Thursday, May 28, 2020

From Quarantine to Cautious Optimism: Five Play Mozart

So, how many of you got it right when you took one of those “Where Do You Think You'll Be in Five Years” Quizzes back in 2015? Hmm?

Well, as we move out of Full-Bore Quarantine (so to speak) into the Yellow Phase here in Central PA and discover what it's like to be out-and-about a little bit more than we've been able to do over the past eighteen months (or whatever it feels like to you), we move from Music for Isolation and works for solo instruments by Bach and Ysaÿe from two weeks ago, to Music for Small Gatherings like the 2nd Piano Quintet of Ernő Dohnányi last week, and now a String Quintet by Mozart.

“For this week’s dose of great music,” Peter Sirotin writes, “I chose Mozart’s String Quintet in G Minor, K.V. 516, one of my absolute favorite works of chamber music. From the sublime to the ridiculous, its emotional range and eloquence exemplify Mozart’s singular genius.”

This performance by members of Market Square Concerts' resident Summermusic ensemble – Peter Sirotin and Leonid Ferents, violins; Michael Stepniak and Blanka Bednarz, violas; and Cheung Chau, cello – was recorded on July 22nd, 2018, at Market Square Church by Newman Stare.

(again, due to space limitations on the blog format, if you want to view the performance at “full screen,” click on the box-like image in the lower right corner when you hover the cursor over the video.)

Mozart entered the G Minor Quintet into his "thematic catalogue" on May 16th, 1787 (to place it in his time-line, he wrote Eine kleine Nachtmusik in August, and Don Giovanni was completed in October). The quintet's in four movements: an opening Allegro in sonata-allegro form; the minuet is the second movement, here, not the more typical third movement, and so the slow movement, an Adagio ma non troppo (slow, but not too slow), has been moved to third place; and that's followed by the finale, an Allegro that is preceded by a long, slow introduction.

At the end of this post, I've included one of those Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center presentations with Bruce Adolphe talking about the first two movements of this quintet: the talk is about 50 minutes, if you have time to follow it. Yes, it would make my work a lot easier just to post that and be done with it, but I have other ideas for my own post.

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In this Summermusic's first concert's post about the Dvořák and Mahler piano quartets – both “early” works in their composers' careers – I talked a lot (as usual) about things like form and development and how student works sometime rarely transcend the level of an assignment (“write a text-book sonata form”) – even the Fauré piano quartet sticks fairly close to the book in the first two movements. There are things listeners expect and there's a certain amount of satisfaction when you hear what you expect: this is particularly true in the harmonic direction a phrase takes, the idea of digressing from a point and expecting it to resolve to some point (aaah!).

Mozart (by Joseph Lange) 1782/3
But without getting into the technical details of how or why Mozart does this, let's say from the outset, he is intent on not giving you what you expect: phrases don't always go where you think they should, rhythms don't always keep to regular patterns (there is the actual, written pattern and then there's the one you actually hear which often seems to be at odds with what's on the printed page – the minuet, a stately dance in 3, is a case in point: the second movement, here, is hardly easy to dance a stately minuet to!). Listening to it from this point-of-view, it's not hard to see why listeners who expected to be entertained by pleasant “expectations” appropriately resolved would find this piece especially startling – and therefore, more “dramatic” than we usually associate with the Classical Era in the 1780s.

But while “contrast” is a necessary part of music, often you'll hear something “unexpected” followed by something “expected” – perhaps the answering phrase does what you thought it would; or maybe the first phrase was okay but, man, the second one just took off and who knows what's going on now...

Among other things, you can also listen for the “conversational” quality of Mozart's instrumentation. The 1st Viola essentially becomes the equivalent of the 1st Violin, the usual melody-bearer in a quartet (don't forget, Mozart preferred to play the viola in chamber music!). Listen how fragments of the tune get passed from one instrument to another, as if sometimes they agree but sometimes they also, even if only slightly, disagree.

I always feel I'm listening to an opera in this piece, the way voices (instrumental voices, of course) respond to one another in the ensemble: the 1st Violin states the theme and then the 1st Viola restates the theme as if the soprano sings first, answered by the tenor. Later on there will be duets (often in thirds) for the pair of violins or the pair of violas, or the 1st violin and 1st viola. Not that the cello is left out, but it's like the baritone comes in to comment on what the others are singing about. And suddenly, I hear the textures of Mozart's comic opera about domestic duplicity, Cosí fan tutte, which he didn't begin working on until two years after writing this quintet.

