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The B-A-C-H Sequence in Mozart’s Final Piano Sonata, K.576


J. S. Bach and other composers in his family often “signed” their work by incorporating the sequence of notes B♭-A-C-B♮ into their music. With B♭ and B♮ given by their German names B, and H, these notes spell out their last name, and many later composers used this sequence, which became known as the “B-A-C-H” motif, in pieces that were direct homages to J. S. Bach.

No such acknowledged tribute was written (or survives) by W. A. Mozart, although Mozart did extensively study, imitate, and absorb stylistic elements of the music of J. S. Bach and his sons. In Mozart’s contrapuntal final piano sonata K.576 in D major, however, B-A-C-H-like sequences appear throughout the three movements, as described here. They are often scrambled, split, or transposed, and they rarely form a theme that would be clear to a listener, raising the question of whether these were purposeful references to any of the Bach family or simply elements of a musical style that happen to recall the B-A-C-H motif to a modern seeker.

Although no answer can be unequivocal, examining the events of Mozart’s life in 1789 when K.576 was written and his other compositions of that time—namely the Gigue K.574 and the Minuet K.576b—can help the performer gain perspective on how Mozart’s last piano sonata was influenced by Bach’s music and whether it may contain a cryptographic allusion to Bach.

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One of the most salient features of the first movement of Mozart’s last piano sonata, K.576 in D major, is its counterpoint that is reminiscent of Johann Sebastian Bach. In the transition from the development back to recapitulation is a series of modulating chromatic sequences that appear to evoke Bach more directly. In bars 87-88, a soprano B♭ falls to an A that is sounded with an alto C, which falls to a B♮. This sequence, B♭-A-C-B♮, is well-known as the “BA-C-H” motif, which J. S. Bach inserted into many of his compositions.

The combination of notes in the context of this piece, however, can hardly be construed as a “motif.” The correct pitches in the correct order never recur, and the one instance of their appearance—particularly with the A and C played together—is unlikely to be detected by even the most attentive listener. The performer of K.576 is left to wonder whether Mozart’s use of these notes is an intentional reference or simply part of a musically haunting pathway back to the main theme. To make sense of this puzzle—or simply to decide whether there is a puzzle to be considered—it can be informative to explore the history of the B-A-C-H motif and Mozart’s relation to Bach’s music.

The B-A-C-H Motif

That J. S. Bach incorporated this sequence into his compositions was well known in his own lifetime.1 Other members of the Bach family used the motif as well, and Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach even included the initials of his first names, with “Philipp” Italianized to “Filippo,” expanding the sequence to “C-F-E-B-A-C-H.”2 The complete cryptograph first arose in a short fughetta:

[T]he five-part fughetta written in F major […] [is] inscribed “C. Filippo E. Bach.” (Obviously, it is no coincidence that the first name is “Filippo” written in Italian, as the musical usability of the name is dependent on this letter.) The 7-tone monogram is stated twice in its full form during the 12 beats […]. The other materials […] consist almost exclusively of the B-A-C-H motif, its translation, and variants, mostly proceeding in quarter [note] values […]. The origin of the great little piece can be found in a letter dated April 28, 1784, from a friend of Philipp Emanuel, […] Johann Heinrich Gravénak. The transcript of the letter reads, “Recently someone has written to me how strange it is, that not only my surname but also the initials of my first name (written in the Italian way)—C. F. E.—are ‘musical’ [musikalisch]. This is how I answered it.” This is followed by the score of the fughetta […]3

Katalin Komlós

Although use of the motif by composers beyond the Bach clan did not become widespread until the nineteenth century, a compilation of some four hundred pieces incorporating the B-A-C-H motif, assembled in 1985, lists several pieces by eighteenth-century composers.4 Besides the twelve by Bach family members (Johann Sebastian, Carl Philipp Emanuel, Johann Andreas, Johann Christian, Johann Christoph Friedrich, and Johann Nicolaus), nine other pieces are identified, many of which were titled to inform listeners that the piece was a tribute to the Master. These were written by Albrechstberger, Christmann, Heinichen, Kellner, Krinberger, Krebs, Pezold, Sorger, and an unknown musician. No compositions by Mozart are included.

