In 1785, publisher Franz Anton Hoffmeister commissioned from Mozart three piano quartets. The ensemble was formed by the addition of a viola – an instrument Mozart loved to play when he himself performed chamber music – to the traditional piano trio. Despite the completion of the Quartet in G minor, Hoffmeister cancelled the order. The publisher had intended the works for Vienna’s amateur musicians; the composer, it seems, did not. The technical demands on the performers, not to mention the complexity of the music itself, resulted in poor sales. Another publisher, Artaria and Co., attempted to revive the project, but the only result was a single work – the E-flat Quartet, K. 493.
[CZECH ALERT] The two Piano Quartets are, today, among Mozart’s most popular chamber works, and later works with the same scoring by Schumann, Brahms, Dvorˇak, and Fauré also became staples of the concert hall.
G minor is a key that Mozart reserved for his most turbulent musical ideas. His two G-minor symphonies, No. 25 of 1773 (whose opening bars contemporary audiences will recall from Milos Forman’s 1984 film Amadeus), and the equally famous No. 40 of 1788, are both works in which Mozart is at his most intense.
The opening gesture of his G-minor Piano Quartet, a stentorian pronouncement, soon yields to a gentler theme in the closely-related key of B-flat major (what music theorists call the “relative major”). As opposed to orienting the listener in the exposition of this sonata-form movement, however, Mozart’s music is in constant harmonic flux. The ensuing “development” section, normally a turbulent journey through various keys, is here used to re-enforce G minor.
The key of B-flat major returns in the charming Andante, which expounds long lyric phrases with a more stable harmonic identity. The first violin’s incessantly flowing line leads to the key of F major. Using the same device, this time in the viola, Mozart leads the way back to the home key.
The influence of “Papa” Joseph Haydn is clear throughout the final Rondo (a form whose opening material recurs regularly as a refrain). This closing movement, in a bright G major, is free of the Sturm und Drang that dominated the first movement.
It was just five months before the completion of this Quartet that the oft-quoted remark from Haydn to Mozart’s father Leopold was uttered: “Haydn said to me: ‘Before God and as an honest man I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.’” As it turned out, Mozart would prove to be as much an influence on Haydn, and on countless others, as the older master had been on him.
– Christopher Anderson-Bazzol
Dennis Bade is Associate Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.
John Mangum is President and Artistic Director of the Orange County Philharmonic Society.
Christopher Anderson-Bazzoli is an Emmy-nominated composer, and he served as editor and copyist for Esa-Pekka Salonen’s LA Variations, among other works.