Tag Archives: string quartets

Mozart’s Early Masterpieces

I recently read an article which said that Felix Mendelssohn was an even greater compositional child prodigy than Mozart, and George Grove, the founding editor of “Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians” has called Mendelssohn’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” overture, Op. 21 “the greatest marvel of early maturity that the world has ever seen in music.” This work was completed by Mendelssohn on August 6, 1826 when Mendelssohn was 17 years and 6 months old. While it is true Mendelssohn was a remarkable and most gifted compositional child prodigy, producing mature masterpieces in his teen years, it is not quite accurate in my estimation to say he was a greater compositional child prodigy than Mozart, who also produced several mature masterpieces in his teen years. Given the weight, scope, and influence of Mozart’s mature compositional output, it may seem easy to ignore or overlook his early masterpieces, but there are several early works he created which give no hint of his chronological age, and are composed with an assuredness, mastery, and quality which often equal and occasionally surpass works Mozart composed during his mature Vienna years.

1) The three string “Quartet Divertimenti,” K. 136, 137, and 138, composed in Salzburg in 1772, when Mozart was 16 years old have always impressed me as works of exceptionally rare beauty and Classical-style elegance. Whether performed by a string quartet, as they apparently were intended, or by a full string ensemble, which also comes off with beautiful effect, they are remarkable works, which show Mozart in full command of the Classical style, and the depth of the slow movements of these works are especially profound. The autograph manuscripts of these works resemble fair copies with clear handwriting and few corrections, reflecting the perfect and carefree nature of this music, while not being shallow. There is truly no difference between the mastery and maturity of these slow movements especially, and almost anything Mozart wrote during his mature Vienna years. While these three divertimenti are much different than the Divertimento in E-Flat Major,” K. 563 for string trio Mozart composed in 1788, this music is still beyond mere “light entertainment” Mozart often composed during his Salzburg years as a teenager.

2) The “String Quintet in B-Flat Major, K. 174, composed in 1773 at the age of 17, was a watershed in string ensemble writing for Mozart, especially when compared to the set of six “Viennese” string quartets he completed immediately before this work. This set of six “Viennese” string quartets, drawing at least in part from the influence of Haydn’s Op. 20 set, with fugal finales in the first and the sixth quartet,  and the addition of minuets, are a definite advance from Mozart’s earlier six “Milanese” string quartets, which featured three movements in the “Italian” style. Still, Mozart’s finales in these “Viennese” quartets tend to be quite short, and while I myself consider all of them masterpieces except for the second of the set in A major, they are still fairly “lightweight” in content and are still some distance away from the maturity and mastery found in his six string quartets dedicated to his friend and mentor, Joseph Haydn.  Nevertheless they are still quite lovely, elegant, and gracefully epitomizing the Classical style.   In the “Haydn” quartets, Mozart achieved the pinnacle of his string quartet writing, composed between 1782 and 1785 when Mozart had settled in Vienna, and after he had been exposed to Haydn’s latest and highly influential Op. 33 set of six string quartets of 1781. What is most striking about the “String Quintet in B-Flat Major,” K. 174 is the overall scope of the work in comparison to the “Viennese” quartets. As if literally overnight, Mozart jumped to full maturity in his string writing, with this work lasting nearly twice as long – almost 30 minutes compared to the last of the “Viennese” quartets, K. 173 in D minor, which lasts some 15 minutes with a short 3-minute fugal finale. In the “String Quintet” K. 174, Mozart wrote a long and fully developed sonata-form first movement replete with amazing contrapuntal execution in the development section, followed by a moving and transcendentally beautiful adagio. The minuet has an energy and a vitality beyond that of some of the minuets found in the “Viennese” quartets, and Mozart even composed a very interesting and lovely second trio of this minuet he discarded from the final version. But the crowning jewel of this work which really makes it stand out above all of his string writing to date is the finale. Mozart must have placed great value on this work, trying to make it more and more perfect, as evidenced by the composition of the second trio in the minuet, and even going so far as to compose an entire second finale for it. Both finales last approximately five and a half minutes – almost twice as long as the K. 173 string quartet finale written immediately before this work. Mozart decided on the version which utilizes the main motific eighth-note theme to start the movement, instead of the other discarded version which begins with the running sixteenth-note figure. The two finales reveal an insightful look into Mozart’s compositional process, how he would rework themes and motifs, and rearrange them to achieve what he considered the best version of those combined ideas. It is fascinating in both finales, how Mozart handled the same musical ideas in very different ways in two equally perfect finales. It is one of many testaments to his amazingly ingenious compositional ability. The finales of this quintet are extended rondos which display a staggering contrapuntal mastery and complexity in conception which was unprecedented for Mozart’s string writing at the time, and is at least the equal in skill and execution of any finale Mozart wrote for the “Haydn” quartets several years later, not to mention in his late string quintets of 1787, and 1790-91.

