Mozart String Quartet no. 7 in E flat, K. 160

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

(cover image by Brenda Godinez)

The seventh quartet of W. A. Mozart is the last of the so-called ‘Milanese quartets,’ written while the young composer was in Italy, and showing his comprehension of and skill with the Italian influences he’d assimilated on the trip. This final work in the set of six may have been completed after his return to Salzburg, and unless I am mistaken, is the last three-movement string quartet the composer ever wrote, as follows:

  1. Allegro
  2. Un poco adagio
  3. Presto

The work has (in Amadeus’ recording) a duration of about 10 minutes.

Not only is this piece the end of Mozart’s Milanese set, but marks what would be the beginning of his drawing inspiration and influence from Haydn, as the next series of quartets, the ‘Viennese’ and ‘Haydn’ quartets (as all the subsequent ones) are in four movements and show much greater influence from sources closer to home.

Until then, though, here we are with the Last of the Italians. I am starting to think that this set of six could have been given the same treatment that we gave some of the earliest Haydn quartets, just doing them all together in one big post and calling it a day.

That’s not to say they aren’t enjoyable or attractive or whatever, but there’s just not much special to say about them. Jeremy Grimshaw says:

Like the other works in the set, the E flat quartet demonstrates the extent to which the precocious young composer absorbed the sounds he encountered during his travels in the South, and which he carried back to Salzburg (where K. 160 was probably completed). In this regard, the work contrasts the quartets he took up shortly after returning home and falling under the influences of Haydn‘s Opp. 17 and 20 quartets.

He also emphasizes that it is a work of contrasts, and I think that is significant enough a point to save this article from sounding like every other Mozart string quartet article I’ve written. But it can’t all be contrast, can it?

We can talk about how pretty it is, how polished and buoyant the allegro is, but really none of this is surprising from Mozart’s pen, even the young Mozart. Listen, though, for the up-and-down nature of the melody, how the movement begins with what Grimshaw calls “an unassuming melody with a gentle, downward slope.” But what is that contrasted with? A bouncier response with dotted rhythms. Dotted notes appear here and later in the finale, but listen for contrasts here in contour, the ups and downs, curves and angles of the writing.

In contrast to that, we have a really beautiful second movement. It’s regal, quiet, with an elegance that seems like it should be beyond the composer’s years. Actually even here we have some dotted rhythms, but that’s not to say the first movement has a copyright on them. This movement doesn’t have as much contrast internally as it does with the movements that bookend it, but some can be found even here.

The finale is the gem of this little piece. It has exhilarating swells, gallops of ups and downs. It’s spirited and lively and just exciting.

Would a composer become famous solely on the merits of these six Milanese quartets? Probably not. The value here is that they show Mozart to be wonderfully precocious, so the value of these quartets, rather than being in their own inherent value (full of charms though they are) is in the promises they make about the later composer, and we have yet to get to more mature Mozart, but this gets us one step closer.

I’m looking forward to finally seeing the later quartets, the mature(r) symphonies, piano concertos, and all the rest, but all in good time, right? This is all we’ll be seeing of Wolfie for now, but stay tuned for bunches of Beethoven in the coming weeks. Thanks so much for reading.

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