Mozart, String Quintet No. 3 in C Major, K. 515

December 14, 2008

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1756-1791

String Quintet No. 3 in C Major, K. 515, 1787

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart1787 was an extraordinary year for Mozart. With all of Vienna humming tunes from his beloved Figaro that debuted the year before, Mozart turned to work on what would become his operatic masterpiece, Don Giovanni. 1787 saw the completion and the debut of this towering work. Mid-way through the year, Mozart took a break and, in short order, composed a pair of string quintets that would eventually be regarded as his greatest chamber music masterworks, K. 515 in C Major and K. 516 in g minor. This same brief period brought the death of his father Leopold Mozart and the only meeting Mozart ever had with Beethoven who was, at the time, a young sixteen-year-old pianist from Bonn. Within a year of Don Giovanni and the quintets, Mozart would spend a few whirlwind weeks to write his three final symphonies, his greatest works in that form as well, curiously culminating with another pair of contrasting works in g minor and C Major. After all of this, Mozart was still only thirty-three years old, though it was now late in his terribly short life.

It is not entirely clear why Mozart chose to write for the viola quintet, a string quartet with a second viola. This was by no means a standard ensemble at the time though a few noteworthy predecessors exist including a Notturno by Michael Haydn that may have caught Mozart's eye. Another impetus may have been the success of the Italian composer Luigi Boccherini who, by 1787, had written something like sixty-six quintets, but his were, at the time, all cello quintets, a string quartet with a second cello. One thing is certain: the viola was the stringed instrument Mozart preferred to play himself, a preference he shared with several important chamber music composers that followed, and it is well-known that Mozart took every opportunity to perform his own music. Others have commented on yet another feature of Mozart's compositional processes: twice, he turned to the string quintet after completing a set of string quartets as if the momentum and the desire for a fuller realization compelled him to do so. The first pair (K. 515 and K. 516) followed the famous set of six quartets dedicated to Haydn; the second pair (K. 593 and K. 614) followed his three "Russian" quartets becoming his final chamber music compositions. These four viola quintets are generally considered to be superior to the string quartets, the cream of the cream so to speak. While the dramatic K. 516 in g minor enjoys greater fame, K. 515 in C Major is often considered the finest. It seems to have directly inspired Schubert to write his own inimitable string quintet in the same key.

Mozart's C Major quintet begins with a sonata of extraordinary proportions including what Charles Rosen called the longest sonata exposition before Beethoven's 9th Symphony. It is in fact the exposition and the development-rich recapitulation that contains most of the music; surprisingly, the development section is comparatively brief. The vast expanse of music is built from a wealth of melodic material and by a clearly noticeable process of elongation in phrase lengths. The opening bars feature a cello statement with violin reply that occupies five rather than the more conventional four measures and this tendency becomes more pronounced as the music progresses. Another aspect of the music giving it diversity and coherence in the face of extraordinary lengths is the flexibility of the quintet ensemble. The permutations for partitioning and grouping parts among five instruments with fortified inner voices enable Mozart to create new textures and a wonderful interplay of duets, antiphonal quartets and everything in between.

At some point, one would expect a special feature for the second viola, freed as it is from having to carry the inner harmonic voice. The slow movement Andante satisfies that expectation with a gorgeous duet between violin and viola as the other players relax into a settled texture of nearly pure accompaniment. Here is not only Mozart's genius for the opera, but also his penchant for creating magic with this particular pair of instruments recalling the two unsurpassed duo sonatas and the Sinfonia Concertante. Less concerned with development and more with the sheer lyrical beauty of song, the movement is generally described as a sonatina: a little sonata that omits the development section. The third movement Menuetto is both gracious and frisky and highlights the unique antiphonal call and response between violas and violins as the cello sings deeply in a world of its very own. The trio begins with a rather large, tentative melodic leap that spins out into chromaticisims and turns creating a delicious musical vertigo that eventually coaxes the isolated cello from its hiding place.

The finale is a combination of rondo (repeating refrain) and sonata (with significant, probing development of a brief motif) charged with a swift tempo, the full sonorous resources of the quintet and a mirthful grandeur that is unmistakably Mozartian. The big ensemble finds its most luxuriant concord here where it swells into the quasi-orchestral proportions of a gallant serenade. It ends with the exuberant finality of a forte unison unlike the three previous movements that all end much more softly bringing to mind a thoughtful quote from André Gide: "Of all musicians Mozart is the one from whom our epoch has taken us farthest away; he speaks only in a whisper, and the public has ceased to hear anything but shouts."

© Kai Christiansen and Music at Kohl Mansion. All rights reserved.

© Kai Christiansen Used by permission. All rights reserved.