Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Tour of Mozart's String Quartets

Returning to music which has long been a favourite since I was maybe twenty-three, and having just heard a superb live performance of the 20th in D Major (Emerson String Quartet no less) called the “Hoffmeister” after Mozart's friend, Franz Anton Hoffmeister, a music publisher (promoter) in Vienna, where it was written in 1786. Mozart had just turned 30 and had a mere five more years to live. The whole piece is very clever: sometimes you wonder how he could have possibly heard it all so perfectly and how it only takes four people to play it. What I've always liked most about this quartet is the development section in the first movement, where a kind of imitation of spinning carriage wheels makes you think that perhaps he actually did write it while riding in a carriage. After all, he was Mozart and certainly could have done such things. In fact each of the movements in this quartet features some kind of imitation of the experience or expression of physical motion. After all, they call them movements, don't they?

The best way to set out to look into any particular form of a classical composer's music is by getting the perspective of the whole and then breaking it down into appropriate sub-categories. In the case of Mozart's string quartets, we have 23 of them written between 1770 (the year Beethoven was born) and 1790, a year before Mozart died. That's 23 four part pieces, each lasting between fifteen and twenty-five minutes, written for two violins a viola and a violincello (... a cello). I wont be providing an exhaustive list of links on this tour, so that you can seek out performances, recordings or sheet music on your own.

The Lodi Quartet

The first string quartet, rarely heard, written when Wolfgang was fourteen, already displays considerable musical maturity, what Papa Haydn would later recognize as Mozart's good taste. In the totality of Mozart's string quartets, this one stands by itself. While it borrows techniques from the Italians (it's meant to commemorate the town of Lodi, Italy after all) and the Haydns (both Franz Josef and Michael), this quartet is already marked by Mozart's unmistakeable style. Here the first two movements are played by the Aiana String Quartet as they played them at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, December 5th, 2010. These small intimate chances to hear really good chamber music playing are among the most memorable concert experiences for a lot of us. These players really get it too. For the third and fourth movements, I chose the performance by Quartet Casals as they played them in Barcelona on December 28, 2006.

String Quartet #1 in G Major “Lodi” K 80 (1770) 
[Part 1] 1. Adagio  
[Part 2] 2. Allegro 
[Part 3] 3. Menuetto 
4. Rondeau

The Milanese Quartets 

The next quartets are a set of six written in 1772-1773 while in and around Milan, Italy, hence they are called Milanese Quartets. Mozart would occasionally sojourn in Milan, not too far from his native Salzburg, expecting to earn something while plying his trade composing operas. He was in his mid-teens, writing these string quartets as part musical exercise, for himself and any other players who happen upon them. They are all light weight stuff compared with what he would later compose in this form: instead of the usual four movements, these all have only three. They are listed as follows:

1 Quartet # 2 in D major, K. 155
2 Quartet # 3 in G major, K. 156
3 Quartet # 4 in C major, K. 157
4 Quartet # 5 in F major, K. 158
5 Quatet # 6 in B flat major, K. 159
6 Quartet # 7 in E flat major, K. 160

The second quartet of this set, Quartet# 3 in G major K 156 is played by Marco Ferri and Michele Poggio, Francoise Renard, viola and Enrico Ferri, cello. I suppose they played it sometime before its posting on 14 April, 2012, so fairly recently. The movements are marked Presto, Adagio and Tempo di minuetto. It was written in 1772 in Milan and Mozart was then just 14 years old. As you listen, imagine what might have prompted such theatrical devices in the sombre Adagio to have sprung forth from a young teenaged boy, who was in most respects expected to comport himself as a grown man! The true genius of Mozart is always quite astounding.

The Haydn Quartets, written by Mozart

Considered together as one of Mozart's crowning achievements, these six expertly crafted masterpieces, written between 1782 and 1785, the vibrant first five years of his last ten years in Vienna, amply demonstrate the classical dimensions of the form. Any one of these is a pleasure to hear. They have been used in a variety of ways, usually as background music to dinner parties among the discriminating and well to do. They were also often played at late night soirés by virtuosi among the nobility and diplomats. But locked away in each of them are the folk genres of the people from whence many of the musicians of the times in classical Viennese society came; from the lower classes of German, Italian, Hungarian, Slavonic and Jewish extraction. Though I like them all, my favourite is the last one, subtitled "Dissonance." These are listed as follows:

