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Part of this note refers to Mozart's Quintet in E-flat major for Piano and Winds, K. 452
In March of 1784 Mozart wrote from Vienna to his father in Salzburg, “On the last three Wednesdays of Lent, beginning with the 17th, I have planned three subscription concerts for Trattner’s Rooms” – the large home on the city’s Graben of the newly ennobled Josef Trattner, where Wolfgang and his wife Constanze rented accommodations, and which boasted a large assembly hall or ballroom where concerts were regularly given. “For these concerts I already have 100 subscribers and expect another 30 shortly… I shall later give academies,” that is, private concerts in aristocratic salons or in one of the city’s theaters.
Among the entries in Mozart’s just-begun catalog of his works – he waited until he had written over 400 before deciding, in his own words, “to get organized” – were such freshly-minted marvels as the Piano Concerto in E-flat, K. 449, written for his prize pupil, Babette Ployer, daughter of an imperial court councilor; the Piano Concertos K. 450 and K.451, in B-flat and D, respectively, both for himself; the “Linz” Symphony; and a number of concert arias. And the Quintet in E-flat for Piano and Winds, K. 452, of which he wrote to Leopold, “I consider it the best work I have ever written…” a rare pronouncement even from a composer seldom loath to praise his own creations. Shortly thereafter, he would write to his father “I have now completed another concerto, in F [K. 453], also for Babette Ployer.”
Until K. 453, whose integration of piano and winds resulted directly from the “experiment” of the Quintet, the Mozart piano concerto, beginning as early as 1779 with the splendidly deep Salzburg-composed work in E-flat, K. 271, did not as yet partake of that magical intertwining that would mark the later Vienna concertos. Mozart suggested to his first Vienna publishers that his concertos of 1782-1784 (prior to K. 450) could be performed without the written-out wind parts if that would facilitate sales. The winds merely doubled the strings anyway, adding flecks of color and filling out the harmony rather than adding readily discernible support, to say nothing of leading ineluctable lives – as would later become a defining element of the Mozart concerto.
Suddenly, in the undervalued Concerto in D, K. 451, whose completion preceded that of K. 452 by only a matter of days, the winds are unprecedentedly prominent. But they tend to stand and deliver before and after the piano delivers, only midway through the slow movement beginning subtly to intrude on the keyboard, taking a step back again in the finale. It’s then – with the Quintet – that the composer shows his impatience to take his developing method a step further, without the distractions of all those strings, trumpets, and drums that also inhabit the D-major Concerto.
The Quintet was first presented on April 1, 1784, as part of a mammoth concert of Mozart’s works entirely new or new to Vienna, in the capital’s Burgtheater. The playbill included a “Symphony with Trumpets and Drums” (probably the “Haffner,” K. 385), a Piano Concerto (K. 451); the “Linz” Symphony; a group of piano improvisations by Mozart; and another symphony, possibly the “Paris,” originally 1778 but not previously heard in Vienna. Obviously, there were no genre limits.
K. 452 is in the three movements of a concerto. The first movement is brief, with a slow, sonorous introduction, in which each of the five players is allowed to strut his stuff, with a powerful concluding wind tutti over the piano: a gratifying surprise coming after only 20-odd measures have passed. The succeeding allegro is a tour-de-force of variety and inspiration, with each wind allotted its brief theme – with such a disparate ensemble Mozart had no choice but to keep the individual statements as compact as possible – and the piano as partner rather than master, the instruments presented in pairs, in combinations of three, four, and five. While the key of B-flat is in Mozart usually a vehicle for frivolous thoughts, in the second movement of K. 452 it is employed to convey a sadly sweet mellowness. The thematically rich rondo finale is the longest movement of the three, crowned by a long cadenza for all five instruments.
That Mozart worked assiduously at getting this “study” right is affirmed by the extensive sketches that exist for the first movement, examples of reworking hardly being common among the composer’s works. The impression of ease and spontaneity – certainly present here – is not always easily achieved, even by a Mozart.
The quite different but no less inspired Quartet in G minor for Piano and Strings, K. 478, appeared in October of 1785 from the publisher Franz Anton Hoffmeister. It was to have been one of a set of three, but its first purchasers – keep in mind that such publications were “by subscription,” the publisher printing only as many as had been ordered and pre-paid – gave it thumbs-down. The Quartet in G minor proved to be a profound work, at times angry and tragic, never easy to perform. Mozart had heedlessly created for the accomplished amateurs who were his intended clients music that was too hard to handle – suitable, in fact, only to the skills of a virtuoso like himself.
Hoffmeister asked Mozart to cancel the project, i.e., the remaining two works in the same form. But the composer had already begun the second Quartet, the hardly less prepossessing (although decidedly jollier) K. 493, which he offered to the publisher Artaria, who issued it in 1787.
Of K. 478 Alfred Einstein went so far in his Mozart biography as to refer to “the wild command that opens the first movement, unisono… that might be called the fate motive with exactly as much justice as the four-note motive in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.” Mozart follows this opening gambit with passages of characteristic major-key lyricism. The mood, however, remains tense. While the composer clearly could not deny himself this outburst, the second movement, with its purling, reflective cantabile melody, and the third partake of a calmer atmosphere. High-spiritedness is not, however, what this music is about.
- Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist-critic for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.