Bursting open the salon doors

Posted on December 4th, 2009 by


Bursting open the Salon Doors

Talk given at Wilton’s Music Hall-30th November 2008


The one unifying feature of most late 18th century chamber music is that we know next to nothing about the circumstances of its performance. Of course, there is a simple reason for this. Until the third decade of the 19th century, the very notion of chamber music being ‘performed’ at all would have seemed anathema. So it is with the two works which make up tonight’s concert. The Salon doors remain resolutely shut.


So, all we know about the D major Quartet, K 499, is that is was finished, according to Mozart’s thematic catalogue on the 19th August 1786, and that it was published in the same year, by the Hoffmeister publishing house. A few months earlier, Le Nozze di Figaro was premiered at the Burgtheater, and Constanza was pregnant. Such had the success of some of the ensembles, that according to the Wiener Realzeitung in July 1786:


            “…it gave rise to the Imperial Decree which a few days later publicly announced that it would in future be forbidden to repeat in an opera any piece written for more than a single voice.”


Of course, it had only been due to the bizarre decision of Louis XVI to accede to his Austrian wife’s demand that the Beaumarchais’ work be presented at court in Paris, that Mozart had been able to present the Opera at all.


All that one can say is that this extraordinary quartet, which marks a sea-change from the 6 quartets dedicated to Haydn the previous year, happened in the wake of Figaro and that performing the bizarre last movement is a little bit like playing a twisted version of the overture to the opera. Perhaps all we can do is to use the words of an astonished Hungarian audience member at Figaro:

“The joy that this music causes is so far removed from all sensuality that one cannot speak of it. Where could words be found that are worthy to describe such a joy?” (Franz Kazinsky Vienna May 1786)

However, I have to note, that August 1786 saw the production of not just one, but two masterly and revolutionary chamber works. Two weeks before completing this quartet, Mozart had written the most gentle of his works in E Flat major, his ‘skittle-alley’ Kegelstatt Trio, his extraordinarily affectionate love letter to the clarinet and the viola. This had followed hard on the heels of another E flat masterpiece, the second of the two Piano Quartets originally commissioned and then abandoned by Hoffmeister. Perhaps the logic of this solitary string quartet, published by the same house, was as a peace offering after having written over-difficult piano parts for these works.  Four days earlier, he had completed his F major piano duo sonata. One clue as to the invention behind all these pieces can be provided by the Mozart’s prolific output of canons from June of that year, no fewer than 20 in all, many of which were written to help in the instruction of his British pupil, Thos Attwood, later director of Music of St Paul’s Cathedral. The D major quartet includes some of the most jaw dropping harmonic twists and turns to be found in any of Mozart’s music; perhaps the teaching, and the escape from the theatre, inspired a new intellectual playfulness. 


Divertifment, (Fr)-Recreation or Pastime (Edward Phillips’s Dictionary 1650)


Mozart’s divertimento for string trio set new standards for the scope and reach of a chamber work. It directly inspired not one, but two Beethoven string trios, his Op 3 and the Op 8 ‘Serenade’ and by extension established a model which would bear fruit with his late quartets. However, its title, and the genre to which it belonged would hardly lead the unsuspecting listener to expect a work on this emotional and architectural scale. Furthermore, with the exception of Mozart’s K 404 and 405, the transcriptions of Bach fugues, this is Mozart’s only completed work for violin, viola and cello, though far from being his only string trio. As I have noted many times before on this stage, the combination of two violins and bass was extraordinarily popular, both in the combination known as a ‘trio sonata’ to which I will return later, or as the standard line for dance music, which eschewed viola lines till well into the 19th century. To this day, dance orchestras across central and southern Europe, whether duelling in the Piazza San Marco in Venice, wondering the streets of Banja Luka are rooted in this combination of instruments. Even Beethoven’s most lavishly instrumentated Kontretanzen used every possible instrument, percussion included, but left out the viola. Mozart composed around thirty sets of instrumental dances, of which only one includes a viola section, being the Ballet for Idomeneo, where the whole orchestra would have been available anyway.


Cassation, (Lat.)-A nulling, or making void (ibid.)


 However, the Divertimento raised the spectre of another tradition. The three names, Divertimento, Cassation and Serenade were loosely interchangeable in the second half of the 18th century. Indeed, more often than not, they were associated with the Notturno which was most popular as an independent form amongst the bohemian composers that Mozart admired so much, Mica, the Bendas, Vanhal and Josef Myslivecek.