Mozart and Counterpoint

Although Mozart may never have labelled a piece as such an homage, he was strongly influenced by J. S. Bach’s compositions. In addition to learning directly from J. C. Bach early in life,5 Mozart studied the music of the Bachs extensively through his association with Baron van Swieten, the nobleman who was an avid patron of musicians and collector of musical scores. In a letter to his father dated April 10, 1782, Mozart wrote:

Every Sunday at 12 noon I go to visit Baron van Swieten—and where we play nothing but Händel and Bach. I am just putting together a collection of Bach fugues—that is Sebastian as well as Emanuel and Friedemann Bach […]. You probably know already that the English Bach [Johann Christian] died? What a loss to the world of music!6

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Mozart’s contributions to these Sunday musicales included arranging fugues from Bach’s Well-tempered Klavier for various groups of strings.7 This exposure evidently influenced and/or inspired Mozart’s own compositions, as he wrote to his sister on April 20:

I am including here a prelude and fugue in three parts [Fantasy and Fugue in C major K.394]—indeed, this is the very reason why I didn’t answer you right away, writing down all these wearisome little notes. […] The reason that this particular fugue came into being has to do with my dear Konstanze. Baron van Swieten […] let me take works by Händel and Bach to take home with me […]. When Konstanze heard these fugues, she fell completely in love with them; now she wants to hear nothing but fugues, particularly, in this kind of composition—Händel and Bach. So she asked me, because she had heard me play some fugues from my head recently, whether I had written any of them down? When I said no, she really scolded me, saying that I didn’t want to compose the most artistic and beautiful things in music; and she did not relent until I composed a fugue for her, so that’s how this one came to be.8

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Mozart’s exposure to these works from an earlier era elicited more than a prelude and fugue to please his wife. During the period of his study of Bach and company, he experimented with their style in many of his compositions. As a young man of 22, Mozart had asserted in a letter to his father that he could “adopt and imitate any form and style of composition.”9 Scholars, however, question Mozart’s success at mimicking J. S. Bach.

[M]uch of his music of 1782-3 shows unmistakably the effect which Bach and Händel had made on him. There are a number of works of this period, many of them unfinished, which have the character of studies in contrapuntal technique. This preoccupation with counterpoint could, on occasion, bring about a loss of Mozart’s idiomatic personality, and perhaps a dryness which is absent from most of his music. For example, even the fine fugue of the unfinished C major Suite (K.399) has a curiously anonymous character.7

Edward Olleson

More broadly, they describe the early 1780’s as a period during which Mozart struggled with his own creative voice:

Van Swieten introduced Mozart to the music of Bach and Händel and provoked Mozart’s “Bach crisis.” During that time Mozart […] wrote several fugues and many more fugal fragments in an attempt to reconcile Bach’s powerfully expressive counterpoint with his own abilities. The C-minor Fugue [K.426, for two pianos, December 1783] is as different from Mozart’s other piano duet music as one could imagine […]. [W]e are here confronted with obsessive counterpoint of a relentless willfulness rare in Mozart’s oeuvre.10

Neal Zaslaw

In keeping with his more general fondness for nonsense and jokes, however, Mozart indulged in humour even about the complex subject he was labouring to master: In 1784, writing for a pupil, he composed a short comic piece, K.453a, entitled, Marche funebre del Signor Maestro Contrapunto (Funeral March by Maestro Counterpoint),11 which, not surprisingly, violates various rules of counterpoint.

