Mozart, String Quartet in C Major, K. 465, “Dissonance”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1756-1791

String Quartet in C Major, K. 465, “Dissonance”, 1785

Mozart - DissonanceThe opening chapters of an essential history of the mighty string quartet could do no better than presenting the initial call and response of two eternal masterworks: Haydn’s Op. 33 and Mozart’s six quartets dedicated to Haydn. Just before Haydn’s groundbreaking set of six quartets were published in 1781, Mozart fatefully attended (perhaps even played for) a gathering where he heard Haydn’s Op. 33 quartets first hand in what was surely their informal premiere. Mozart was now living in Vienna, learning about Bach, and here, stunned by Haydn’s latest chamber music. Over the next four years, Mozart would write string duos, trios and quartets enfolding the lessons from Bach and Haydn, culminating in a laborious two-year project yielding six new string quartets loving dedicated to Haydn himself. Upon hearing these works, also in a collegial, salon setting with Mozart definitely playing viola, Haydn remarked that Mozart was the greatest living composer he knew.

It is fair to say that Mozart achieved at least two things with these new quartets: he surpassed his master evolving the string quartet art to a new level, and, he penned his own very best chamber music. Despite history’s worship of Mozart’s later string quintets, his six “Haydn” quartets, particularly when regarded as a whole, far surpass the quintets in technique, variety, depth of expression and sheer musical genius.

It is also fair to say that, within this set of Mozart quartets about which no praise could possibly be hyperbolic, the sixth and final quartet is arguably the most noteworthy. Ever since its innovative, foreboding, dark shadow of an introduction was first heard by rapt if not shocked listeners, it has borne the nickname “Dissonance.” The music begins as if it arose from a probing development section by Beethoven filled with brooding anxiety, pulsing, accented, distorted and evasive, eschewing harmonic resolution by drifting ever farther off course. As legend has it, the first publishers initially sent it back to Mozart believing it was riddled with mistakes. But this two-minute dramatic feint becomes the foil for one of Mozart’s most radiant and beneficent sonatas of all, bursting forth as a bright triumph of consonance in the natural key of C major. The first movement is a finely wrought sonata form, exquisitely articulated and naturally fluid with the fresh textures of Viennese high classicism: melody, motive, counterpoint and development, a refined dialog among four independent and highly cultivated souls. The dissonant introduction would jump like a spark of inspiration directly to Beethoven who greatly admired its ingenuity and clearly applied it to his own epic responses to the genre.

The slow movement is sweet and singing with a much more homophonic texture throughout. Mozart’s operatic gift for lyricism stretched across an arc of dramatic tension is fully present as violin and cello call and respond lovingly over a chasm of latent despair, the thread held tight by a little four-note trailing ornament that ingeniously becomes a motive-based mantra. As in so many of Mozart’s slow movements, melodic beauty is developed and deepened through aching wounds.

The third movement Menuetto is a mélange of melody, motive, counterpoint and development again. Instead of a simple minuet tune, Mozart writes another fully articulated drama like another little sonata of remarkable character, all still before the trio. The trio section only doubles this sensation of conflict within a larger unity. A shift to a minor key with a whole new sense of nearly Schubertian restless pathos pursues its own little inner sonata before returning to the minuet whose chromatic swoons seem just a bit more edgy now.

The high art of this remarkable quartet ends with yet another tour de force of formal construction, elegance and wit burnished with immediate surface appeal. A rondo form (with recurring refrain and intervening episodes) is merged with A theme and variations (the rondo theme constantly varies) and the overarching dramatic plan of a sonata (the rondo theme and episodes wander and develop). The character is by turns effervescent, dark and lyrical, the counterpoint is rich, the rhythmic drive is irrepressible and the musical variety is inexpressible. Every bar of music is both a stitch in a fabric continuity as well new innovation in texture, harmony or variation. And so closes the sixth chapter of the second book of the greatest string quartets in history.

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