3) “Symphonies No. 25 in G Minor, K. 183, and No. 29 in A Major,” K. 201. Mozart wrote literally dozens of symphonies in his youth, starting with his first at the age of eight. However, while some are more interesting and convincing than others, none can compare to the maturity and mastery of these two symphonies, epitomizing the elegance, balance, and contrast of the Classical style – one reflecting the dark side, and in the other, the light. Once again, we have a watershed moment in Mozart’s development as a composer at the age of 17 when on October 5, 1773 he completed the “Symphony No. 25 in G Minor,” K. 183, the “little G-minor,” and at the age of 18, in 1774, when he composed the “Symphony No. 29 in A Major,” K. 201. Both are undisputed masterpieces lasting almost a half hour in duration, and featuring four movements which include minuets and trios, brilliant rondo-finales, and a seriousness and maturity in their conception unequalled in all of his symphonies preceding them.

4) The five violin concertos by Mozart, K. 207, 211, 216, 218, and 219 are said to have been composed within a span of just eight months – between April and December of 1775 – an amazing achievement by any composer of any age, let alone a young composer coming into his own at 19 years old while working on other compositions at the same time. While some research has revealed the first of these concertos in B-flat major, K. 207 may have been written as early as 1773 at age 17, it is still remarkable to hear the maturity and progressive growth revealed in these five violin concertos over such a short period of time, even if we assume Mozart composed only numbers 2-5 during that eight month time frame in 1775. While not all of these works may be considered masterpieces by everyone, at least the third, in G Major, K. 216 and the fifth in A Major, K. 219, also known as the “Turkish” for its exotic “Turkish” style in the fast section of the rondo finale, are undisputed masterpieces. The slow movements of all of these works are extremely beautiful arias for violin and orchestra. They demonstrate Mozart’s inexhaustible and ingenious melodic gift, and in these concertos in general, his gift for subtle yet perfect contrasting harmonic and tonal color. It is remarkable in the last movements of the “Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major,” K. 219, and the “Violin Concerto No. 3 in G Major,” K. 216, how much contrast he achieves with tone color and orchestral texture with such a small orchestra featuring only pairs of oboes and horns, strings, and solo violin, and in the K. 219 “Turkish” concerto, he uses none of the traditional “Turkish” instruments of bass drum, cymbal, piccolo, and triangle to achieve this “Turkish” atmosphere. In both concertos, the last movements feature lots of interesting contrast achieved from the use of pizzicato in the string section, tempo changes, contrasting articulations, and masterful melodic exploitation of the high and low registers of the solo violin.

