized by homophonic texture (Ex. 2-14). Fugal sections also appear in Mozart’s sacred music such as Requiem in D minor, K. 626, where the chorus sings a double fugue in the Kyrie (Ex. 2-15). This part will be addressed more in Chapter 3. Mozart’s greatest contribution to the history of fugue is to insert fugal imitation in sonata form.

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One remarkable example of this category is the final movement of Symphony in C major, No. 41, K. 551. This movement combines sonata form with fugue. The second violin starts the fugal section and presents the subject, followed by the first violin, the viola, and the cello together with the double bass. Mozart used several counterpoint techniques in the fugue section, including all strings playing stretto in mm. 65-70 (Ex. 2-16), the second violin and viola introducing inversion in mm. 95-98 (Ex. 2-17), and the first violin presenting the subject in retrograde in mm. 207-13 (Ex. 2-18). The entire fugal section has five different motives based on variations of the four-note idea: C, D, F, E. All of the five motives are brought together in the coda and build up to the climax. This movement synthesizes classical sonata form and baroque fugal style, representing Mozart’s mastery in counterpoint.

Ex. 2-14. Mozart, Violin Sonata in A major, K. 402, Mvt. II, mm. 1-12 

Ex. 2-15. Mozart, Requiem in D minor, K. 626, Kyrie, mm. 1-4 

Ex. 2-16. Mozart, Symphony in C major, No. 41,K. 551, Mvt. IV, mm. 65-70 

Ex. 2-17. Mozart, Symphony in C major, No. 41,K. 551, Mvt. IV, mm. 95-98

Ex. 2-18. Mozart, Symphony in C major, No. 41,K. 551, Mvt. IV, mm. 202-9, 210-12

Like Mozart, Beethoven also employs fugal imitation in sonata-form movements, such as the final movement of String Quartet in C major, Opus 59, No. 3.[24] In this movement, the viola introduces the subject and is imitated by the second violin, the cello, and the first violin. The fugal devices found in Mozart’s Symphony K. 551 are also used in this piece: inversion and stretto, the subject in the second violin is imitated inversely by the viola simultaneously (Ex. 2-19), and the imitation starts before the subject has finished (Ex. 2-20).

Ex. 2-19. Beethoven, String Quartet in C major, Opus 59, No. 3, Mvt. IV, mm. 305-9 

Ex. 2-20. Beethoven: String Quartet in C major, Opus 59, No. 3, Mvt. IV, mm. 108-11  


A parallel in attitude toward Bach’s contrapuntal technique occurs between Mozart and Beethoven. They both admired Bach’s fugues and composed polyphonic finales. Mozart’s innovative insertion of contrapuntal imitation in sonata-form movements further contributed to the creation of the final movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 59, No. 3.

Mozart influenced many aspects of Beethoven’s compositional style, including the choice of tonality, harmonic design, thematic materials, and fugal writing. Beethoven’s lasting connection with Mozart passed through several periods. It began with a period of “imitation” that characterized Beethoven’s early period, and then developed to a period of “plagiarism” during his rapidly growth toward maturation from 1792 to 1802. During these years of “plagiarism,” Mozart’s style and works were deep in his memory while he gradually established a high level of independence.[25] The next chapter will discuss how Mozart continued to influence Beethoven’s late style.

[1] “Mozart in Minor Keys,” accessed March 15, 2016,

[2] Thomas Richner,Orientation for Interpreting Mozart’s Piano Sonatas: Mozart’s Tonalities and Harmony (New York: Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University, 1953), 25.

[3] “Therese, Mozart’s Beloved,” accessed March 15, 2016,

[4] “Mozart: A minor K. 511, Piano Sonata in D major K. 576, the last great W. A. Mozart’s works for the fortepiano from the Viennese Period,”

Jorge Cova, last modified August 2006, accessed April 23, 2016,

[5] Thomas Richner, Orientation for Interpreting Mozart’s Piano Sonatas: Mozart’s Tonalities and Harmonies (New York: Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University, 1953), 25.

[6] “Therese, Mozart’s Beloved,” accessed March 15, 2016,

[7] Neal Zaslaw, and William Cowdery.The Compleat Mozart: A Guide to the Musical Works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphonies and Symphonic Movements (New York: Mozart Bicentennial at Lincoln Center, 1990), 314.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Joseph Kerman, The Beethoven quartets: Disruption (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1967), 70.

[10] William Kinderman, Mozart’s Piano Music: An Artistic Microcosm (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 58.

[11] George Grove, Beethoven and his nine symphonies: Symphony No. 5, in C minor (Op. 67) (London: Novello and Company, limited, 1903), 181.

[12] “Therese, Mozart’s Beloved,” accessed March 15, 2016,

[13] Lewis Lockwood, Beethoven: The Music and the Life: Years of Crisis (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003), 112.

[14] Ludwig van Beethoven, Friedrich Kerst, and Henry Edward Krehbiel, Beethoven: the man and the artist, as revealed in his own words: On Composing (New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1905), 26.

[15] “Fear after Death: Mozart,” Justin Mathis, last modified August 7, 2012, accessed March 15, 2016,

[16] Thomas Richner, Orientation for Interpreting Mozart’s Piano Sonatas: Mozart’s Tonalities and Harmony (New York: Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University, 1953), 24-25.

[17] Neal Zaslaw, and William Cowdery. The Compleat Mozart: A Guide to the Musical Works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Chamber Music without a Keyboard Instrument (New York: Mozart Bicentennial at Lincoln Center, 1990), 267.

[18] Lewis Lockwood, Beethoven: The Music and the Life: Music of The Bonn Years (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003), 60.

[19] Lewis Lockwood, Beethoven: The Music and the Life: Music of The Bonn Years (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003), 57-9.

[20] Neal Zaslaw, and William Cowdery, The Compleat Mozart: A Guide to the Musical Works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Concertos and Concerto Movements (New York: Mozart Bicentennial at Lincoln Center, 1990), 133.

[21] “The Fugue and The Sonata: Reconciling the Two Worlds,” accessed March 16, 2016,

[22] Alfred Einstein, Mozart: His Character, His Work: Mozart and Counterpoint (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), 152.

[23] Neal Zaslaw, and William Cowdery. The Compleat Mozart: A Guide to the Musical Works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Chamber Music with a Keyboard Instrument (New York: Mozart Bicentennial at Lincoln Center, 1990), 133.

[24] Paul M. Walker, “Fugue,” Oxford University Press, accessed March 17, 2016,  

[25] Lewis Lockwood, Beethoven: The Music and the Life: Music of The Bonn Years (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003), 59.

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