Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
String Quartet in E flat major K428 (1783)
Allegro ma non troppo
Andante con moto
K428 is part of a set of six quartets Mozart wrote in Vienna between 1783 and 1785. In 1782, he heard a performance of Haydn’s set of six Russian quartets and was so impressed by the older composer’s skill that he immediately set to work writing his own set in homage.
Haydn is unequivocally recognised as the father of the symphony and string quartet. He wrote 104 symphonies and 67 quartets over the course of his life and although the quality is uneven, the sheer volume of work formed a solid foundation for Schubert, Beethoven and Mendelssohn.
These six quartets are some of the few pieces that Mozart laboured over carefully. His usual style was to dash something off at the last minute or play from a sketch. The care Mozart took was, on its own, enough to illustrate his respect for Haydn.
Never one to do things by halves, Mozart wrote a dedicatory preface in the score. “A father who had decided to send out his sons into the great world thought it was his duty to entrust them to the protection and guidance of a man who was very celebrated at the time and who, moreover, happened to be his best friend. In like manner I send my six sons to you, most celebrated and very dear friend. They are, indeed, the fruit of a long and laborious study; Please then receive them kindly and be to them a father guide and friend!”
Haydn was often present at Mozart’s house and had opportunity to hear the quartets performed before they were published. It was on the occasion of hearing K428, K464 and K465 (Dissonance) that Haydn was moved to exclaim, “I tell you before God, as an honest man, that your son is the greatest composer whom I know personally or by name; he has taste and over and above that, the greatest knowledge of the Science of composition.” The young Mozart, not yet 30, could hardly have hoped for a more ringing endorsement.
The first movement of K428 opens with an octave leap that then descends dramatically to the tritone. This interval, known as the devil’s interval, divides the octave exactly in half. Although twentieth century composers tend to apply it with wild abandon, in the 18th century, a less-is-more attitude was customary and the audience’s attention would have been captured immediately. The majority of the melody is given to the first violin, a technique typical of Haydn.
Mozart sets the second movement in A flat major, considered in the 18th century to be the Romantic key. After a short introduction, the first violin sets out the sublime opening theme. Its tonic, dominant, tonic, dominant construction could not be simpler harmonically but somehow Mozart manages to make it breathtakingly gorgeous.
Humour is a major element of Haydn and Mozart’s music. In the third movement, Mozart writes a comedy of manners parodying a pastoral scene. One can easily imagine the Viennese, smartly turned out for a day in the country, ambling arm in arm, gleefully sharing the latest pieces of society gossip. Hunting horn calls and folk songs are heard periodically in the distance. Clouds briefly cover the summer sun in the minor key section but a major key theme returns in sufficient time to assure us that rain was never a serious possibility.
The first theme of the last movement is quite aristocratic sounding, akin to something you would hear at a country ball. This formality is quickly shattered however and exploding rhythmic motives and flurries of notes keep the mood jovial. Mozart uses a rondo/sonata hybrid, one of the most difficult forms to work with due to its transparency. Thankfully, he was not lacking in inspiration and ends the quartet with an impetuous finale.