5) The “Piano Concerto No. 5 in D Major,” K. 175 was also another remarkable advance for Mozart, who wrote his first original piano concerto at the age of 17, in December of 1773. His four previous numbered piano concertos were written as arrangements of works by other composers such as Raupach, Honauer, and Schobert, and his next three unnumbered piano concertos, K. 107 were arrangements of works by Johann Christian Bach, so for all intents and purposes, this is Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 1. However, his mastery of the concerto form already at the age of 17 shows little signs of a novice learning his way, but a mature composer in full command of the virtuosic and melodic effects he wanted to achieve in the concerto form on the instrument for which he would write the vast majority of his concertos – the pianoforte. What’s more, this work was only the beginning of what was to come in his great Viennese piano concertos he composed for subscription concerts in the 1780s – arguably Mozart’s most impressive body of work. Mozart himself thought highly of it, taking it with him on his tours to Munich in 1774, and to Mannheim and Paris in 1777-1778, and adding a new finale for it, the “Rondo in D Major,” K. 382, in 1782 while preparing it for performance just after arriving in Vienna the year before. This piano concerto is a work I was late to discover in my Mozart studies, having purchased only a couple years ago, a box set of all the piano concertos on period instruments, performed by Malcolm Bilson and the English Baroque Soloists conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. My personal feeling is Mozart should have left the original finale as it was – a brilliant and virtuosic rondo, and not changed it because stylistically, the new rondo does not fit the first two movements, and was likely written to suit Viennese taste at the time. While Mozart said the new rondo was quite enthusiastically received by its first audiences, its content and execution is not as inspired or as masterful as that of the original rondo, and serves as an example of Mozart’s earlier Salzburg work surpassing a work from his mature Vienna years. The original rondo is a perfect finale to an amazing composition.

It is easy to underestimate Mozart at any age, because his work sounds so inevitable, so easy, and so perfect, we tend to take it for granted. Even so, it is clear when Mozart wrote music primarily to satisfy his listeners, and when he was truly stepping out into worlds and sounds never before heard, yet still within the elegance and style of the Classical era. Even in his teens, Mozart stepped out and went beyond the conventions of his time far more often than he is usually given credit for. There are other works I could include in this category of early masterpieces, such as the lovely motet, “Exsultate Jubilate,” K. 165, written just shy of Mozart’s 17th birthday, and the “Divertimento in D Major,” K. 131, written in Salzburg during the summer of 1772 when Mozart was 16 years old, in which Mozart displays ingenious writing for four horns and imaginative concertante writing for woodwinds throughout this work, which essentially amounts to an ambitious, six-movement serenade in everything but name. The second movement is an exquisitely beautiful adagio for strings alone, which again is as masterful and moving as almost any slow movement Mozart composed during his mature Vienna years.

While it is true much of Mozart’s early music falls into the category of “pleasant light entertainment,” there are many early Mozart masterpieces, some more or less known, which definitely deserve to be heard and appreciated for the mature and beautiful masterpieces they are.

Razumovsky’s Priceless Commission

I must confess when I first heard the “Third Razumovsky Quartet in C Major,” Op. 59, No. 3 by Beethoven, I was not exactly sure what to think.  In this work I heard some wonderful moments, but did not know what to make of this “strange music” – a sentiment shared by some of its first listeners, who also found these quartets “difficult.”  It is a sentiment which was reflected by the Leipzig Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung’s Vienna correspondent on February 27, 1807 with the following words…

“Three new, very long and difficult Beethoven violin quartets dedicated to the Russian ambassador, Count Razumovsky, are attracting the attention of all connoisseurs.  They are profound in conception and admirably written, but not generally comprehensible – with perhaps the exception of the third in C major, which through its individuality, melody and harmonic strength cannot fail to win the favor of every cultured music lover.” 

For me, it was only after repeated hearings of all three of these quartets that I came to appreciate not only their formal coherency, but this amazingly new and beautiful style of string quartet composition that truly changed the way string quartets were written.

What is most striking about these three “Razumovsky Quartets” is a great “symphonic” seriousness Beethoven brings to these remarkable works.  Gone are the days of the string quartet composed simply as light background music for social gatherings.  These works truly sound like symphonies for string quartet. They are grand in conception, and about ten to fifteen minutes longer than the Op. 18 string quartets, lasting about forty minutes to perform each quartet.  They are serious works with amazingly original and beautiful musical ideas, incredibly varied and rich tone color, and a deep and penetrating sadness in the slow movements.  While Beethoven’s late quartets are often lauded as some of the greatest and most exalted music ever written, I would have to put the three “Razumovsky Quartets” at least as their equal if not their superior, with the exception of the astounding “String Quartet in C-Sharp Minor,” Op. 131.  I feel the “Razumovsky Quartets” have better balance and formal coherency overall than some of Beethoven’s late quartets.  While the Op. 130 quartet has some wonderfully transcendent moments and individual movements, as in the “Cavatina” slow movement, I do not feel the piece as a whole works as well as any of the “Razumovsky Quartets,” or the Op. 135 in F Major – the last string quartet Beethoven completed and the last complete work he composed in his life.

