Mozart, String Quartet in A Major, K. 464, “Drum”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1756-1791

String Quartet in A Major, K. 464, “Drum”, “Haydn” Quartet No. 5, 1785

1781 represents an important turning point in Mozart’s life. He was now living in Vienna where he would stay for the rest of his life. Here, Mozart began to seriously explore the music of J.S. Bach with its intricate marvels of learned counterpoint, a crucial musical ingredient that Haydn and Mozart would merge with the gallant creating a new hybrid texture at the heart of the classical style. 1781 also witnessed the first meeting of Mozart and Haydn and a series of chamber salons where Mozart learned first hand of Haydn’s latest creation: the famous Op. 33 string quartets which Haydn composed that very year. It had been close to a decade since either composer had written for the medium, and Mozart’s astonishment at Haydn’s new quartets impelled him to follow suit. Over the next two years, Mozart uncharacteristically labored to produce six quartets, finished in 1785 and lovingly dedicated to Haydn as the man who finally taught him how. This “call and response” represents an exquisite artistic dialog that would continue with subsequent retorts by Haydn and eventually a brazen young Beethoven. Since known as Mozart’s “Haydn Quartets”, these works constitute a perfect microcosm of his musical gifts showing the absorption and expansion of an emerging art form forever influenced by his own contributions. Mozart would compose four more string quartets completing what has become known as his “celebrated ten”, but the six quartets dedicated to Haydn stand alone, the products of a unique place and time.

The string quartet in A Major, K. 464 is the fifth of the set. The first movement is in sonata form with numerous articulated sections that flow together easily like the continuous bends in a single river. Two chief motives appear right in the beginning, a repeated note landing on the downbeat followed by soft, looping descent of faster notes, a two-part signature stitch throughout the musical fabric particularly when abbreviated into a compact six-note motto. Building elaborate musical structures from a few omnipresent motives comes from Haydn, as does Mozart’s use of early and nearly constant “development.” Notice how quickly the first theme moves into a minor key, already a departure early in the exposition. Notice also how repetition always brings variation, often by deferring an expected resolution with elegant imitations as contrapuntal elaborations. The formal development section is a long skein of these imitations gently swinging to a 6/8 beat with an elegant grace unique to Mozart’s hand.

The second movement is a moderately paced minuet with a curiously “cool” sound due to the use of unison passages and somewhat angular lines with tangy accidentals. The trio brings warmth and brightly radiant textures as edginess gives way to easy elegance in a fresh key.

The centerpiece of the quartet is the third movement Andante, the slow movement featuring a rich theme and variations that is much longer than any of the other three movements. The theme is a full two-part binary song with the second part evincing an intensification that will influence the second half of all subsequent variations. This is no less than a self-contained showcase of Mozart’s musical invention as a simple tuneful vehicle gives rise to a highly expressive narrative through a great fluidity of changes in nearly every fundamental aspect: texture, dynamics, harmony, melody, rhythm and pace. Every face of Mozart is vividly, if briefly, exposed. The conclusion is perfectly signaled and ceremoniously paraded by a low rhythmic marching figure in the cello, the origin of this quartet’s nickname, “the Drum.”

The finale is a marvel of contrapuntal invention that verges on a hybrid of fugue and sonata, learned and gallant that Mozart would use many times in his music including the finale in the first of the “Haydn Quartets.” Again, the music arises from 2 distinct motives, a four-note falling chromaticisim and a familiar looping descent as if Mozart intended a kind of cyclic variation of the first movement for a pleasing bit of symmetry across opening and closing sonata forms. The looping descent replicates into a swatch of ancient counterpoint while the chromatic four-note gesture falling and rising in self-dialog fosters a muscular “classic” development. In the middle of this surge, Mozart sings, in passing, a brand new tune in soft four-part harmony, a transient refuge of repose that would catch the imagination of Mendelssohn and Schuman years hence. The inverted motive from development becomes a faithful countersubject to its right-sided self throughout the recapitulation and a driving force as Mozart “develops” to the end. After such brilliant drama wrought with magnificent technique, his consummate gentility and perfect poise at the end recalls a dear quote. “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.” – André Gide.

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