A fascination with counterpoint and its structures and possibilities seems almost inevitable given Mozart’s penchant for puzzles, wordplay, and linguistic games with reversals and inversions.12 And, in experimenting both seriously and playfully with J. S. Bach’s signature style, Mozart seems likely to have appreciated the more literal signature Bach used in many of his pieces. Indeed, a full-length study of the B-A-C-H motif through the centuries offers another reading of Mozart’s fugue of the wilful counterpoint:

The “subject” of Mozart’s fugue constantly reiterates the […] formula (H-C-A-B: the stepwise descent, transposed by a step: C#, D, B♮, C, in measures 3 and 4, for example) […]. From bar 10 (for the first piano), there are pure and simple permutations of B-A-C-H (C-B-A-H: C, B♭, A, B♮), then, in bars 11 and 12 for the second piano, C-H-A-B). Even better, bar 68 (for the first piano) again offers, the exact mirror image of B-A-C-H: H-C-A-B, but this time without transposition. And since Mozart’s fugue, in the strict style, includes inversions, we need not be surprised to find, in bars 75-76 of the first piano (left hand), the pattern E♭, D, F, E♮, i.e., transposed by a fourth, B-A-C-H […]. After that, who can believe that the “subject” of K.426 is not a tribute to BACH? […]. What makes me fear is that, to my knowledge, no critic has so far noted the presence of the four letters of the Name in this Mozartian fugue.13

Étienne Barilier

The absence of attention by scholars may have many bases, including the ambiguity in concluding that transpositions of chromatic sequences, which almost inevitably emerge in the context of the style, have an unequivocal external referent. And, despite Mozart’s frequent use of musical humour, one may hesitate to claim that an apparently serious piece incorporates an undeclared gimmick. Whatever Mozart’s own opinion of K.426, he reused its fugue in June 1788, rescored for strings in K.546.14

K.574, Leipziger Gigue

The other published suggestions that Mozart may have used the B-A-C-H motif relate to two short pieces written later, in 1789, the same year of composition of the D major sonata K.576. In April and May of that year, Mozart made an extended journey to North Germany, with the hope of securing commissions. In Leipzig, Mozart visited the Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church), where J. S. Bach had formerly been Kantor (cantor). Mozart reportedly played the organ, listened to the choir singing J. S. Bach motets, and enthusiastically studied the parts.15 While in Leipzig, Mozart also composed a short Gigue, K.574. Organist and conductor Jan Overduin describes the piece and its overt quotations of Handel, as well as its covert homage to Bach:

More than any of the other short fugal compositions by Mozart, this little 38-bar piece pays tribute to the genius of Handel and of Bach […] [T]he B-A-C-H motif (B♭-A-C-B) appears numerous times, though usually transposed. It is the use of this B-A-C-H motif that makes K.574 especially unique, since Mozart used it in subtle and unusual ways. It is not an obvious part of the main theme, and always appears somewhat in the background, but, once one begins hearing it, it is perceived to pervade the whole piece. This “hide-and-seek” use of the motif gives the piece a riddle-like quality, and makes it that much more delightful to play and hear.16

Jan Overduin

He goes on to explain that the motif is often scrambled, separated, and transposed, but reappears so frequently that it makes itself known:

Even though the first two notes of the motif are widely separated from the last two, the significant and symmetrical places in the piece, combined with the emphasis given by rhythmic placement and texture, actually succeed in relating the four notes to each other, and in providing the work with the musical B-A-C-H “signature” […]. Once one associates the slurred notes with the B-A-C-H motif, one begins to hear the motif each time the theme is heard, whether the motif is used “right side up” (B-A-C-H) or in some scrambled form. Especially frequent is C-H-B-A, spelled three times by the slurred notes in the first six bars. Several times, when the actual pitches of the B-A-C-H motif are used, they are almost, but not quite, in the right order, e.g., in bars 25-26: B♭-A-B-C. This punning on names is a well-known feature of Mozart’s letters, and may well be an intended form of humor in K.574.16

Jan Overduin

On the one hand, the distortions and ruptures of the sequence render the identification of the notes as permutations of the B-A-C-H sequence endlessly debatable. On the other hand, the fact of the Gigue’s composition in Leipzig, where a consciousness of Bach would have been hard to avoid, makes the repeated presence of the pitches more convincing as an evocation of, or at least a nod to, Bach.

