Mozart, String Quartet in B-flat, K. 458, “Hunt”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1756-1791

String Quartet in B-flat, K. 458, “Hunt”, 1784

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - The Hunt QuartetWhen Mozart completed his six string quartets dedicated to Haydn in 1785, he created six of the finest quartets ever written, absolute touchstones of the genre that have remained at the core of the repertory ever since. These quartets were a quantum leap from Mozart’s earlier quartets and, in most estimations, outshine the remaining four quartets that followed. There are several reasons that contributed to the outstanding quality of these six “Haydn” quartets. Mozart met Haydn in person for the first time in 1781 and had multiple occasions to directly experience Haydn’s revolutionary Op. 33 quartets that were first published in 1782. It was also during these first years in Vienna when Mozart came into more intimate contact with the music of Bach. Inspired by Haydn’s latest musical miracles and armed with newly expanded contrapuntal skills, Mozart determined to write his own new set of quartets primarily in homage to Haydn in the spirit of pure artistic dialog. In his most intense and significantly painstaking compositional effort, Mozart wrote the six quartets in two groups between December 1782 and January 1785, sending the quartets to Haydn in September 1785 with a heartfelt dedication. With this event, Mozart became the second immortal composer to write in the style of the Viennese classical string quartet thereby establishing a true musical genre of the highest order. Upon hearing these quartets, Haydn asserted that Mozart was the finest composer he knew.

The String Quartet in B-flat Major, K. 458 was the fourth quartet in the series written in November of 1784. Known as the “Hunt” Quartet, it is easily the most popular of the “Haydn” quartets. Its nickname, supplied by someone other than Mozart, refers to the opening theme of the first movement that suggests the shape, open harmony and clarity of a simple hunting call with the violin duet suggesting a pair of horns. This warm clarion motif launches one of Mozart’s finest sonata movements. The luxurious elegance of this first theme gives way to the second theme vividly “tagged” by simple five-note motif like a trill or a “shake.” This deceptively simple musical figure saturates the movement, fuels the development and provides the chief contrast to the equally pervasive hunting horn motif. The wealth of musical material built from these simple elements is astonishing and comprehensive: Mozart explores the full latent potential of his elemental means reaching a zenith of expanded expression in a breathtaking coda. Not unusual for Mozart, the development begins with a brand new theme, a lovely point of fresh repose before the “shake” motif launches the probing exploration, suddenly obsessed with what had first seemed merely incidental.

The second movement is a moderate and stately minuet with a more animated trio featuring delicate clockwork in the inner voices, a singing first violin with canonic echoes from the cello in a pleasing polarity of treble and bass. The third movement adagio is long, tender and intense. As with many of Mozart’s finest slow movements for string chamber ensemble, a delicate, spacious poise deepens into a fragile vulnerability with the exposed cello lines hinting at the rarefied intimacy of his late Prussian quartets.

The initial theme of the energetic finale seems to echo the simple triadic character of the opening hunt motif and, despite some commentators’ objections to an inappropriate association, here the music fairly conjures the bristling excitement of the chase. The second theme supplies yet another simple horn-like charge with a call and response bouncing off a hilly countryside. The supercharged drive of this shimmering, nervous conclusion bounds over the river and through the woods in a fleet, fluid hybrid of sonata and rondo forms, the first contributing a tense developmental climax, the second a lively recurring refrain. Of the Haydn quartets, this is surely the most direct, uncomplicated and winning of the six. Of the riches within these remarkable masterworks, this is, of course, but the tip of an iceberg.

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