Mozart and the Quintet, thoughts on…

Posted on December 21st, 2009 by


Mozart and the Quintet, thoughts on…


Bishop Joseph  Hurdalek (Mozart’s album)

‘When Orpheus’ magic lute rings out,

Amphion to his lyre sings,

The lions tame, the rivers quiet grow,

The tigers listen, rocks a-walking go.

When Mozart masterly music plays

And gathers undivided praise,

The Quire of Muses stays to hear,

Apollo is himself all ear.’

 Mozart’s C Major and G minor quintets are his most well-known, and frequently played works in this genre. However, comparatively little is known as to the reason for their composition. Mozart had previously composed one work in this combination, a B Flat major quintet (K174), in 1777, but had shown no apparent interest in the combination in the succeeding decade. Despite this, the two 1787 works, the first of four original works that he would write for this combination, demonstrate a relish and invention in the combinations and pairings of instruments that had not been heard since the great early 18th century. Perhaps this was born out of Mozart’s love for the viola, which had revealed itself powerfully in the Sinfonie Concertante, for violin, viola and orchestra. In some ways, the solistic use of the instruments that can be heard in these quintets has more in common with that concertante work.

 However problematic Mozart’s relationship with the violin became, to the chagrin of his father, his love for the viola was lifelong. There is clearly evident in the string chamber works which appear to have been written for himself to play, and is equally recognisable in certain works of Beethoven, whose String Trios, and most particularly, his Serenade Op 25 for violin, viola and flute, show writing for that instrument of a composer determined to give himself something that he would enjoy performing himself. In Mozart’s case, pieces such as the two duos, the Kegelstatt Trio, and these quintets, manifesta particular affection for this instrument which betrays their purpose. There is a great difference between a work which is written for the composer to play, and on which is not. However, this difference is heightened, when the instrument which the composer will be using is not their primary one. Now of course, Mozart, it could be said, was the first generation of composers who observed a hierarchy of application from instrument to instrument.

 To his father’s irritation, as is well known, he made an active decision to focus on the piano.

 April 1788 Schubarts Vaterlandschronik, Stuttgart

‘The captious declare that he has transplanted the magic of his genius entirely to the fortepiano and that in more extended compositions he fails to make an effect with this all consuming fire.’

 For Leopold’s generation, it was implicit a musician was accomplished as a continuo player, as a string player, and as an improvising keyboard player. In addition, the importance of singing in this list of accomplishments cannot be over-emphasised. The generation of musicians who began to extricate themselves from the Kapell, such as Wolfgang, and later, Beethoven himself, did this by developing very particular virtuosities. What started to emerge was a newly affectionate relationship with their other accomplishments, in Mozart’s case, with string instruments. It would be tempting to suggest that his gravitation to the viola was inevitable. However much he loved string playing, putting his ‘butter violin’ under his chin would, inevitably raise the ghost, alive or not, of his father. 

 Three years before Mozart was born, Leopold had published the most influential Method  for the violin until the radical innovations of Kreutzer, Rode and Baillot nearly 50 years later. Wolfgang was in many ways, the embodiment, if not the advertisement, for this method. Perhaps it would be inevitable that he would come to resent the inevitable paternal expectation which went with this instrument. Perhaps the viola was a way for Mozart to relish playing a string instrument, without the looming sense of Papa.

 Of course, there is far more to composers loving playing and writing for the viola than some oedipal therapy. The viola provides an opportunity for the composer to be in the middle of the texture.

 In the half century running up till Mozart’s birth, and in the decades after his death, the most popular forms of chamber music did not involve the third voice of the viola. The imperative for the composition of chamber music, until the arrival of the gramophone, was to provide fodder for the home amateur market. Indeed the very transformation of the word amateur was the result of the increasing popularity and availability of music previously intended for the privileged amateur to more ‘unlikely people’. One might go a lot further. The invention of leisure time, the rise of a bourgeoisie, which were legacies both of social and industrial revolutions, engendered a shift in the notion of amateurism which would eventually result in today’s predominantly pejorative usage. However, at the heart of the definition of the arrivistes amateurs was the fact that these enthusiasts did not have formal music training.