K.576b, Minuet in D Major

The other piece by Mozart in which the B-A-C-H motif has been identified has a more complicated story. Musicologist Peter Schleuning describes the peculiarly dissonant, short (44-bar) Minuet in D major composition as

[…] a small, radical work by Mozart […] which is confusing and thought-provoking upon first hearing, but whose background content and motives have not yet been clarified […].17

Peter Schleuning

The musical language is so idiosyncratic that scholars debated whether a youthful Mozart was engaging in a not-quite-successful experiment with chromaticism or whether a more mature Mozart was developing forward-looking dissonances that anticipated the Romantics.18 The piece was originally classified to be a relatively early piece—as K.355—but as it was reassessed, it was re-catalogued as K.595a, and finally K.576b, with a composition date of 1789. Schleuning re-analyses the piece as a memorial, or elegy, and details its surprising and sometimes shocking harmonies:

[…] [C]hromaticism does not necessarily have to produce dissonant harmony. Nevertheless, [in K.576b] it seems as if harsh dissonances break out suddenly, without being forced by any thematic motive, even without any preparation by the individual parts, as required by the old classical theory of counterpoint. Although the dissonances are properly resolved on the following beat, this in no way softens the shock of the first sounds. A striking, almost provocative harshness is evidently the intention of this harmony. […] This kind of surprising and deliberate harshness is called “durezza” (hardness) in the Italian terminology of the time.5

Peter Schleuning

Building the case that the Minuet resembles a lament in an old-fashioned style, he identifies the B-A-C-H motif as central to the piece:

The development-like passage at the beginning of the second part points in several ways to older music […] There are the four two-quarter sequences from bar 20ff., which […] correspond roughly to those prelude-like reproductions of style that Mozart produced in the early 1780s when he was getting to know Bach’s and Händel’s piano music more closely […]. Even clearer is the four-measure section immediately after the double bar. Here three […] stylistic elements […] are strikingly presented: substantial chromaticism in the upper voice, syncopated phrases in the lower voice, dissonant harshness in the unprepared middle voice entrances. This is […] the core of the piece, and it is precisely here that the symbol B-A-C-H is clearly quoted in the upper voice from bar 19, after it has already appeared, transposed in a shorter form in the alto, in bar 17f. (G-F#-A-G#). It also appears transposed (C-B-D-C#) in brackets after the main quotation. A closer look reveals many other forms of occurrence: transposed, accessible through a combination of voices—for example with A# instead of B in bar 7f.—incomplete, or reversed, or crab-like—such as bar 1f. and 9f. as D#-E-C#-D. Unambiguous “cases” do not always arise, since such configurations necessarily occur in every style based on a wealth of dissonance and chromaticism.5

Peter Schleuning

As in the Gigue, the motif is fractionated, “punned” upon, and transposed, but can at least partly account for many of the surprises of the piece. Schleuning dismisses the proposal that the Minuet may have been written as the original third movement to the D major Sonata K.576, in part because four-movement sonatas were so uncommon. Instead, given the retrospective and elegiac lines and harmonies, the likely composition year of 1789, and the B-A-C-H quotation, he makes the case that the Minuet is a memorial to C. P. E. Bach, who had died in December 1788.

K.576. Sonata in D Major

With the history and analyses of the Gigue and Minuet as background, it becomes possible to look at the Mozart’s last piano sonata in a new light. In contrast to the extensive debates about the Minuet K.576b, published musicological analyses of the sonata K.576 seem scarce, although the story surrounding the piece is retold in both scholarly and popular accounts19: The sonata was written in Vienna in July 1789, after Mozart returned from his North German journey.

