MOZART: String Quartets, K. 170-171 and K. 421
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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 - 1791)
String Quartets Vol. 7
Quartet No.10 in C major, K. 170
Quartet No.11 in E Flat Major, K. 171
Quartet No.15 in D Minor, K.421 (Haydn Quartets Op. 10, No.2)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg in 1756, the son of a court musician who, in the year of his youngest child's birth, published an influential book on violin-playing. Leopold Mozart rose to occupy the position of Vice-Kapellmeister to the Archbishop of Salzburg, but sacrificed his own creative career to that of his son, in whom he detected early signs of precocious genius. With the indulgence of his patron, he was able to undertake extended concert tours of Europe in which his son and his elder daughter Nannerl were able to astonish audiences. The boy played both the keyboard and the violin and could improvise and soon write down his own compositions.
Childhood that had brought Mozart signal success was followed by a less satisfactory period of adolescence largely in Salzburg, under the patronage of a new and less sympathetic Archbishop. Like his father, Mozart found opportunities far too limited at home, while chances of travel were now restricted. In 1777, when leave of absence was not granted, he gave up employment in Salzburg to seek a future elsewhere, but neither Mannheim nor Paris, both musical centres of some importance, had anything for him. His Mannheim connections, however, brought a commission for an opera in Munich in 1781, and after its successful staging he was summoned by his patron to Vienna. There Mozart's dissatisfaction with his position resulted in a quarrel with the Archbishop and dismissal from his service.
The last ten years of Mozart's life were spent in Vienna in precarious independence of both patron and immediate paternal advice, a situation aggravated by an imprudent marriage. Initial success in the opera-house and as a performer was followed, as the decade went on, by increasing financial difficulties. By the time of his death in December 1791, however, his fortunes seemed about to change for the better, with the success of the German opera The Magic Flute, and the possibility of increased patronage.
The string quartet developed as a form in the second half of the eighteenth century, coming to assume the greatest importance for composers. Stendhal's account of the matter, in his Lettres sur J. Haydn, is well known. He recalls the description given by a woman of intelligence who found the quartet similar to the conversation of four friends, the first violin, a middle-aged man and a good speaker, leading the discourse, supported by his friend, the second violin, who would seek to allow the first to shine, the viola would be a knowledgeable man of sound opinions, occasionally adding his own laconic but truthful comments, while the cello was a woman who had nothing very important to say, and yet always sought to take part in the conversation, adding an element of gracefulness and sometimes allowing the others time to draw breath. It is true that with the later quartets of Haydn and those of Mozart in which he rivalled the example of the older man, there is an equilibrium between the four instruments, each with its essential contribution to a form that epitomizes the music of the period, a microcosm into which the essence of music is subsumed.
In the autumn of 1772 Mozart travelled with his father to Milan, where an opera had been commissioned for the opening of the carnival season. Leopold Mozart had hoped that his son would be offered a position at the court of the governor of Milan, the Archduke Ferdinand, son of the Empress, but in this he was disappointed. The next opportunity to seek advancement came in the summer. During the absence from Salzburg of the Archbishop, father and son travelled to Vienna, where they remained from mid-July until late September, and here Mozart wrote a further set of six string quartets, works that were in the four movement form familiar to the Viennese, rather than the three-movement Italian form of the six quartets he had written during his time in Italy. Like that set, however, these quartets are in a related sequence of keys and were written in August and September, while he and his father continued to hope for some positive sign of court patronage. The stay had some effect on Mozart's style, particularly in the string quartets, which show the influence of Haydn. Later problems arose when, in 1785, the publisher Torricella issued these six quartets at a lower price than the new set of quartets that Mozart had dedicated to Haydn in that year, published by Artaria as Opus X.
The quartets were written under the supervision of Leopold Mozart, who was responsible, with his son's agreement, for the grouping of them together as a cycle.
The third of the set, the Quartet in C major, K. 170, written in August 1773, starts with a theme and four variations. The first of these is in notes of very short value, followed by a triplet variation. The third variation opens with the violins in octaves and the fourth has an interrupted first violin melody. The theme re-appears to end the movement. The Minuet and its contrasting Trio, the last with a first violin melody, is followed by a G major Adagio, which follows the first violin melody with a central section introduced by the viola. The quartet ends with a Rondo.
The Quartet in E flat major, K. 171, is the fourth of the group. It starts with an Adagio, strongly introduced, but answered more gently, leading to an Allegro assai with an imitative opening that re-appears mid-way in the movement and to start the recapitulation, which leads in turn to the return of the Adagio. The first violin dominates the Minuet, while the A flat Trio has canonic imitation between first violin and viola, their r61es reversed in the second half. The instruments are muted for the C minor Andante, in which melodic interest is shared. The last movement is in sonata-form with a very short central development.
In 1785 Artaria published a set of six quartets by Mozart, with a dedication to Haydn. Mozart's dedication describes them as the fruit of a long and laborious study, as he entrusts them as children to a father, and there is evidence both of the care that he took over these compositions and of the influence of Haydn, himself to be influenced by these works in his turn. Haydn's appreciation and understanding of the quartets was later reported with pride by Leopold Mozart, writing from Vienna to his daughter at home in Salzburg after a performance of some of the cycle at Mozart's lodgings in the presence of Haydn in February 1785. The Quartet in D minor, K.421, the second of the Haydn cycle, was written in the summer of 1783, completed by 17th June. The first movement opens sotto voce, leading to a dramatic extension of range and dynamics and subtle interplay between the instruments. The first violin is entrusted with the F major second subject and thematic material is developed contrapuntally in the central section of the movement. The F major Andante opens with a first violin melody and contains a more elaborate central section. It is followed by a Minuet of tragic implication, with a D major Trio of lively rhythm in which the first violin is accompanied by the plucked notes of the other instruments. The last movement, marked Al1egretto ma non troppo has a gently lilting principal melody in dotted rhythm, punctuated by a repeated note figure that has continuing importance. There is a first variation in shorter notes, using a pattern based on the arpeggio. The second variation is syncopated and dynamically contrasted, the