1. String Quartet # 14 in G major, K. 387 (1782)
2. String Quartet # 15 in D minor, K. 421 (1783)
3. String Quartet # 16 in E-flat major, K. 428 (1783)
4. String Quartet # 17 in B flat major ("Hunt"), K. 458 (1784)
5. String Quartet # 18 in A major, K. 464 (1785)
6. String Quartet # 19 in C major ("Dissonance"), K. 465 (1785)

(Now if you want to take a departure from the main tour, for those who like it so far, or who know the territory, there is a complete performance of ALL six Haydn quartets here. The players are usually the Hagen Quartet of Salzburg, Austria (Mozart's birthplace), though the players for #17 are different.  The recording is in places less than it could have been [beware, there's an annoying break in the recording at 1:46:10 to 1:50 obliterating the last movement of #17.  it resumes beginning #18], but some of the spaces where they play are beautiful and the performances are competent and certainly represent the state of string quartet playing as of their posting; 27 August, 2012.)

The last of these quartets derives its name from its strange dissonant opening Adagio, which presents an emotionally deep musical subject, never treated of again, to be answered as it were by the rest of the Allegro first movement, which is happiness itself, to sheer joy, simply one of the most sparkling of Mozart's many achievements. Therefore,

String Quartet # 19 in C major ("Dissonance"), K. 465
1. Adagio-Allegro
2. Andante cantabile - in F major 
3. Menuetto. Allegro. (C major, trio in C minor)
4. Allegro molto

This performance is by the Gewandhaus Quartet (Leipzig, Germany of course. They also bill themselves as the oldest continuously organized string quartet in the world. Well!) and I suppose this glorious performance took place sometime before 29 September, 2010. These players really know this music. Note too the room in which they are playing. The year it was written was 1782. The American Revolution was over, except for the settlement of debts and the horrible inflation of a government issued money called the “continental” which failed and ruined many. Meanwhile in Europe, as they decided things, many of the diplomats might have been treated to these as they were possibly the equal of today's overnight hits among the select “in crowd” in fashionable places like London, Paris or even Berlin and St. Petersburg. Franklin and Jefferson were known to have corresponded with Mozart and were keenly interested in such things as string quartets. Listen with pause to the grim realities hinted at in the Andante cantabile. Yes, while there is confidence and hope, these realities are yet to be dealt with. The subject of the third movement, the minuet, has always surprised me. Its origins are probably deeply ethnic, but in the hands of a Mozart they are rendered into peerless fine art. The trio of this movement is in the minor, a reminder of that darker side of life. Pairing the two qualities in this movement makes this one of the greatest dance movements in all music. I really wouldn't say such things if they weren't quite possibly true. The finale is a tribute to Papa Haydn, who might as have written such things himself. But this is unmistakeably Mozart in so many ways that it stands forth as a gratuitous monument to the little man who took his musical dictations directly from God. 

The “Hoffmeister”

String Quartet #20 in D Major, K. 499 “Hoffmeister”
I. Allegretto, in D major
II. Menuetto: Allegretto, in D major, with a trio section in D minor
III. Adagio, in G major
IV. Allegro, in D major

This one, #20 began our survey. It is the only one other than #1, the “Lodi,” that stands by itself. There's so much here already, that I've decided to let you discover the best performances you can of this one, but just to say that this one is by itself rather special and rewards those who get it.

The Prussian Quartets

These are the last three Mozart string quartets. These presage Beethoven right from the beginning. You should have little difficulty hearing the connections. They acquired their name as they were written for and dedicated to the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm II, between 1789 and 1790. By 1790, Mozart had only one year left and that same year, Papa Haydn was to be fetched away to London to enjoy his great success. By the time he returned to Vienna, Mozart was gone. Had Mozart somehow been able to go away with Haydn, musical history may have been changed dramatically, but such are the weird and sad events of history and the fate of mere mortal men. Life is short, art is long!

String Quartet #21 in D Major, K. 575 “The Violet”
I. Allegretto
II. Andante
III. Menuetto: Allegretto
IV. Allegretto

Again, we are fortunate to have the superb Gewandhaus Quartet for this masterful performance, which took place sometime prior to its posting on 15 October, 2010. In the case of names for classical music pieces, this piece comes by its nickname, “The Violet,” quite honestly as the second movement is based on a song by the same name, Das Vielchen, written by Mozart back in 1785.

Thank-you for coming along on this tour of some of the greatest music ever written. May your searches for competent live performances of these masterpieces be rewarded !


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