Mozart, String Quartet in D major, K. 155

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

String Quartet in D major, Italian, K. 155, 1772

Wolfgang Amadeus MozartMozart’s ten “celebrated quartets” date from 1782 or later when Mozart-the-man was married in Vienna and “freelancing” his way from masterpiece to masterpiece. Long before the powerful influences of Haydn, Bach, Vienna, and his own maturity would carry Mozart to divine heights of achievement, Mozart-the-boy traveled the European countryside performing, meeting personages and absorbing regional and fashionable musical styles. He frequented Italy and on his third journey there in the winter of 1772-73, composed his first set of six string quartets, the first of which you will hear on the program tonight. Mozart was 16 years old, still living in Salzburg and largely uninfluenced by Haydn’s early quartets nor the contrapuntal exemplars of Bach he would study years hence. This same year, a 40-year-old Haydn published his ground breaking “Sun” string quartets, Op. 20, the first unequivocal masterpieces of the genre. Beethoven was a 2-year-old in Bonn.

The String Quartet No. 2 in D Major, K. 155, like its companions, is a set of six,and is fashioned after Italian string quartets of the time featuring three movements in a fast-slow-fast layout derived from the Italian opera overture. Haydn’s quartets began as five-movement divertimenti and just a few years prior, had moved to the traditional four-movement design. Mozart’s melodic, rhythmic and textural figuration all reflect the gallant Italian style in manner and musical meaning. Yet, already, the quartets displayed clear sonata patterns, especially lyrical slow movements and traces everywhere of the contrapuntal embellishments that would grow into the eventual Viennese texture of fluid “four-part conversation.” Everything is well-crafted, on par with the quartets of his day (excepting Haydn) and perfectly successful as engaging musical entertainment. Yet still, one hears Mozart’s “sound” and finds, already, his special melodic and motivic touch giving a unique personality to each of his “perfectly fashionable” quartets.

The first movement is bursting with youthful exuberance, ebullient and charming. An abundance of flowing themes and flourishes shapes a clear sonata form with some developmental muscle and a broad palette of textural patterns and part writing. Just emerging even in the contemporaneous quartets of Haydn, the cello shows significant independence. It is most likely the central slow movement that begins to evoke the music from Mozart-the-man. Stately, lyrical, touching, this music sings in wonderfully balanced parts, a duet floating above the suave, pulsating river in the lower strings. It is bruised slightly by a brief dark tinge of pathos, just a hint of what would emerge ten years hence.

The finale brandishes a brief, fleeting rondo sparkling with high spirits and humor. It is a miniature three-part form featuring a boisterous country fiddler with open double-stopped quartets, an interlude of Italian operatic intrigue, and a reprise of the first violin’s virtuoso geniality. A little coda indulges in some fine, soft counterpoint loudly quashed by a bold unison, with contrasts of ensemble to match the humorous dynamics. As Mozart-the-man once said about Beethoven, “Keep an eye on this one; he’s bound to make a splash.”

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