Mozart String Quartet no. 13 in Dm, K. 173

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

(cover image by David von Diemar)

Mozart’s 13th string quartet is the last of his set of six ‘Viennese quartets,’ and the only one in a minor key. In case you’re just joining us, Mozart has at this point written two sets of six quartets, and an orphan first quartet that didn’t belong to any cycle or set, meaning the ‘Milanese quartets’ are numbers 2-7, and the Viennese 8-13.

The work, like the others in this groups, was completed in 1773.

  1. Allegro moderato
  2. Andante grazioso
  3. Menuetto
  4. Allegro moderato

I should say that this piece is not only the first and only of this set to be in a minor key, it’s also the first of any of his string quartets to be so. His only other string quartet to be in a minor key, the 15th, also D minor, would follow a decade later.

Thus, we can expect, or it seems reasonable that we would have, some degree of importance associated with this milestone, and I’d say the work delivers. It’s one of the most overtly tragic things we’ve heard from Mozart thus far, quartets or otherwise, I think.

The first movement presents a melancholy first subject like a cloud rolling in to cover the sun. That’s terribly overdramatic for the scale of this movement, but it begins slowly, then pretty suddenly kicks into gear. It has a bouncier second theme, and this movement contains a very satisfying, crunchy unison figure that has a surprising bite to it. You’ll hear it throughout these short five minutes. It’s the longest movement of the work, at least in the Amadeus recording. That being said, it is not possessive of a terribly long development, but what we do get is interesting.

The second movement is very Haydnesque. We move to D major, with a slow movement that you might (mistakenly) think is the minuet. Actually, it’s in the style (or so I’m told) of a gavotte, and there is entirely nothing of the turmoil (again, I use that in a relative way) of the first movement. In the Amadeus recording, each of the remaining movements after the first is less than four minutes long, but they get progressively shorter as the work progresses, the finale being barely over three minutes. There are a few basic ideas presented here, but it is overall very simple and charming, a description you think would more suit most minuets, but what follows isn’t most minuets.

Instead we return to the home key of D minor, even hinting, it seems, at the content from the opening allegro. It’s heavy for a minuet, I feel, especially for this period. It’s still not a scherzo, obviously, and it’s not all doom and gloom. Even in the minuet itself, there are major-key responses to the statements in minor. We get a little break in the trio, which moves to F major, but even here we get a splash of shadow.

The finale is really where it’s at, though. It’s clearly a fugue, or at least fugal in nature, as one instrument enters after the other with the same content, and things intertwine in a pretty rich way, at least considering the composer was only 17. This shows at least a slightly more refined approach by the composer, and is a movement, and really an entire quartet, that leans more toward substance than show. Interestingly, after all the hubbub in D minor, the work ends on the faintest hint of brightness, and quietly.

I could actually find very little information on this quartet, but I thought for sure it would be one of the most written about. Before I knew much of anything about it, just listening, it seemed more significant. The minor key of course gives it a greater sense of gravity, but I still thought there would be more positivity or value given to this piece. Instead, though, I found Hans Keller’s comment that the entire set of Viennese Quartets were just “juvenile derivations of Haydn.” I suppose there are worse people to imitate, and Mozart would obviously go on to do so, but not for another decade, with his Haydn quartets, the next set of six he would write, about a decade later.

Before we get to those, though, we’ll be seeing much more of his work from this teenage period, chamber and otherwise, so please do stay tuned for that, and thanks so much for reading.

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