The minuet is full of these dramatic contrasts, from the off-beat “stabbing” chords in the second phrase which push the pulse away from the expected beat, to the beatific closing duet for the two violas during the middle-section which, if not extraordinary, is so calming, it's major purpose is to make you smile.

The slow movement is one of Mozart's most beautiful meditations. After the darker drama of the first two movements, both in the dark key of G Minor – famously for Mozart the most dramatic and personal of keys: he wrote only two symphonies in a minor key, and they're both in G Minor – the calm E-flat Major of the Adagio is like a respite: we've had our little discussions, now let's sit back and talk of more pleasant things.

But note the “fracturing” of the ensemble, the wide separation between the 1st violin answered by the lower register restatement in the cello, before the middle voices fill it in and the phrase rounds out to the expected resolution back to E-flat Major (between 13:42–15:11 in the video). This could've ended at 14:43, which is what you'd expect, listening to the harmony, until it resolves to a C Minor chord rather than the anticipated tonic of E-flat. This way, Mozart manages to pull you forward another 28 seconds, until that “oooh” moment finally turns into the delayed “aaah” moment.

All is not entirely bright and cheerful in this slow movement: the contrasting passage becomes increasingly unsettled until, harmonically, it just wanders off into entirely unexpected keys in such a short space of time before – aah – finally resolving to where you'd expected it should've been going all along. Every now and then, he'll throw you an unexpected chord like a raised eyebrow before letting it go on as expected.

What you expect, then, is a last movement that becomes the usual “happy ending,” even in a work billed as being in G Minor. It would of course be in G Major. But instead, Mozart starts what sounds like another slow movement, but an infinitely sad one in the original key of G Minor.

Usually, composers in Mozart's and Haydn's times might use a “slow introduction” for the first movement, something to set the scene while the audience settles in (literally or figuratively), a curtain-raiser, if you will. But to do this before the finale is odd – and especially as it follows the slow movement itself (maybe, coming after the minuet, it would be another form of contrast).

By the time the final Allegro starts, you've heard a 3-minute slow movement that is more than an introduction and not really a transition, open-ended and, after a drawn-out "almost there, not yet" cadence, ready to turn over into the light-hearted rondo that concludes the piece. It's as if Mozart is setting up the “happy ending” with an even starker contrast of moods – the very internal, personal sadness of G Minor, here, with the extroverted, public expectation – which he would never have been able to make just going from the E-flat of the 3rd Movement directly to the G Major of the 4th.

As Maynard Solomon writes in his 1995 biography, “Mozart's twin adagios tell of many things, and among them may be the endlessness of our longing to return to sources, to start over, to find once again the place where it all began.”

At this point, we have no need for unexpected distractions and prolongations: the Rondo is fairly straightforward and ends with the balance and delight one would expect of an 18th Century Classical composer. To quote Jorge Luis Borges, “happiness does not need to be transformed; happiness is its own end.”

By the way, it's interesting to note that Haydn and Mozart occasionally played chamber music together and not just around the time Mozart was working on those six quartets he wrote “dedicated to Haydn.” There is evidence that, in the summer he returned from an unsuccessful trip to Berlin in June, 1789, he and Haydn played the viola parts for private performances of both the C Major and the G Minor string quintets. (Can you imagine being in that audience?!)

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Mozart (1788)
Mozart completed the G Minor String Quintet on May 16th, 1787, not long after he'd finished its companion, the C Major String Quintet on April 19th. They are both majestic works in his output. It's interesting to see the juxtaposition of C Major and G Minor here. The following summer, he would write three symphonies for no apparent reason, and would finish the G Minor Symphony (No. 40, K.550) on July 25th, 1788, and then complete the C Major Symphony, the “Jupiter” (No. 41, K.551) on the 10th of August.

What was going on around the time he composed these two string quintets, then?

First of all, the plan was to produce a set of three – everything in those days was done in sets of three or six, like a “set” of string quartets consisting of contrasting ways of presenting a solution to the challenge of writing a string quartet (or whatever). But the story goes that Mozart was “negotiating” with the King of Prussia's court to become a court-composer there – a well-paying secure job, unlike the free-lancer's ups-and-downs he was experiencing (and suffering) in Vienna – but these went nowhere and so the two quintets were issued, along with a hastily arranged version of an earlier wind serenade in C Minor (K.388) since Mozart had other work he needed to concentrate on, a new opera to be premiered in Prague in October: Don Giovanni.