In letters written during his travels to his wife Konstanze and his friend Michael Puchberg, Mozart mentions a commission to write six easy sonatas for Princess Friederike of Prussia. Although K.576 was the only sonata he later composed, it was never sent to the Princess, and it is not a simple piece. Mozart scholar John Irving states that the first and third movements are “technically as taxing as anything in the concertos, intended as vehicles for Mozart’s own virtuosity,” adding, “It is unlikely that the Princess could have coped with either movement; clearly the piece was written for professional performance.”20 He continues:

Substantial portions of K.576’s first movement are contrapuntal: the opening unison “hunting” theme is no sooner finished than it is combined with a similar countersubject […]. Neither the material nor its treatment strikes one as “easy.” One can only guess at the true circumstances for which the sonata was intended: does its contrapuntal display betoken a purely personal recollection of the hours spent earlier in the 1780’s at Baron van Swieten’s studying the works of J. S. Bach and Händel? Or was it intended as a more public display of his compositional skill, perhaps for a potential patron? Might it relate, like K.533, to Mozart’s position as Joseph II’s “Kammermusicus”? Did Mozart intend to perform this work himself?21

John Irving

Unlike the Gigue or Minuet composed at about the same time, the three-movement K.576 sonata incorporates elements of Bach’s style while being neither an overt homage, nor an extreme alteration of the composer’s voice, nor a direct imitation; to the modern ear, it is unmistakably Mozart. Regarding the development of the first movement Allegro, Irving writes,

The commonest modulation schemes in Mozart’s sonata developments involve sequences […] and the “circle-of-fifth” progressions as in K.576, bars 82-96, moving from F sharp, through B and E to A (bar 92), the last stage of which acts as a dominant pedal (bars 92-8) introducing the recapitulation. Mozart often prefers to modulate as far as the dominant of the relative minor key before moving back to the tonic. Normally this point is reached at the culmination of a section, serving as a preparation for the key that commences the next section.22

John Irving

As mentioned above, it is during this culmination that the notes B-A-C-H explicitly appear in the second half of bar 87 and bar 88, with A and C sounded together (Example 1). Just beforehand, in the first half of bar 87, the left hand plays C#-F#-E (outlining the dominant of the relative minor), and resulting in the full seven-tone sequence C#-F#-E-B-A-C-H.23 The same sequence recurs, but transposed with hands switched, just before in bars 84-85 and just afterward 90-91. Finally, in bars 93-96, the descending half steps are inverted into a rising chromatic sequence. B-H-C is played against the dominant A pedal, with the (dissonant) major seventh of the A and B♭ emphasizing the beginning of the line that climaxes with a diatonic run—typical of Mozart’s own period—in bars 97 and 98 that leads back to the main theme.

Bach Sequence
Example 1. K.576, Allegro, bars 84-99. All examples are taken from Mozart, W.A. Sonate Köchel Nr. 576, in Martienssen, C.A. and Weismann, W. (Eds.). Sonaten für Klavier. Leipzig: C.F. Peters, n.d. (ca.1938). Public Domain.

But do any of these instances “count” as a B-A-C-H motif? The brief serial appearance of the notes in the K.576 Allegro makes it unlikely to be effectively communicated to a listener, even one on the lookout. At the same time, however, the twisting and transposing of the sequence in K.574 and K.576b in the preceding months raises the possibility that, at the time of K.576’s composition, Mozart’s juggling of the relative pitches had transcended formal motif-statement and become a sort of inside joke, or a game unto itself. 

Indeed, the 2nd movement Adagio, the use of the pitches that recall Bach’s name is both more prevalent and more ambiguous. The chromatic sequence A-B-H-C leads into the restatement of the theme in bar 4 and serves as the transition to the second theme in bar 16 (Example 2), but it is unremarkable unless one is looking for it. Ascending as well as descending 4-note chromatic sequences occur in other pieces, including the B♭ major sonata K.570 composed earlier in 1789, before the North German trip.