 Indeed Mozart himself composed two Notturni, one of which was a Serenata Notturna written in 1776, the other for four orchestras. One of his earliest orchestra works written in The Hague, was the so called Gallimathias Musicum (or quodlibet). Like most of his divertimento/cassation/serenade works that followed, it is a multi-movement work, comprising a Molto Allegro-Andante-Allegro-Pastorella-Allegro-Allegretto-Allegro-Molto Adagio-Allegro-Largo-Allegro-Andante-Menuet-Adagio-Presto-Fuga. There is reason in reading this out here, Mozart sets up the model of his approach to these pieces. In total, he wrote 21 such works, and roughly 37, if one includes the purely wind works. The vast majority of these have more than 5 movements, and even the most famous ‘night piece’, Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, written the month after his father died in the summer of 1787, originally, according to Mozart’s ‘Thematic Catalogue’ consisted of 5 and not 4 movements, organised as Allegro-Menuetto-Romance-Menuetto-Rondo. With such groupings of movements in mind, it is hardly surprising that he should have vacillated as to the relative positioning of slow and dance movements, in his quartets and quintets.


            Serenade, (French) an evening song, sung by a Lover under his Mistress’s window. (Ibid)


Mozart’s Divertimento for string trio has six movements, Allegro-Adagio-Menuetto-Andante (Variations)-Menuetto-Allegro. Almost none of the works mentioned above however even begin to approach the emotional range and refinement that he achieves in this piece, not even the justly famous E flat masterpiece for wind, the Grand Partita, which whilst having 7 movements, not 6, also alternates between minuets, and includes a not so dissimilar set of variations.


However I would suggest that part of our confusion is the result of a red herring. Why would he name it ‘divertimento’ in the first place? It seems to me, this was to ensure that there was absolutely now chance that this work would be confused with a trio sonata. Mozart wrote only one other work, which might be classified as a pure ‘string trio’ his K266, a trio for two violins and basso, written in 1777. Clearly there would be no problem with this work being mistaken for a trio sonata; it was written, as most works using the appellation ‘basso’ so that the lower line could be taken by a basso continuo. However until 1790 none of Mozart’s works for three instruments, whatever the instrumentation, were published as ‘trios’. Without exception, they were all advertised as ‘Sonatas for piano forte with…’ In September 1788, the month that Mozart finished this piece, t he following advertisement appeared in the Wiener Zeitung:

            “From Artaria & Comp., art dealers, are to be had…Mozart 1 new Sonata for Pianoforte with violin and viola or clarinet”-this was the Kegelstatt-Trio.


Two months later, the same publication carried the following advertisements for Mozart’s piano trios K. 502, 542 and 548:


            “From Artaria & Comp., art dealers, are to be had: …by Herr Mozart 3 quite new Sonatas for the pianoforte, with the accompaniment of a violin and a violoncello.”


Indeed, it would not be until 1790 that Mozart’s last Piano Trio, which he had given to the London based Stephen Storace, would be advertised, in the same organ as:


            “Mozart, 1 Trio for harpsichord, violin and bass…”


Mozart had pre-empted the problem. His first six ‘piano trios’ were published and written in London in 1765-a copy was presented to the British Museum by Leopold before they left that year. These, all scored for harpsichord, violin and cello, were published as Sonatas. However, in 1776, Mozart wrote a true trio with piano, with the cello doing more than merely augmenting the bass line. He thoughtfully, and carefully, named it Divertimento a 3. It shares nothing in common with the types of divertimenti, or cassation cited above, but provides a pointed to his choice of name for his great string trio. This work would partake of both aspects of the name; the need to distance the work from the prejudices associated with the moniker ‘trio’ alongside the multi movement nature of the serenade like work. However, to it he brought something completely new, a new world of emotion and dramatic scope, almost completely unprecedented in chamber music, and offering new challenges which the composers of the ensuing generations struggled to meet. It was almost as if he was unable to clear the memory of the great work in E flat that he had finished earlier that year, his 39th Symphony K. 543; what was clear was that from here on, the world of chamber music would inhabit the same space as the world of opera and the symphony; the arrival of chamber music on the concert stage, bursting the doors of the salon wide open, was inevitable.