Category Archives: Chamber Music

Mozart’s Violin Sonata in A Major, K. 526

On August 24, 1787, just fourteen days after completing what is perhaps Mozart’s most famous composition, “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik,” K. 525, Mozart entered a new composition into his personal catalog of works which has come be be known as his “Violin Sonata in A Major,” K. 526.  This piece was completed just before the completion of his opera “Don Giovanni,” K. 527.  Like the “Divertimento” in E-flat major, K. 563, it might seem easy to dismiss a mere violin sonata as only a “trivial” work, but also like the “Divertimento,” this is a true little-known masterpiece.  It was completed in between two much more famous masterpieces by Mozart, and therefore receives little attention, yet the treasures which lie within this remarkable work are well worth discovering for all who care to listen.

I have never heard anyone refer to any of Mozart’s violin sonatas as a truly “great” Mozart work in the same way we consider the great “Kreutzer” Sonata, Op. 47  of Beethoven.  This is understandable to a point because of all of the great operas, symphonies, and concertos of Mozart which tend to outshine so many of his “smaller” works.  I do however feel it is too easy to dismiss or take for granted what Mozart accomplished in this A major sonata.  It is true this sonata does not have the same emotional turmoil as Beethoven’s sonata, but Mozart’s music never does since it is never about emotion, even if able to evoke emotion.  Mozart’s sonata also does not make the degree of technical demands Beethoven’s does, and Mozart’s music in general does not always “grab” us the way Beethoven’s music tends to, but draws us in with its unparalleled perfection of structural beauty, melody, and elegance.

The opening movement is written in sonata form in 6/8 time.  It begins with an immediate duet in harmony between the violin and piano, and alerts us from the very beginning this is a sonata for the equally important violin and the piano.  There is a true integration of the instruments in this work , and is not merely a piano sonata with violin accompaniment, although that is the way Mozart entitled his violin sonatas – as sonatas for piano with violin.  The violin and piano are given equal melodic and motific, virtuosic treatment, trading melodies and eighth-note, sixteenth-note figurations in a playful dance of assured mastery.  Since Mozart was a master performer on both instruments, he was able in this work to perfectly exploit the strengths of both the piano and violin.

In the second movement, Mozart again turns to the sonata form, opening with the piano in an unaccompanied melody in octaves which will later be picked up by the violin.  There is continual interplay and trading of melody and accompaniment between the piano and violin, and beyond the notes there is a depth in this movement which touches on the dark side as well as the light, but is never personal as in Beethoven’s work.  If emotion is evoked in Mozart, it is on the deepest levels of those extremely rare “ah-ha” moments we have when we can see the oneness and beauty of the universe in all things – the good as well as the bad – the darkness as well as the light.  It reflects both sides while itself transcending duality.  It is more than any other music, the sound of now… the present moment.

The final movement has to be one of the most remarkable rondos Mozart even composed. It is difficult to know exactly where we are rhythmically as the piece opens breathlessly with rapid eighth notes in the piano running underneath the violin melody which is playfully syncopated and fun. It is a tour de force for both the piano and violin, making great technical demands on both players in a way quite different than Beethoven makes in his “Kreutzer Sonata.” There is a beautiful melody marking the “B” section of the rondo, first played by the piano and later picked up by the violin to slow down the perpetual motion just a bit to allow us to catch our breath, but then it is off again to the races as Mozart returns to the “A” theme of the rondo.  He continues to return to the “A” theme throughout the movement each time after visiting “new” colors of sound – sometimes in the minor, sometimes in the major, eventually ending with a breathless coda, in a joyous and triumphant ending in the spirit somewhat reminiscent of the “Rondo Alla Turka” movement of Mozart’s “Piano Sonata in A Major,” K. 331.

It is so easy – perhaps too easy to take Mozart for granted.  His music sounds so inevitable, so “easy,” so perfect, we cannot imagine it any differently than it is.  That is why it is often difficult to appreciate the incredible skill and hard work Mozart had to put in to his creations.  Perhaps that is one reason why some would call Mozart “less serious” and “less deep” than other composers like Beethoven, where the compositional struggle tends to more readily be heard in the music itself, and often bears itself out in Beethoven’s working manuscripts which frequently do not resemble fair copies, but elaborately worked-out and almost illegible sketches.  While it is true Mozart’s music lacks the element of personal emotional reflection in the way of the romantics, Mozart’s approach to composition and his dedication to the perfection and integrity of his craft are no less serious and committed than any other composer in history.  However, unlike many composers, Mozart did not take life or himself quite as seriously, leaving us with a strange sense of wonder at how he was able to accomplish the miraculous seemingly as easily and as naturally as taking a breath… That ease, purity, and inevitability is Mozart.

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.