It is a sign of the times that, having advertised subscriptions for these three works to finance their publication (the 18th Century approach to a Go-Fund-Me page), he had to admit in the press that as of June, 1788, “as the number of subscriptions is very small, I find myself obliged to postpone the publication of my three quintets until 1 January, 1789.”


There was one thing “going on” in his life. And it involved his father.

When Mozart decided to quit the family business in Salzburg – being a court musician to the Archbishop there and follow in his father's footsteps, this despite years of traveling around Europe as a child prodigy hoping to find a more promising and lucrative position among the courts of numerous kings and emperors – and move to Vienna in 1781, his father lost all immediate control he had over his 25-year-old son's activities, both professional and personal. As Mozart is usually depicted, he was never one to deal comfortably with reality and while Leopold Mozart is often seen as a manipulating, over-protective stage-father in all this, it is true there was little love lost between them, especially after Mozart married Constanze Weber (the later composer, Carl Maria von Weber would be a cousin) whom Leopold strongly disapproved of (mostly out of fear her family would gobble up whatever fortune his son might be able to earn).

When Mozart's sister “Nannerl,” as she is known to history, had a son she named Leopold after her father, Leopold Sr now determined he would turn him into a child prodigy just as he had done with Wolfgang.

So when some of Wolfgang's friends were trying to arrange a tour England for him, perhaps find a decent position there, and write a number of works for the London audiences, no doubt a lucrative opportunity, Leopold refused to take care of Wolfgang and Constanza's children who were too young to travel. He was positive his hapless son and his worthless wife would stay in England and abandon their children to him, something he could little afford.

As it turned out, Mozart had to decline the offer – this was in January and February of 1787 – and on March 1st, when these friends stopped in Salzburg to see Leopold and deliver a letter from Mozart, Leopold wrote to Nannerl afterward he was relieved Mozart had not come along and sent his son a “fatherly reply” advising him he should not accept a tour there unless he had an advance agreement for a certain amount of money, that he shouldn't make the journey without having 2,000 florins in his pocket (in 1786, Mozart earned between 2600 and 3700 florins – when Haydn would travel to London in 1791, he would write 6 symphonies and earn about 24,000 florins).

As strained as their relationship was, there were moments – for instance the trip Leopold made to Vienna in 1785 and met Haydn, then easily the most famous composer in Europe, who told him his son was the greatest composer known to him – that must've made a father feel proud!

Leopold Mozart
But still, their correspondence becomes reserved and restricted to an exchange of news. In March, 1787, Leopold complained to Nannerl that he had not received “one letter of the alphabet” from his son. Most of his comments about him indicated he was constantly looking for proof that his son was incapable of taking care of his own affairs and that any financial problems he was having was brought about by extravagant wastefulness.

But in April, 1787, Mozart learned his father was “gravely ill” and he sent a letter dated April 4th – while working on the C Major String Quintet, finished two weeks later – in which, after hoping he would be recuperating soon, he implored his father not to hide the truth from him “so I may come to your arms as quickly as is humanly possible.”

It's clear, then, that once Mozart began work on the G Minor Quintet, keeping in mind how dramatic (and indeed darkly-tinged) this key was for Mozart, he knew his father was ill and, possibly, dying.

In the midst of all this, five days after completing the C Major Quintet, the Mozarts moved house, leaving a prestigious address, centrally located near St. Stephen's Cathedral, to the Landstrasse suburb, the result of economic necessity. His father wrote to Nannerl that Mozart told him about the move but made no explanation. Leopold told her "I can only guess why..."

Three weeks after this move, Mozart finished the G Minor Quintet.

Whatever Leopold wrote back to his son, however, did not survive but judging from other letters he'd written, his situation didn't seem that serious, yet. He had admitted to Nannerl in February that “for an old man there is no such thing as excellent health. There is always something wrong.” He was hoping with warmer weather would come with some improvement but instead he found out he had trouble with his heart, suffering from an accumulation of fluid. Another report indicates a doctor had diagnosed a “blockage of the spleen” in May.