Shortly after Beethoven had completed his groundbreaking Symphony No. 3,” Op. 55, the “Eroica” or “Heroic” Symphony as Beethoven later entitled it after rescinding his “Bonaparte” dedication, he was commissioned by Count Andrey Razumovsky (pictured above), the Russian Tsar’s diplomatic representative to the Hapsburg court in Vienna, to compose three new string quartets, which came to be known as Beethoven’s “Razumovsky Quartets,” Op. 59. Count Razumovsky was the brother-in-law of one of Beethoven’s other patrons – Prince Joseph Franz von Lobkowitz, who had commissioned Beethoven’s first set of six string quartets, Op. 18, and to whom Beethoven also dedicated his third, fifth, and sixth symphonies, his “Harp” String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat major,” Op. 74, the Triple Concerto in C major,” for violin, cello, and piano, Op. 56, and the song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte,” Op. 98.

The Razumovsky Quartets” were written between April and November of 1806, around the same time Beethoven was composing his “Fourth Piano Concerto in G major,” Op. 58. While listening to and studying his second of the three “Razumovsky Quartets,” I noticed certain similarities this work has with Beethoven’s “Fourth Piano Concerto.” At the opening of the concerto, Beethoven begins with the thematic material stated in the piano alone, and in the tonic key of G major, only to have the orchestra respond with an expanded version of the same theme, except now in B major – a key related to the tonic only by the fact it is the third scale degree in G major. Beethoven had used and would continue to use these same kind of key associations in works like his “Fifth Piano Concerto in E-flat major,” Op. 73, “the Emperor,”  the “Third Piano Concerto in C minor,” Op. 37, and his “Fifth Symphony in C minor,” Op. 67, among others. In the opening of the Second Razumovsky Quartet,” Op 59, No. 2, the piece opens in the tonic key of E minor – perhaps not coincidentally the relative minor of G major – the home key of the “Fourth Piano Concerto.” Beethoven, in the very next phrase, transposes the theme up a half-step to F-major, changing the tonality within the first two phrases of the work as he does in the “Fourth Piano Concerto.” It is also interesting how in the final movement of both works, Beethoven not only segues into these last movements without a break, he also starts these movements in the “wrong key” – not the home key of each work. In the “Fourth Piano Concerto,” he starts in C major – the same key he begins the last movement of the Second Razumovsky Quartet.” Eventually in both works, at the end of each piece, he ends up in the home keys of G major and E minor respectively. While these are only a few details, they are notable for their parallels, and show how Beethoven was a very careful planner of his key associations and formal structures.  Another feature which is very unique in Beethoven’s treatment of key choice in his “Second Razumovsky Quartet” is that the first three movements are in the tonality of E – E minor for the first movement, E major for the second movement, and E minor again for the third movement.

The “Second Razumovsky Quartet” is truly a remarkable work. All three of the “Razumovsky Quartets” were monumentally original in their conception at the time they were composed as Haydn’s Op. 33 set of six string quartets were 25 years before, in 1781. Both sets are in a sense, known as “Russian” quartets because Haydn’s were dedicated to the Grand Duke Paul of Russia, while Beethoven’s were dedicated to the Russian ambassador Razumovsky. Both sets of quartets changed the way string quartets were written, as both included new features and possibilities in the treatment of the quartet medium which were never before imagined. In Haydn’s Op. 33 quartets, he includes elements of surprise and great humor, with the second quartet of the set in E-flat major nicknamed, “The Joke.” In the last movement, Haydn uses the rondo form, which had become immensely popular at the time, and has at the end of the last movement, almost uncomfortably long pauses until it finally ends quietly with the opening phrase stated one last time pianissimo, in a kind of “winking humor” that is so characteristic of Haydn. This same humor of Haydn is also evident in his “Surprise” “Symphony No. 94” in G major in which Haydn, after a quiet introduction of the main theme, then calls for a very loud fortissimo chord, complete with timpani and all the instruments playing at the same time. When later asked if he did this to awaken the audience, he said he did not, but did it to do something new. In this Op. 33 set of string quartets, Haydn also changed from writing minuets to scherzi – a practice Beethoven would also adopt. However, this did not entirely change the nature of the music for Haydn, as it still often sounds like a minuet, while Beethoven’s scherzi almost never resemble a minuet. However, Haydn’s rhythmic innovations with the utilization of hemiola , putting the accents off the downbeat, and the utilization of silence as much as sound, along with imaginative textural contrast in the scherzo movement of the fifth string quartet of the Op. 33 set in particular, is truly something remarkably brilliant and was especially innovative for the time. Beethoven would take this even further in his scherzi, with one excellent example in the third movement of the “Second Razumovsky Quartet.”

