Mozart and the divine Bohemian

Posted on December 21st, 2009 by


Mozart and the Divine Bohemian

Talk given prior to performance of Mozart-Quintets in D Major, E Flat Major, and Adagio K411. Wilton’s Music Hall September 2008

 In 1782, Mozart wrote an Adagio K411 for five wind instruments. Very little is known of its purpose, but, quite apart from its extraordinary beauty, it provides a window into his two final String Quintets, which we are going to play here tonight. Played on the cello, its opening, as you will hear, prefigures, the noblesse of the opening of his penultimate quintet, and the richness of its internal textures, machines, colours and clocks is prescient of what he would use with the extended string formation.

 1782 was the very year that Mozart wrote his first mature quintet for wind and string instruments, a Horn quintet. This makes use of exactly the same instrumentation of middle voices-split violas-that distinguishes his choice of string quintet type.

 In 1782 he had also written a Parthia or Serenade for wind octet. When he came to arrange it for strings, he was drawn to the quintet combination, and arranged thus in 1788. There is some speculation that his original motivation was as an experiment in mixing strings and winds in a new combination; the first violin part of this transcription is almost exactly the same as the oboe part in the original, despite everything else having being changed. This might suggest that Mozart was experimenting with bringing the reed instrument out of the Harmoniemusik and Cassation  world into richer string combinations. Perhaps a direct result of this was that when he came to write his great Clarinet Quintet the following year, he scored it for five instruments, not four (as had been the case with most chamber works with clarinet up till this point). However as the clarinet’s range and colour was so close to that of the viola, he did not remove a violin part from the string quintet combination, but that of the viola.

 The point that I am getting to is that his experiment with quintet writing, with the close harmony demanded by groups of double and single reed instruments may have led to an interest in an equally interwoven approach to string writing, a completely different sound world from that of the String Quartet, which did not enjoy the hegemony it has acquired today in the last two decades of the 18th century.

 Mozart wrote five original string quintets aside from the arrangement that I had just mentioned. The first of these was written in 1773, when he was 17 years old, and while he was playing in the orchestra at Salzburg.

 Just over one year earlier he and his father had returned, or rather, were ordered to return from their extended touring across Europe at the behest of their erstwhile employer, the Archbishop Schrattenbrach. The unfortunate cleric died one day before they arrived home, and his place was taken by the Count Hieronymous Colloredo, who, as Archbishop, confirmed Mozart’s position as Konzertmeister or leader in his Kapell in  1772.

 At the front of the Salzburg orchestra Mozart found himself sitting next to Joseph Haydn’s younger brother, the irrepressible and innovative Johann Michael Haydn.

 Michael Haydn was an enormous influence on his young desk partner, much to Leopold’s horror; together the two amused themselves writing lewd catches and canons. Mozart was also inspired enough by Haydn’s recently completed A major violin concerto to write four more of his own. In these works he appropriated Haydn’s conceit of inserting street songs, Gassenauern, in the finales, and toying with quiet endings-a radical notion in concertos then, and not popular with applause-seeking soloists today.

 However, Haydn was also innovating in other areas, most particular in that of string chamber music, were he was writing Notturni, or multi movement Serenades with divided violas-string quintets.

 Michael Haydn wrote seven such  quintets; it must be noted that he, like Mozart, loved to play the viola. No doubt both of them appreciated the chance to be inside the harmony; this was later a passion of composers such as Beethoven, Hindemith and even Benjamin Britten.

 We know that Mozart was well acquainted with Haydn’s quintets. Ironically, the evidence appears in exactly the same 1777 letter that I mentioned on Wednesday, composed on the 6th October, referring to a HausKonzert at the tavern of Herr Albert in Munich. This, as I mentioned before, referred to the Schuster Piano/violin sonatas, which inspired his first mature accompanied sonatas. In it, he had noted that at the concert:

             I played as if I was the greatest violinist in Europe.

 Earlier in the letter he also reported that the concert had begun thus:

             We began at once with the two quintets by Haydn…

 These works can only be the Michael Haydn Quintets, as his older brother did not write string quintets.

 However, the plot thickens. A few days after Hr Albert’s concert, Mozart paid a visit to an old friend, the ‘divine Bohemian’ as he had been known in the Italian principalities–Josef Myslivecek. Mozart had  first met Myslivecek in 1770, and spent time with him in Milan two years later. Myslivecek had written 6 quintets for the same combination that interests us here.