Mozart’s Divertimento in E-Flat Major, K. 563

My first introduction to Mozart’s music was while watching the film “Amadeus” during music class in seventh grade. I was amazed by the very first notes of Mozart’s music at the start of the film with the opening chords to the overture of “Don Giovanni,” and most especially the first movement from his “Symphony No. 25 in G Minor,” K. 183 which dramatically accompanies the opening scene of Salieri’s servants discovering he has slit his throat in a botched suicide attempt. The intensity and breadth of this music, along with every other wonderful piece on this soundtrack lit a spark within me of a passion for music that has endured to this very day. After researching Mozart tirelessly upon seeing this film, I soon discovered that much of “Amadeus” was pure fiction. That did not however stop me from appreciating the music which was for me, what really made this movie. The true Mozart – the music itself was the most memorable “character” of the film – more memorable to me than any other character in this movie – the fictionalized version of Salieri and also Mozart, with the high-pitched giggle made famous by Tom Hulce, whom I nevertheless still think did an excellent job capturing amidst the fiction, much of the truthful Mozart – Mozart the brilliant performer and improviser, Mozart the sometimes arrogant and vulgar, and Mozart the driven and ingenious composer working late into the night on his scores.

One of the flaws of this otherwise remarkable “Amadeus” soundtrack is the almost total absence of any of Mozart’s chamber music. In this soundtrack, the only real chamber piece featured in the film is his wonderful “Gran Partita” for 13 wind instruments, K. 361. This is a worthy piece to be included, but the lack of his amazing string quartets, string quintets, the Clarinet Quintet, and so many other remarkable chamber works in the “Amadeus” soundtrack was I believe, a missed opportunity for the filmmakers. Since this soundtrack was my first introduction to Mozart’s music, I was therefore exposed to the kinds of works included on the soundtrack – namely his symphonies, piano concertos, operas, and more large-scale orchestral and sacred choral works, and did not really explore the wealth of riches to be found in his chamber works until many years later after my initial discovery of Mozart.

After spending countless hours listening to and researching music over the past 29 years, and particularly the music of Mozart, it is amazing to me I only recently discovered, just a couple months ago, what I believe to be his finest achievement in chamber music, if not in all of his music – namely, the “Divertimento” as Mozart entitled it, in E-flat major, K. 563 for string trio. Interestingly enough, I first learned of this Mozart work while doing research on the Beethoven string quartets, which referenced the amazing Mozart “Divertimento.” Most of mature Mozart, and also a good deal of the adolescent Mozart is of superior quality, but in this piece, Mozart reaches yet another level, even for him. When you get the very best of the best – the cream of the most perfect music, it is something so rare, it is hard to believe what you are hearing. I certainly feel that way every time I listen to the second movement of this piece especially – the glorious Adagio in A-flat major, whose perfection has moved me to tears.

When examining the amazing last nine bars of the exposition of this second movement, we can see how Mozart sets up these last nine bars with two bars preceding it with octave leaps in the violin under a chromatic harmonic rhythm changing every beat, suspensefully leading up to the violin dissolving into an unexpected and gorgeous 32nd-note run in bar 36. It makes everything after that moment – in all of its simplicity and purity all the more striking and breathtaking.

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After this stunningly beautiful 32nd-note run in the violin, he finishes the phrase on a trill in the violin which resolves in a deceptive cadence to a C minor chord in bar 38.  This alone is remarkable, as a lesser composer could have simply ended the exposition here in the dominant – E-flat major.

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But then, Mozart continues on to yet another lovely phrase beginning with the end of bar 38, which finally resolves – again to a C minor chord in bar 42.

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He does this only to continue on yet again to a third phrase, with an almost painful, poignant beauty, so moving as to outshine all of the beauty that had come before, if that were possible. finishing off this amazing exposition with another 32nd-note run to finally resolve in a lovely “sighing” cadence in the expected dominant – E-flat major.

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If that were not enough, Mozart, at the end of this movement, expands the formal structure again, at the end of the recapitulation with a 15-bar long coda, beginning after the resolution to C minor again, with a continuation of the phrase in bar 111.  In this coda, Mozart masterfully passes the expansive melody heard throughout the piece to each instrument, which beautifully exploits the lower to higher registers first in the viola at measure 114 (in yellow), then the cello at measure 116 (blue), and finally the violin at measure 118 (purple), finishing this exquisite movement with delicate grace notes before eighth notes, ending in a lovely high A-flat in the violin to complete 125 bars of pure elegance.

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This is vintage Mozart at his finest, and these are only two of several lovely examples of his ingenious  treatment of structure and musical content in this movement alone, not to mention the entire work.