What is more noticeable and distinguishing in the Adagio—at least to the seeker—is the recurrence of the shuffled sequence, in a chromatic cluster or circling of a note. The pitches reappear as B-H-A-C in bar 27; elsewhere, transposed, they are scrambled to give C-H-A-B (bar 3), C-A-B-H (bar 12), H-A-B-C (bars 14-15), A-B-H-C (bar 23, left hand), A-C-H-B (bar 29), and B-H-A-C (bar 31). In bar 19, a half note C# on beat 1 overlaps with a half note D on beat 2 that leads into a B# and B on beat 4, so the four chromatic pitches occur in close proximity, even sounded together as major sevenths. Those are the instances occurring only in the first half of the 68-bar piece, before the recapitulation, after which some are repeated.

Example 2. K.576, Adagio, bars 16-18.

The only times that the B-A-C-H sequence appears in order, it is transposed and part of a longer run. In bar 26, a rising D-major scale completes an octave and then continues to climb in pairs of descending half- and whole-steps: D-C#-E-D-F#-E-G-F#-A-G#. The notes are all diatonic, until the G#—which in this transposition defines the final tone of the B-A-C-H sequence—draws mild attention to the event that just passed (Example 3).

Later, after a series of ascending runs en route to the recapitulation, modulating through D minor, bar 43 begins with the transposed but correctly ordered B-A-C-H sequence (A-G#-B♮-A#) against an E7 chord that finally leads back to the main theme. The A# is again the non-diatonic note, defining the sequence (Example 4). Similar accidentals—local sharp 4’s or flat 7’s—permeate the movement. Apropos as they are in context, they both intensify and obscure the “motif” if (or when) it occurs. As in K.574 and K.576b, once the listener is attuned to the sound, the B-A-C-H sequence—although never fully present—seems to echo throughout the K.576 Adagio.

Example 3. K.576, Adagio, bars 26-27.
Example 4. K.576, Adagio, bars 42-45.

The rare but explicit reference to the B-A-C-H sequence in the Allegro and its elusive but pervasive recall in the Adagio become more present and playful in the final movement, the Allegretto, the most persistently contrapuntal of the three movements. Here, the downbeats of the four-bar theme follow an ascending chromatic line D-D#-E-E# (“A-B-H-C”), and its opening in the first two measures is itself a variation on four consecutive chromatic notes.

When the main theme is restated in bars 26-29, it is transposed to A major to give downbeats on the specific pitches A-B-H-C. Of course, as mentioned above, any theme based on a 4-note chromatic sequence can be called out as a shuffled B-A-C-H motif in another key. In bars 26-29, however, the theme is played in the bass, while the treble plays an echo, in which B-A-C-H, transposed and split, appears in its proper sequence in the final beats of bars 27 and 29; as in K.574, although the pairs of notes are separated, they are linked structurally (Example 5). (To the performer indulging in an unscholarly flight of fancy, the sixteenth notes that precede the eighth notes B-A and C-H can seem like the sound of a wink.) 

Example 5. K.576, Allegretto, bars 26-29.

This split B-A-C-H sequence is repeated, again transposed (to F major) and with bass and treble parts reversed in bars 95-98, and again (in D major) in 117-120; an extension and variation in bars 121-122 re-sounds the actual pitches C-H / B-A. When the counterpoint converges and both hands play the same rhythm in bar 39-40, the left hand plays a compression of the theme, B-A-G#-A#-B, with the non-diatonic A# creating a transposed C-B-A-H-C (Example 6); the same sequence occurs, transposed back to D major, in bars 130-131. 

Example 6. K.576, Allegretto, bars 36-40.

Finally, in the passage through bars 103-107, the theme recurs in counterpoint with the right hand beginning in A major and left hand entering a bar later in D major. Through this passage, the soprano and bass lines are briefly accompanied by two pairs of notes that form a dissonant alto harmony: the higher pitch in each pair works as an appoggiatura while the lower pitch defines a seventh chord that cadences into the next key. The four notes form a split and transposed B-A-C-H motif, neatly woven in as the inner voice (Example 7). 