 By the time Mozart saw him in Munich in 1777, on the 10th October, the day before he left for Augsburg, Myslivecek was far from ‘divine’; he was horribly ill with syphilis and Mozart was so shocked at his disfigurement that he confessed that he could not look at him. However, despite asking his friend to turn his chair away he reported the he was:

                         …Full of fire, spirit and life.

 Perhaps they discussed quintets; for it was under the influence of Myslivecek as well as Haydn that Mozart, returning from Milan in 1773, had written the first of his Quintets in B flat K. 174. In the long term, the influence of his Bohemian and Czech composer friends, Myslivecek and Vanhal, would cast a longer shadow over Mozart’s mature chamber and orchestral music than the younger Haydn, whose career was blighted by alcoholism in the early 1780s.

 However, there is one remark which was appended to the first French edition of the Myslivecek chamber music, which appeared in pre-revolutionary Paris. This edition, of his string trios noted that:

             They can be played equally well à trois as with full orchestra.

 And this is where the development of the Mozart’s string quintet language gets exciting. I have already mentioned the Possible impact of wind chamber music , HarmonieMusik, and of works by other composers. However, it is worth reminding ourselves that in the last two years of his life, Mozart was moving away from the string quartet. I say this carefully, as many of you were here when we played the three fabulous ‘Prussian’ quartets last Sunday. However, as I pointed out then, these works effectively smashed the medium, breaking it up into duos and trios, experimenting with notions of concertantes and concertos, rather than Joseph Haydn’s model, to which he had so clearly aspired in the 1785 quartets. Mozart’s String Quintets look in completely the opposite direction; towards the orchestra.

 Now for an ‘inconvenient truth’.

 There is no such thing as a ‘viola’. By the end of the 18th century, nearly all orchestras were seated using a two-winged formation. As is generally known today, this placed the two sections of violins facing each other, the leaders of the first and seconds reading from two sides of the same music stand. What has been a little ‘buried’, was that the same held true for most sections of what we now call ‘violas’, which were called either ‘altos’ or ‘tenors’; both appellations with which viola players today seem perfectly comfortable. Unfortunately, as anyone who has been anywhere near a choir knows, well, as everyone knows, these two words do not mean the same thing.

 Just as the two sections of violins played in different tessiturae, or pitch ranges, as they do in these quintets, so did the violas.  

Of Mozart’s 41 symphonies, now fewer than 34 of those are scored for split violas. This can most easily heard at the beginning of the 40th Symphony. In addition, the wonderful Sinfonia Concertante K364 was written for this combination. This enables wonderful competing trios of violins and violas to bicker all the way through this work. The high and low instruments always remain true to their ‘status’ in these works.  So put bluntly, the normal expectation was that the orchestral mass consisted of 5 separate lines.

 Not surprisingly, Mozart’s quintets certainly aspire to such orchestral heft, and gravitas-the opening of the D major, recalling the Quintet movement which we will begin with, has a certain Masonic grandeur.

 However, it would not be until the second decade of the 19th century that a movement began to establish the String Quartet as a superior, separate chamber music entity. This separation began in Paris, where the violinist-colleagues Pierre Baillot and Francois Antoine Habeneck founded totally exclusive chamber and orchestral societies. This was very different from the chamber concerts in which Beethoven and Schubert participated; there was no perceivable dividing line between chamber and orchestral performance.

 Even in Paris, the chamber societies were not dominated by the String Quartet, but by Quintets, albeit on the Boccherini model-with two cellos. It was not until the advent of Baillot’s students, the Borher Brothers, and Jean Pierre Maurin, that the notion of a ‘pure’ string quartet or quartet concert was born. This has become the norm, and has had an odd consequence.

 The Quintet has been gradually abandoned, partially because of the reason mentioned; that it does not fit the modern concert world, and partially because of its own success. The four later quintets written by Mozart, and the miraculous quintet composed four decades later by Schubert, are so extraordinary as to inhibit successors; this is not to belittle the miraculous works written by Brahms, Bruckner, Mendelssohn and, in recent years, George Rochberg. This is ironic, as Schubert’s very first chamber production, his Overture  D.9 was written as a string quintet, on Mozart’s model, and the 13 string symphonies composed by the young Mendelssohn utilise the same scoring.

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