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Mozart reaches his most breathtaking peaks of chamber-music inspiration in his late works for five instruments, the four quintets for strings, K. 515, K. 516, K. 593, and the generally underrated K. 614, all scored for string quartet with a second viola, and the Quintet for clarinet and string quartet, K. 581.
The notion of a string quintet with two violas was new in the 1760s, when Mozart wrote his first such work, under the influence of Michael Haydn, creator of the first music of (relative) substance for this somewhat daring combination of instruments: daring simply because the taste of the age demanded thinner, leaner textures and if, as in Boccherini’s quintets with two cellos rather than two violas), the quartet ensemble was expanded it did not mean greater individual freedom for the instruments, but even less, with only the first violin and first cello bearing marked solo responsibilities.
After hearing in March of 1773 Michael Haydn’s first string quintet (in C), the 16-year-old Mozart took own first plunge into these barely-charted waters with his Quintet in B-flat, K. 174 – hardly music to stand with the mature masterpieces, but a work of some consequence, with a slow movement of great expressive appeal. That Mozart took the work seriously is evidenced by the fact that he rewrote its last two movements after a two-month long stay in Vienna, where he had been hugely impressed by the latest quartets of another Haydn, Michael’s older brother Joseph.
No concrete evidence exists as to the occasion(s) for which Mozart wrote the three string quintets of 1787, K. 515, K. 516 and K. 406/K. 516B, the last an arrangement of his Wind Octet, K. 388. The general feeling is that the composer wrote them on speculation, “hoping to sell manuscript copies to amateurs by subscription,” according to H.C. Robbins Landon.
It is known that Mozart and his friends played them for their own diversion, but what happened after that remains a mystery. These were by no means the first large-scale works that Mozart had created on spec, but unlike the piano concertos of 1783 (works of similar provenance), which were quickly sold, the quintets were hardly snapped up by the amateurs, who under any circumstances would have found them technically daunting. The composer was neither consciously catering to Vienna’s aristocratic salons nor being courted by them as the year 1787 waned. Thus, he was finally forced to sell them for a pittance to the publisher Artaria and Co.
As Charles Rosen has pointed out, Mozart turned to the quintet after having immersed himself in quartet-writing – “always directly after having written a series of quartets, as if the experience of composing for only four instruments prompted him to take up the richer medium.” So it was in 1773, and again in the 1780s, after he had composed his six quartets dedicated to Haydn and perhaps the grandest of his own quartets, the work in D, K. 499, completed in August of 1786.
The opening of K. 515, as the cello dances upward through the light accompaniment of its fellows, recalls the opening of Haydn’s “Bird” Quartet (Op. 33, No. 3), but thereafter the tone and texture are entirely Mozartian: the uniquely rich and mellow texture he created by emphasizing the inner voices (here, the two violas) that had been regarded as unnecessary “thickening” elements, even rude, by 18th-century listeners.
Rosen further notes, of K. 515’s opening, that after that mounting cello phrase, there is “the same inner accompanying motion, the same [as in Haydn’s “Bird”] placing of the first violin. Yet Haydn’s nervous rhythm is avoided: in place of his independent six-measure phrases – the motion broken abruptly between them – Mozart has a linked series of five-measure phrases with absolutely uninterrupted continuity.”
The slow movement is one of Mozart’s seemingly effortless heartbreakers – in essence a dialogue between first violin and first viola. The minuet is elegant but by no means lightweight, with a chromatically-tinged trio of grand proportions. The finale is a jubilant, elegant sublimation of feeling of the finest and strongest sort by a man who while yet only 30 years old was in the process of being discarded by those who had so recently set him on a pedestal.
— Herbert Glass, after many years as a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, has for the past decade been the English-language annotator and editor for the Salzburg Festival.