Mozart String Quintet no. 1 in B flat, K. 174

performed by the Éder Quartet with János Fehérvári, or below by Les Adieux

(cover image by Jan Meeus)

As evidenced by the catalogue number for this work, Mozart’s first quintet for strings came right on the heels of the six Viennese quartets. It was written in late 1773, and seems to be a departure from the more serious endeavors of the quartet, and more like the divertimenti we’ve been discussing recently, and will continue to discuss.

As with all six of Mozart’s string quintets, this piece was composed for pairs of violins and violas, as well as ‘basso,’ which is in most cases these days, I assume, played by cello, but I suppose that designation left the option open for other low voices.

The work is in four movements and has a duration of almost half an hour, at least in the Éder Quartet performance.

  1. Allegro moderato
  2. Adagio
  3. Minuetto ma allegro
  4. Allegro

That’s a big piece of music for the time, far larger than any of his string quartets we’ve discussed thus far. Misha Amory makes two interesting points about this piece. Actually Amory makes more, and you can read the writeup in its entirety at the Brentano Quartet website. First, it’s pointed out that this work may have been inspired or motivated by some similar quintets that Michael Haydn wrote (brother of Joseph, and Mozart’s friend). Secondly though, a greater point is made:

In a larger sense, classical- period chamber music had barely begun to emerge from its role as light entertainment, and to be treated as a serious expressive medium…

We haven’t seen Joseph Haydn in some time, but this is around the time he was beginning to do great, historic things with the quartet, and so maybe this quintet, as large as it is, is actually the less adventurous piece, with the quartets and their aspirations of being taken as serious music, as the more forward. But I’m not a historian.

He wrote the piece in the spring of 1773, in Salzburg, after his third and final visit to Italy. The work was revised in December, with changes made to the third movement, and the finale apparently changed a great deal.

The first movement, says Brian Robins, “has a quasi-symphonic feel to it, with a particularly strong development section.” This is a long movement, longer than some entire quartets or symphonies the composer had written. The first theme is polite, giving one violin all the spotlight while the quartet supports in the background. This symphonic sound appears quickly, with the ensemble unifying for some richer texture and more interaction. The second subject is lighter and sweeter, and the closing of the exposition and return to the repeat is a wonderful little moment.

This ‘strong’ development is apparent at the very least in its scope, much longer than the momentary diversions from the main subjects, and is marked by that closing material shifted into the minor key; the triplets in this darker atmosphere make up a big part of the development. It’s still not expansive, but there’s contrapuntal texture and a sense of freeness in material and independence among the instruments that I find very satisfying. We get the expected recapitulation, and a nice close.

The second movement reminds us that this is indeed a lighter, more entertainment-focused piece. We move to E-flat, and mutes go on for a quieter, serenade-like movement. It is after all an adagio. Richard Wigmore praises this movement:

This is one of the loveliest slow movements from Mozart’s teens, growing from a unison arpeggio figure that then becomes an accompaniment to the eloquent theme begun by the first violin and continued by the second. Just before the theme’s return, the idyllic mood is disrupted by a passage of startling emotional power as first viola traces a contorted chromatic line beneath grinding suspensions from the violins.

The minuet takes us back to the home key of the piece, and is by a long shot the shortest movement of the work, about half the length of the adagio. It’s pleasant and elegant, light on its feet, and there’s a sense of depth in the trio afforded by the echo that second violin and viola give to the firsts’ statement.

The finale begins pleasantly enough, but it gets exciting quickly, and stays that way, making for a contrapuntal, energetic finale that seems like far more than just background music. I’m not sure this is music to which I’d sip tea or nibble on canapés, maybe more like chase each other around the estate, a hedge maze if there was one. It’s playful and engaging, a fitting end to this large chamber piece from a mere teenager.

I hope you are excited about Mozart, because we’re going to be seeing lots more of his work in the coming weeks, as in… basically for the next five weeks, so there’s that. I don’t want to pitch it like we’re just slogging through his earlier work. This is really delightful, but we will eventually get around to his more mature works. All in good time. Stay tuned for that and thanks so much for reading.

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