Beethoven’s “Second Razumovsky Quartet” is primarily about gesture, motif, harmony, and relatively conventional formal structures. The first movement is in sonata form with the traditional repetition of both the exposition and the recapitulation with a coda. The second movement is an incredibly beautiful molto adagio, which begins with a hymn-like theme, followed by an immediate variation with a “limping” motif under the theme.  This is followed later with the main theme accompanied by triplet figures and a lovely counter-melody in the second violin, which returns again towards the end of the piece.  The third movement is a scherzo, and the last movement a rondo. What is less conventional is the use of the extreme higher registers, especially in the first violin part, and sometimes the cello, which is often used to gorgeous effect, as in the beginning of the first movement after the first violin “answers” the cello melody twice, and then finally soars in a light, floating melody above the cello and viola accompaniment, with the melody soon picked up seamlessly by the second violin.

In the molto adagio second movement, it is impossible for me to believe Mahler was not somehow influenced by Beethoven’s string quartets, and most especially his middle and late-period quartets which in the slow movements utilize rich harmonic textures and half-step voice leading to change the harmony, which is especially present in Mahler’s slow movements of his third and ninth symphonies. I can hear Beethoven looking more than a half-century ahead of his time towards Mahler, especially in the second movement of the “Second Razumovsky Quartet,” and in the slow third movement of his last string quartet – No. 16 in F major,” Op. 135. In this second movement of the “Second Razumovsky Quartet,” Beethoven looks ahead to the tone of the famous Cavatina Adagio molto espressivo movement from his String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major,” Op. 130. In it, I hear the same tenderness and love as I do in this movement, but the Razumovsky” molto adagio definitely has more scope and dynamic and rhythmic contrast than the Cavatina.

The heavy and extremely dissonant chords, especially in the scherzo with its equally daring and ingenious rhythmic and textural originality, with the melody beginning just off the first beat, which leaves a feeling not of 3/4 time, but an unsettled sense of rhythmic ambiguity.  This is an even more sophisticated use of rhythmic ambiguity than that of Haydn, with fortissimos off the downbeat, are are also unique features of this piece. Beethoven also masterfully adds a Russian tune, passed between each of the instruments in the “B” section of this scherzo under a busy triplet accompaniment. Beethoven even indicates the theme with the words, “Theme russe” in his score. He also uses an exuberant version of a Russian-sounding theme as the main melodic idea in the rondo of the last movement in the bright key of C major, only to complete the movement in a breathless, dramatically intense “Presto” race to the finish in E minor.

The “Razumovsky Quartets” were composed after Heiligenstadt, and in these works Beethoven did indeed live up to his word to “make a new way” creatively as he put it. It is truly remarkable in this composition how much ingenious textural contrast Beethoven manages to create with just four instruments, showing his complete command of string tone color and its brilliant utilization in his compositional ideas. These are just some of many characteristics which make this work anything but a mere continuation of the excellent Op. 18 set, published just 5 years before.  Regardless of how much Count Razumovsky paid Beethoven for these three string quartets, what Beethoven accomplished in these works is without price, as all three comprise a true watershed in the history of the string quartet and indeed in the history of music.