Example 7. K.576, Allegretto, bars 103-108.

The musician uninterested in a cryptographic analysis may argue that the recurrent scrambled, split, and transposed motifs are unnecessary to recall any of the Bachs in K.576: the contrapuntal style is enough. And if even that is insufficient, the chorale-like section in the Allegretto bars 50-54, repeated in 141-145 (with embellishments carrying a transposed B-A-H-C sequence in the last two beats of bars 55 and 146) drives the point home yet again that the Kantor of the Thomaskirsche is not far off (Example 8). 

Example 8. K.576, Allegretto, bars 49-58.

For some, however, the puzzle remains: Are any or all of these instances conscious evocations of J. S. Bach and his musical signature, or were the chromatic steps that can be read as forms of a B-A-C-H sequence simply the elements of counterpoint that Mozart ultimately transformed into part of his own voice? The problem is the false dichotomy set up by the question, “is that the motif or is that music?” In the context of the musical flow, the appearance of the notes in any form rarely (if ever) gives the impression of the composer inserting a sequence as a self-conscious reference. Even the surprises seem, at least retrospectively, inevitable in the idiom of the music. Irving describes the freestyle within structure throughout this sonata:

The relation of theme and mechanism has become a game in which material identity is in turn confirmed and questioned by being transplanted out of its expected locale. Tracing its journey across the pages of Mozart’s score in K.576 recovers the fingerprints […] of Mozart the skilful improviser.24

John Irving

It is this impression of improvisation that veils even the most direct quotations. Improvisation is playful, and playfulness obscures meaning. The performer who first notices the presence of the B-A-C-H sequence and embarks on a quest for evidence of its intentionality finds so many transpositions, twists, fragmented statements, and ambiguous accidentals that the search must eventually be abandoned. These variations on a theme explore the range of what can be done with a pair of adjacent half-steps, either in a separated sequence as in the third movement, overlaid as in the first movement, or faintly recalled as in the second movement.

While one may justifiably resist the idea that these are purposeful messages, it seems harder to make the case that Mozart was unaware of their presence, any more than a poet or punster would fail to notice an apt alliteration or an amusing double entendre. The B-A-C-H sequence is part of the fabric of the music, a sort of subtle graffiti saying, BACH was here, but isn’t anymore. Whatever Mozart’s intent, he indeed incorporated Bach into his final sonata, figuratively and literally.


In the intricate tapestry of Mozart’s final piano sonata, K.576, the elusive presence of the B-A-C-H sequence adds an intriguing layer of complexity. While the intentional use of this motif remains ambiguous, its recurrence throughout the sonata suggests a subtle interplay between Mozart’s composition and the musical legacy of J. S. Bach. The scattered, transposed, and fragmented appearances of B-A-C-H in various movements—whether in the chromatic sequences of the Allegro, the mournful hues of the Adagio, or the contrapuntal playfulness of the Allegretto—underscore Mozart’s familiarity with Bach’s works and his penchant for musical experimentation.

The intertextual conversation with Bach, cultivated through Mozart’s exposure to his music and his studies with Baron van Swieten, becomes a thematic undercurrent, enriching the sonata with layers of meaning. Whether a deliberate homage or a manifestation of Mozart’s playful improvisational spirit, the B-A-C-H sequence serves as a musical enigma, challenging listeners and scholars to navigate its intricacies. In the end, the sonata stands as a testament to Mozart’s ability to seamlessly weave diverse influences into his own musical language, leaving behind a composition that resonates with both historical depth and timeless artistry.


