performed by the Amadeus Quartet
This first string quartet effort, when the composer was only fourteen years old, has charm and interest in spades compared to the first efforts of Papa Haydn. While I’m sure his divertimenti served their intended purposes at the time and delighted contemporary audiences who were doing whatever people did then at social functions, Mozart’s first effort, of almost the exact same year, actually feels like something to which I’d be inclined to close my eyes in a recital hall and listen. It, at least to me, sounds like something to be focused on, not enjoyed as a backdrop.
The work is in four movements, with the odd-numbered movements in 3/4 time. It comes in at only around 14 minutes, meaning that both its brevity and simple charm make for a really delightful little string quartet. It’s very satisfying.
While the piece ultimately was given a four-movement form, it was apparently originally only in three movements, with the three Italian-style movements rounded out by a “French” rondo. It’s notable that the piece was written in Italy. The Bärenreiter Urtext edition Die dreizehn frühen Streichquartette (a wonderful resource, all 13 bound together, not in three separate volumes, blue cover) states in the preface that father Leopold added to his son’s “à Lodi 1770” date the additional detail: “le 15 di Marzo alle 7. di sera” (15 March at 7 o’clock in the evening). How much more specific could you be? What was the weather like?
In any case, the preface also makes the statement that “there can be little doubt that Wolfgang was under the influence of the Italian chamber music of his day, and after leaving Milan for Bologna he thus ventured his first essay in the string quartet genre.” Nearly a decade later, he stated in a letter to his father that he’d arranged for “the quartet I wrote one evening at the tavern in Lodi” to be copied down for a friend along with some other works. What else would you do in a tavern without a sports game on than compose a string quartet, no less at 14 years old?
Father Mozart lent his hand to a few corrections and tempo markings of the quartet, and the same preface mentions that the rondo that ends the piece was written on a later brand of paper, as many as three years later than the rest of the work, which differentiates it from the Milanese quartets, all in three movements.
The movement begins with what feels to me like the most out-of-place (or just misplaced) movement of the four, beginning the work with an adagio. It may not be anything special, but I find it stunningly melodic, lyrical, effortlessly beautiful. Imagine a fourteen-year-old pouring this out onto paper in a tavern during a vacation in Italy. It’s the longest, slowest movement of the entire work. It really is beautiful, and there’s a simple, clean, straightforward clarity to it that might border on the boring if it weren’t so dang pretty. Like, really splendidly beautiful, rich in detail but simple.
And then the allegro. This movement calls to mind Haydn string works (even if it might be more Italian) in its energy and excitement, and makes me feel like the gushy beautiful adagio that opened the work was just a long introduction. This feels like an opening movement. It’s crunchy and brisk, quickens the pulse, is full of excitement and little fireworks. It sounds like a kid who just wants to write something fun, but then after all the quick runs and busy lines, there’s a nice contrasting passage at bar 36, only a few bars long, but gives us a second to breathe before the main theme reappears to close out this concise, exciting little charming movement.
The minuet sounds closely related to the allegro, but at a more relaxed pace. The strings are lush, clear, polite, but simply beautiful. It’s not ostentatious or complicated, but neither is it boring. The trio has an almost-majestic kind of stately yet simple gait to it, and I don’t know what it is, but the entire work I find just to be simple, overwhelming beauty. I’m so impressed. This is easily my favorite quartet so far; even if it’s the only non-Haydn quartet we’ve featured up to this point, I’ve listened to lots in preparation for this series. There’s a tenderness, a delicacy, a lyricism, but balanced with just the right amount of detail and complexity to be instantly approachable and charming.
The final movement, that one extra one tacked on a few years later, is fun and brings a smile to the face. At just over two minutes, it is tiny and pleasant, and feels like maybe the composer wanted to round out the work and not end on a minuet. Who knows? But it was a wonderful addition. Each of the sections of the rondo has its own charms, and they pass by quickly, but there’s enough time for us to enjoy each one, and there’s even a little itsy-bitsy coda that rounds the entire charming little work out with a surprise abrupt wink, almost as a joke. The whole thing is just wonderful!
Like, I really love it. From the first time I listened to it, I was pleased. What more is there to say about it than that? The whole thing comes in at about 13 and a half minutes (in this recording, depending on what repeats are observed, etc.), but it’s sweetly, perfectly delectable from beginning to end. Again, if this is what the fourteen-year-old presents us with, a work written in an Italian tavern, for his first quartet, there must be wonderful things to come in his later few dozen (although I’ll admit, I like no. 1 more than no. 2, and this quartet also much more than his symphonies of around the same time [like 10 and 12]). Stay tuned for more Mozart coming up later.