WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART
String Quintet in G minor, K. 516
Composed in 1787; 35 minutes
Mozart’s G-minor String Quintet, the third of his five works for this combination of instruments (string quartet plus a second viola), has inspired an impressive amount of commentary, much of it focusing on the intensely personal and almost tragic character of the music. Hermann Abert, the composer’s indispensable biographer, called it “the most profound of all Mozart’s works in this key,” a category that also includes such towering masterworks as the Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550. If one reflects that the Quintet was composed in the same year as Don Giovanni, it seems clear that Mozart’s characteristically buoyant spirits had been deflated by a strain of fatalism, not to say morbidity.
Shortly before he finished the Quintet, on May 16, 1787, Mozart received news that his father was gravely ill in Salzburg. On April 4 he wrote Leopold a moving letter that is often cited as evidence of his preoccupation with mortality: “I have now made a habit of being prepared in all aspects of life for the worst. As death, when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal of our existence, I have formed during the last few years such close relations with this best and truest friend of mankind, that his image is no longer terrifying to me, but is indeed soothing and consoling! And I thank my God for graciously granting me the opportunity (you know what I mean) of learning that death is the key which unlocks the door to our true happiness. I never lie down at night without reflecting that—young as I am—I may not live to see another day.”
Wolfgang’s grief at Leopold’s death on May 28 was compounded a week later by the death of his beloved pet starling. (In Mozart’s mind, even seemingly minor losses could be transmuted into the stuff of tragedy: recall the acute anguish that the hapless Barbarina suffers when she loses the Count’s pin in The Marriage of Figaro.) To be sure, it is never safe to draw too close a parallel between a work of art and the creator’s state of mind or external circumstances. Yet even if the G-minor Quintet is not demonstrably autobiographical, one can hardly overlook the correspondence between its mood of agonized soul-searching and the powerful emotions that Mozart was surely grappling with at the time.
The first movement’s opening eight-bar theme has been described as expressing either “nervous desperation” or “the most anguished resignation.” Such reactions are, inevitably, highly subjective; others may hear in the melody nothing more than a bittersweet yearning, a quality that is even more pronounced in the first violin’s thrice-repeated sighing figures that comprise the second subject. (Note the dramatic leap—the interval of a ninth—that launches the third “sigh”; it will return, transformed, in the radiantly beautiful second theme of the slow movement.) But perhaps the most striking aspect of the Allegro is its economy of means—almost everything in it derives from the two principal themes—and Mozart’s endlessly inventive disposition of the quintet ensemble, with the first viola playing a pivotal role as both leader and accompanist.
The second-movement Menuetto, with its lumbering accents on the third beat of the bar, is decidedly undancelike. Although the Trio section echoes the theme in a more relaxed, softer-edged form, it does little to dispel the prevailing mood of restlessness and urgency. The Adagio ma non troppo opens in the mellow glow of E-flat major, all five instruments muted, but it soon moves into murkier territory, with stinging dissonances and an ominous undercurrent of pulsing 16th notes in the inner voices. Twice the sun abruptly breaks through the clouds in a lilting melody introduced (as mentioned above) by a leap of a major ninth, as the music wends its way toward a quiet, tranquil close.
The last movement opens in high tragic mode, with the first violin singing a tender aria above throbbing 8th notes in the middle voices and plucked notes in the cello. Then, seemingly out of the blue, there emerges a cheery G-major rondo in 6/8 time, full of playful imitation and bravura passagework. It’s possible that this incongruous Allegro was an afterthought: at least one scholar has suggested that Mozart originally intended to cap the work with a surviving quintet fragment in G minor. Be that as it may, Abert interprets this unexpectedly life-affirming finale not as “a Beethovenian victory following an earlier struggle,” but as an expression of Mozart’s down-to-earth realism, the attitude of one who has known both joy and suffering and learned to juxtapose, if not to reconcile, “the opposing aspects of reality.”
© 2013 Harry Haskell
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