Mozart’s autograph manuscript for this “Divertimento” is missing.  The piece was preserved in a set of parts in a first edition released in 1792, just months after Mozart’s death, by the music publisher Artaria and Company.  The only surviving source for this composition in the composer’s handwriting can be found in his Catalogue of Works he kept from 1784 to 1791. In it, he wrote a 6-bar incipit as illustrated in the picture at the top of this post, notating the opening of the piece as was his practice when cataloging his music. On the left-hand page of his catalogue, he indicated the title and date of completion of the piece, as he did in the picture below. He entitled it, “A Divertimento” for 1 violin, 1 viola, and violoncello, in six movements.

Mozart's Catalogue of Works autograph entry of the Divertimento in E-flat Major, K. 563
Mozart’s Catalogue of Works autograph entry of the Divertimento in E-flat Major, K. 563

The “Divertimento” capped a year of amazing creativity for Mozart which included some of his most enduring masterpieces, especially his last three symphonies, E-flat major, K. 543, the “Great” G minor Symphony, K. 550, and his final symphonic masterpiece, the C major “Jupiter” Symphony, K. 551, all three of which were composed over a staggering six-week period in the summer of 1788. Also composed in this amazing year was his poignant Adagio in B Minor for piano solo, K. 540, his famous C Major “Sonata Facile,” K. 545, his Piano Concerto No. 26 in D Major, the “Coronation” K. 537, and his masterly Adagio and Fugue in C Minor for strings, K. 546.

Mozart completed his “Divertimento” on September 27, 1788, just over a month after completing his last, and perhaps his greatest symphony – the “Jupiter.” The “Divertimento” is often said to have been composed for his fellow freemason friend Michael Puchberg in gratitude for his continual financial assistance to Mozart in response to several begging letters. It is possible the “trio” which Mozart says he composed for Puchberg, referred to in a letter to his wife dated April 16, 1789, could have also been one of his three piano trios composed in 1788 – the K. 542 in E major, K. 548 in C major, or the K. 564 in G major. As no dedication exists in his Catalogue of Works, it is difficult to tell which exact trio he is referring to. It is understandable given the scope and monumentality of his symphonic achievement that summer in his last three symphonies, that a composition with the unassuming title of “Divertimento” written in the fall of that same year would be overlooked in being presumably “less important” than a symphony. Still, while the very best of his symphonies, concertos, and string quartets are undisputed masterpieces, this piece has to rank at least as their equal, and in my opinion, their superior. The musical title “divertimento” was one Mozart rarely used in his maturity, but used quite frequently in his earlier youth and Salzburg years. While some of these early divertimenti are quite polished and beautifully composed, others are exactly what this music was intended to be – a “diversion” if you will – light background music to please the aristocracy and the attendees of their social gatherings. That is hardly the case with this remarkable piece Mozart composed. It is anything but a “diversion,” but rather the pinnacle of his achievements in chamber music.

The string trio may be an even more difficult compositional medium than the string quartet – a medium even a composer as skilled as Mozart found rigorous, demanding, and extremely taxing. For his “Prussian” quartets, several sketches survive, bearing witness to the effort he had to put into these “difficult works” as Mozart described them in a letter to Puchberg. Mozart also referred to his six string quartets dedicated to Haydn as “the fruits of a long and laborious effort.” This contradicts the “Amadeus” myth composition always came easliy to Mozart, with everything already finished in his head before he wrote a note down on paper.  While Mozart had a superior memory and an unsurpassed awareness of musical structure, the details of his most difficult works had to be worked out through a more elaborate creative process.  With one less voice than the string quartet, the string trio is even more exposed than the string quartet in such a way which leaves no margin for error for the composer. Every single note is significant, and must perfectly fit the melody, motif, phrase, partwriting, the overall structure of the movement, and indeed the entire piece. Mozart managed to accomplish this staggering feat without redundancy or mundanity. He sustains interest with exceptional mastery of form, equal and ingenious treatment of the violin, viola, and cello, passing motifs and melodies to each instrument in three-part dialogue, beauty of sound, and a striking contrast of tonalities, texture, and rhythm in the longest chamber composition he ever composed – by some readings close to an hour long.

In this one work alone, Mozart composed in most of the formal structures of his day – sonata form (first and second movements), minuet and trio (third and fifth movements), theme and variations (fourth movement), and rondo form (sixth movement).  While no one work can contain everything, if I had to pick just one piece for a person to hear who had never heard Mozart’s music before, and wanted to know what his music is all about, I would pick this one.  This piece virtually encapsulates every compositional skill Mozart possessed – masterful execution of counterpoint, brilliant motific development, perfect harmony, sublime melody, formal mastery, and perhaps more so than in any other composition he composed, that intangible “Mozartean” quality of being moving without sentimentality, deep without being emotional, and original without being innovative, since the wellspring from which Mozart’s music came was not of the inevitable ups and downs of  his personal life, nor the desire to “outdo” his fellow composers by being innovative for innovation’s sake, but is instead the impeccable reflection of the perfect balance and oneness of the universe.