On May 10th, Leopold wrote to a friend “I am no worse, thank God, and I hope for prolonged good weather so I might take the fresh air.” But then, not much later, a friend reported he hardly expected Leopold would last the summer.

Still, it is reported he died suddenly on May 28th – nine days after Mozart completed the lively Allegro that concludes his G Minor String Quintet. On May 29th, Mozart finished a Sonata for Piano Duet (two players at one keyboard), K.521, and a few days later wrote to a friend “I inform you that on returning home today I received the sad news of my most beloved father's death. You can imagine the state I am in.” But beyond this, there is no other mention of the news or his reaction to it.

Of course, it is easy to go from this to the new opera he was working on that spring which includes the ominous figure of the Commendatore, whom the “hero” kills in the opening scene and whose statue comes back to drag him off to Hell in the final scene, a great image in Milos Forman's film Amadeus, based on Peter Shaffer's play, but perhaps a bit of Monday Morning psychoanalyzing which may suit the 20th Century mindset, perhaps, but as far as Mozart is concerned, is all conjecture.

There is this, however. While Mozart has been accused of being hard-hearted by 20th Century critics since he didn't go to be with his father or attend the funeral, keep in mind the death, when it did come, came suddenly; that mail in those was not like e-mail or social media today, taking at least three days to get from Salzburg to Vienna (even that, by modern postal standards, can seem fairly fast); nor was it like hopping on a jet or even a train to arrive in Salzburg later the same day. Considering the fact Leopold would probably have been buried even by the time Mozart had received the news, it would take most likely six or seven days to go by stage-coach from Vienna to Salzburg.

And there is also this: on June 4th, Mozart wrote a poetic tribute to his pet starling who'd just died, a bird who'd learned to sing a tune from one of his piano concertos (No. 17 in G, K.453). It seems frivolous to have left a memento like that and not write at least something about his father. Still, though there are no other major works composed during the two months following Leopold's death, on June 14th he did complete the Musical Joke, that paean to a generic and otherwise overly not-quite-talented court composer (as Mozart often viewed much of his “competition”) and then finished its companion, a work of true genius if not simple perfection, Eine kleine Nachtmusik, on August 10th.

Meanwhile, he proceeded to work more in depth on his next big project, the opera, Don Giovanni.

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To conclude, here's one of those Lincoln Center programs with Bruce Adolphe to explain it all for you: the topic, here, the first two movements of Mozart's String Quintet in G Minor, K.516. If you have the 50 minutes to listen to it, consider it an excellent pre-concert talk complete with live illustrations. The remainder of the clip is a live performance by the Amphion Quartet with violist Matthew Lipman of the first two movements of the quintet.
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Okay, my work here is done.

– Dick Strawser

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If, during these unsettled times with the Coronavirus pandemic, you are new to Market Square Concerts' posts of videos from previous seasons, you might also want to check out some of our earlier posts:

Music for a Time We're Wondering When 'Normal' Will Return (Ernő Dohnányi's 2nd Piano Quintet)

Before Quarantine, Music for Isolation: Solo Works by Bach & Ysaÿe (Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 with Andrei Ioniţă; Ysaÿe's Sonata No. 2 for Solo Violin with Kristóf Baráti)

Musical Contrasts in a Time of Imbalance: Mozart and Bartók (Mozart's String Quartet in B-flat, K.589 and Bartók's 2nd String Quartet with the Escher Quartet)

Uplifting Music from Troubled Times: Schumann's Piano Quintet

Different Quartets for a Time of Discovery: Rheinberger & Martinů

Quartets in Quarantime: Beethoven & Schumann to the Rescue (Beethoven's "Harp" Quartet and Schumann's Quartet in A Major, Op.41/3)

Music Less Anxious for a Time of Isolation (Brazilian music for Guitar Duo; French music for solo harp)

Music in a Time of Anxiety: Bartók's Sonata for Two Pianos & Percussion
Music in a Time of Anxiety: Shostakovich's Piano Quintet (celebrating Stuart Malina's 20th Anniversary as Music Director of the Harrisburg Symphony)  

Music in a Time of Cancellations: A Bit of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos (Members of the Harrisburg Symphony Play the Brandenburg Concertos (Excerpts, including the complete Concerto No. 5)  

A Virtual Concert You Can Enjoy in the Safety of Your Own Homes: Poulenc, Mozart, and Dvořák

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