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  • Olleson, E. (1963). Gottfried van Swieten: Patron of Haydn and Mozart. Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association, 1962 – 1963, 89th Sess. (1962 – 1963). 63-74. 
  • Overduin, J. (1991). Mozart’s K. 574: A tribute to Händel and Bach. The American Organist. 25(7), 50.
  • Prinz, U. Dorfmüller, J. and Küster, K. (1985), Die Tonfolge B-A-C-H in Kompositionen des 17. Bis 20 Jahrhunderts: Ein Verzeichnis. In 300 Jahre Johann Sebastian Bach. Sein Werk in Handschriften und Dokumenten, Musikistrumentie seiner Zeit, Seine Zeitgenossen. Katalog zur Austellung der Internationalen Bachakademie in der Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. 
  • Schleuning, P. (1993). Mozart errichtet ein Denkmal: Das Menuett D-Dur KV 355. Zwischen Aufklärung & Kulturindustrie: Festschrift für Georg Knepler zum 85. Geburststag. 83-94.
  • Schulze, H.-J. (1991). “So ein Chor haben wir in Wien nicht”: Mozarts Begegnung mit dem Leipziger Thomanerchor und den Motetten Johann Sebastian Bachs. In Mozart in Kursachsen. Publ. Brigitte Richter and Ursula Oehme. Leipzig. 
  • Solomon, M. (1995). Mozart: A Life. HarperPerennial: New York.
  • Spaethling, R. (2000) Mozart’s Letters, Mozart’s Life. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York.
  • Zaslaw, N. (1990). The Compleat Mozart: A Guide to the Musical Works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Ed. N. Zaslaw with W. Cowdery. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.: New York.


  1. Gardiner, Music in the Castle of Heaven, p. 295.[]
  2. J. S. Bach’s elder brother Johann Christoph Friedrich wrote a fughetta H-C-F-B-A-C-H, with the H presumably for Hannes or Hans, the short form of Johannes. Prinz, Dorfmüller, and Küster (1985).[]
  3. Komlós (2010). Translation assistance, courtesy Prof. Peter Dallos.[]
  4. Prinz, Dorfmüller, and Küster (1985).[]
  5. Schleuning (1993).[][][]
  6. Spaethling, Mozart’s Letters, Mozart’s Life, p. 307.[]
  7. Olleson (1963).[][]
  8. Spaethling, Mozart’s Letters, Mozart’s Life, p. 308.[]
  9. Spaethling, Mozart’s Letters, Mozart’s Life, p. 128, letter of February 7, 1778; “Denn ich kann so ziemlich, wie sie wissen, alle art und styl von Compositions annehmen und nachahmen.” Schleuning (1993).[]
  10. Zaslaw, The Compleat Mozart, p. 302.[]
  11. Zaslaw, The Compleat Mozart, p. 324.[]
  12. Spaethling, Mozart’s Letters, Mozart’s Life, e.g. pp. 14-15, 39-42, 45-49.[]
  13. Barilier (1997) B-A-C-H: Histoire d’un Nom dans la Musique, pp. 38-40.[]
  14. Barilier (1997) B-A-C-H: Histoire d’un Nom dans la Musique, p. 268.[]
  15. Schulze (1991).[]
  16. Overduin (1991).[][]
  17. Schleuning (1993). […] ein kleines radikales Werk Mozarts […] das schon beim ersten Hören verwirrt, nachdenklich macht, dessen inhaltliche Hintergründe, dessen Beweggründe aber bisher noch ungeklärt sind […].[]
  18. Boatwright and Oster (1966).[]
  19. Zaslaw, The Compleat Mozart, p. 315; Irving, Mozart’s Piano Sonatas, p. 87; Solomon, Mozart, A Life, pp. 440-441, 464; Braunbehrens, Mozart in Vienna, pp. 326-331.[]
  20. Irving, Mozart’s Piano Sonatas: Contexts, Sources, Style p. 87.[]
  21. Irving, Mozart’s Piano Sonatas: Contexts, Sources, Style p. 88.[]
  22. Irving, Mozart’s Piano Sonatas: Contexts, Sources, Style, p. 128-130.[]
  23. My thanks to Grant Zempolich for observing the C#-F#-E sequence.[]
  24. Irving, Understanding Mozart’s Sonatas, pp. 79-80.[]

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