Mozart String Quartet no. 6 in B flat, K. 159

performed by the Amadeus Quartet, or below by the Festetics Quartet

(cover image by Rodion Kutsaev)

Mozart’s sixth string quartet dates from 1773, again very early in his output, as evidenced by the low catalogue number. As part of the Milanese quartets, it too was written in Milan.

It’s one of four in that set of six that has a central movement in the minor mode, and the only of the set that doesn’t contain a slow movement as the middle movement. They are as follows:

  1. Andante
  2. Allegro
  3. Rondo

It’s almost an inversion, really, of the standard three-movement form. The first movement andante is in a sort of… diminutive sonata form, with two themes and a very short development section, as is typical of many works from this time, not just Mozart’s string quartets. Dotted rhythms are big here; the ‘andante’ marking is related to the Italian word for walking, so it literally is at the pace of what we might think of as kind of a stroll through the park, but listen for the sudden changes of atmosphere.

In contrast with the mild and relatively light opening movement, the second movement allegro is more substantial, really, the fastest of the piece. It’s fiery and less polite, but listen for the dotted rhythm that featured so prominently in the first movement, which affords this small work an interconnectedness.

The finale is a playful rondo, with humorous little interjections. Mozart really turns on the charm in this quaint movement, about half the length of the already short previous movements. For such a small movement, it’s somehow very repetitive and also covers some exciting ground, like a quick sprint to the end after the middle movement.

These earliest of Mozart’s quartets, which we shall continue to discuss tomorrow, are often (and obviously) overshadowed by his later, more mature works in the form, so we’re not discussing these in any great depth. The real value in writing such a short article about a short piece the young composer wrote when he wouldn’t even be old enough to vote in most places in today’s world is that it forms a sort of backdrop, a starting point for the Haydn quartets and onward.

We can see the kind of talent he had, the ideas he may have been playing with (like the central movement here, generous use of the minor mode, etc.) and that can give us insight into the later works once we eventually get around to them.

I really just don’t have a lot to say about this work. It’s charming and delightful, but I’m really very eager to sink my teeth into his more mature efforts. As for things like his use of the Italian style of composition and all the rest, it’s hard for me to comment since I can’t really identify that, but suffice it to say the kid was talented.

Tomorrow we’ll be discussing the seventh, his final installment in the set of six Milanese quartets (his no. 1 was part of no set, so these are quartets 2-7), and then onto some more Beethoven, so please stay tuned for that and thank you for reading.

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