Mozart String Quartet no. 11 in E flat, K. 171

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

(cover image by Mitch Lensink)

Mozart’s eleventh string quartet is the fourth in his second series of six string quartets, which came to be known as the ‘Viennese’ quartets. The first quartet didn’t belong to a set, and the next six (2-7) were known as the ‘Milanese’ quartets. Guess where the Milanese and Viennese quartets, respectively, were composed.

That’s right! Baltimore.

Kidding. You got it the first time.

Mozart composed the Viennese quartets in late 1773. All of the Milanese quartets were in three movements, and all the Viennese quartets are in four, this one as follows:

  1. Adagio – Allegro – Adagio
  2. Menuetto
  3. Andante
  4. Allegro assai

It may seem downright silly to take a work composed so closely on the heels of one from earlier the same year (from the Milanese bunch) and say “Look how he’s improved!” because I’ve basically done that in some of my articles. There’s an inclination to say “this one came after that one and look how much more mature it is,” even though there may have only been literally weeks or days between their composition. Wiki, though, more or less says this: “These quartets represent a considerable advance on the Milanese Quartets from less than a year before.” Another important influence was Mozart’s having heard some of Haydn’s quartets, and this influence is reflected at the very least in the move to the four-movement form.

The first movement begins and ends with an adagio, but is still a sonata-form movement, with a sort of dark opening that clears by stages and leads eventually to elegant subjects and through what I suppose is a very brief development section. Listen for the return of those first shadowy opening figures, thus beginning the recapitulation and bringing the first movement to a close.

The second movement minuet seems to take its tune from the first movement, at least that’s how it sounds to me. This is (at least in the Amadeus recordings) the shortest movement, just a few seconds shorter than the finale, but we do have time for a central trio where first violin and viola exchange roles in their conversation. I guess the triple meter in the first movement also helps to make these two movements seem more related. As with the first movement, charming and pleasant.

The third movement takes us to a melancholy C minor, with mutes. There’s lots more contrapuntal texture here, adding a greater sense of depth and serious to this movement, quite a departure from the previous movements in its mood, character, and general level of interest. This gloom is broken up by a very tenuous, really momentary, move to the major key, but it doesn’t really last.

The finale is also in sonata form, although very brief. We have two complementary rather than contrasting themes here for the exposition, which is repeated, and between this and the recapitulation we get a whopping 15-ish seconds (in the Amadeus recording) of development before returning to the opening material. This makes the development section, if it can even be called that, more of a stop along a circular track than any exploration of new ground off any beaten path, but that is after all the scale of the music the young composer is writing at this point. After all, the Amadeus quartet’s recording of this work lasts a mere 14-ish minutes (the Festetics recording above, I suppose with more repeats observed, lasts seventeen and a half minutes). How much ground can you really cover?

It’s another point along the way, though, and once we’re done with these four-movement Viennese quartets, we’ll move on to the next set of six, the ‘Haydn’ quartets, which make up quartets no. 14 thru 19 of Mozart’s total 23, meaning we’re almost halfway through his string quartet output. Stay tuned for one more Mozart article this weekend, and thanks so much for reading.

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