 The activities of  the Graf von Swieten’s Liebhaber, the elite group of first and second rank amateurs for whom Mozart and Beethoven arranged Bach fugues, were centred around counterpoint. The understanding of this musical science, and its execution, whether in composition, performance or improvisation was not the purview of the many. There were many hurdles, shibboleths and trainings necessary in order to enter into this world. By definition, music generated for such purposes was not useful for mass publication, or in many cases, for publication at all, as the enthusiastic amateur of the later 18tth and early 19th centuries would simply not have the education or the understanding to use such material.

 The most successful and popular instrumentation, specifically geared to the wants and abilities of this specific group of enthusiasts, was that of the trio sonata. Fundamentally, this fantastically slippery grouping, can be roughly defined as two melody lines, usually confined to the narrow tessitura of the flute or the oboe, and an accompanying bass line, which might be played with a full or more laconic continuo grouping. Quite apart from the most important requirement of this combination, which was that it should be easily performed, it tended to eschew complex counterpoint, and implicit in that, kept a clear separation between bass and treble lines. Put bluntly, this kept the viola out of the equation.

 2 April 1788 Wiener Zeitung ‘Musical News’

‘These new quintets a 2 violini, 2 viole, e violoncello, which I offer  insubscription, finely and correctly written…amateurs abroad are requested to frank their orders. Kapellmeister-in actual service to his majesty.’

 As well as the many sonatas published for this instrumentation, it was the trio sonata combination which offered the most useful and saleable framework for the biggest money spinner of the classical period, dance music.

 ‘As the number of subscribers is still very small, I find myself obliged to postpone to publication of my quintets until January 1789.’ (W A Mozart Wiener Zeitung 25th June 1788 ‘Musical News’)

 The majority of published sets of dances by Beethoven and Mozart are for this instumentation, and consequently, the dance-hall orchestra, and works written for it, evolved without the viola, just as the instrumentation for Cassatii or Serenades did not use the cello. 

 As a rule, contrapuntal writing implies that there should not be separation between high and low voices, but an even spread. So the trio sonata was not suited to this. Consequently, it was not enamoured of performing composers, despite the fact that its saleability ensured a startling longevity that found its final manifestations in works such as Dvorak’s Bagatelles, which, in a charming memory of the trio sonata, are scored with harmonium.

 Consequently, even for Mozart and Haydn, the publication of works using the viola was always a risky business; the composition of works with two violas might be seen as being suicidal. Even to this day, the number of works for this combination is relatively small; composers seem to have chosen the instrumentation when they were reaching, or doing something which might be seen as especially personal.

 But the most obvious enjoyment which Mozart accrued from the combination was in the possibility of enhanced allegiances within the ensemble. If there is one characteristic which distinguishes Mozart’s 5 original works for quintet, it is in the utilisation of duo combinations. The possible combinations are. V 1 and V 2, V1 and Va 1, V 2 and Va 2, V 1 and Va 2, V 2 and Viola 1, Violin 1 and Vc, Violin 2 and  Vc, Va 1 and Vc, Va 2 and Vc. It might come as a surprise that all of these might be audible, after all, the pitches available to the violas and violins were the same, mean that on paper, at least, a combination of violin 1 and viola 1 should be indistinguishable from violin 2 and viola 2. However, this is where the particular distance from the trio sonata has to be remembered. In the older, more popular combination, the treble voices, being fundamentally constricted to the range of simple wind instruments, were limited, basically 2 octaves above middle c. In the quartet, and in particularly, in a multi-voiced ensemble of groups of similar instruments, a far greater spread of pitches is available. Mozart, in particular used a wider range of tessiturae according to the greater number of players on the stage, meaning that the pitch spread of the quintets, is on average greater than that of his quartets. However, this had a more exciting ramification; it meant that the apparently pitch equality of treble voices of the trio sonata was replaced by a type of zoning, meaning that each player was responsible for a subtly different spread of notes, enabling their differences to easily be perceived.

 From Mozart’s Album Summer 1787:

Johan von Grezmüller (Councillor of the Saltworkers department, subscriber to Mozart’s concerts)

‘As only those

            Who in their art possess a master’s hand

Enrapture those who know

            As well as the who barely understand,

So Mozart weaves his spell,

            Worthy the name of master, surely he

Enchants us, ev’ry one,

            Judges of Art, as simple hearers: me.’