String Quartet in B-flat major, K. 458, “The Hunt”
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
That Mozart dedicated a set of six string quartets to Joseph Haydn is a chunk of history that has received an enormous amount of press. There is no comparable event in music perhaps until the 20th century, when it was no longer unusual for artists to lavishly acknowledge their masters, Stravinsky and the composers of the Second Viennese School being the most frequently acknowledged. The portion of Mozart’s dedication quoted below, from the first published edition of the quartets, is sufficient proof:
“To my dear friend Haydn…
“A father who had decided to send his children into the world at large thought it best to entrust them to the protection and guidance of that famous man who fortunately happened to be his best friend as well. Behold here, famous man and dearest friend, my six children. They are, to be sure, the fruit of long and arduous work, yet some friends have encouraged me to assume that I shall see this work rewarded to some extent at least, and this flatters me into believing that these children shall one day offer me some comfort. You yourself… have shown me your approval of them during your last sojourn [in Vienna]. Your praise, above all… makes me hope that they shall not be entirely unworthy of your good will… – W.A. Mozart”
One of the “rewards” came from the dedicatee, who famously said to Leopold Mozart, “I tell you before God and as an honorable man, that your son is the greatest composer I know, either in person or by name…” And on another occasion, “I have never heard a work of his [Wolfgang Mozart’s] from which I did not learn”; this from the man who, by the example of his own creations rather than in a classroom, taught Mozart how to structure a string quartet. And there were rewards of a more material kind as well: The publisher Artaria paid Mozart 100 ducats for the set, a sum normally paid for an entire opera.
The six were begun in 1782, the year after Mozart’s move from Salzburg to Vienna, amid a torrent of compositions in all forms, and completed over the next four years. They were created under the influence of his encounter in 1781 with Haydn’s just-completed Op. 33 Quartets, which their composer announced had been “written in an entirely new manner,” which meant nothing less than that they were truly in four parts – rather than centered on a blazing sun, i.e., the first violin, surrounded by three satellites – with each instrument contributing to an inextricable four-part harmony. Alan M. Kriegsman summed up the uniqueness of Op. 33 in The Compleat Mozart (W.W. Norton, 1990): “All the instruments were able to participate in the thematic elaboration, and, furthermore, elaboration [that] was no longer confined only to development sections, but would permeate the whole texture of an opus… Mozart transplanted these principles to his own six new ‘children’ in tribute to Haydn…”
The fourth in this set of six is nicknamed (not by the composer) “The Hunt,” after the hunting-horn-like call of its opening 6/8 theme, which provides material for the whole of this irresistibly jolly movement. The subsequent minuet is on the serious side but envelops a skipping trio of delectably dancing charm. This is followed by what is arguably the most intense movement in all of the six quartets, an Adagio (the marking is used nowhere else in the set) that provides a foretaste of the Romantic era. The rapid-fire Rondo Finale is all folksy charm, for Mozart’s audience the most likely successor to music of such intensity as the Adagio.