Mozart String Quartet no. 14 in G, K. 387

performed by the Hagen Quartet

(cover image by Ehud Neuhaus)

Before God, and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste, and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.

Joseph Haydn, to Mozart’s father Leopold

We have arrived.

Welcome to the Haydn Quartets. Of Mozart.

This is the next installment of Mozart’s string quartet output, after the Milanese and Viennese string quartets (and the first, which belongs to no set at all). The composer was, by the time of the publication of this set, almost 30 years old, positively ancient compared to the eight-year-old who wrote his first symphony, and the teenage composer, etc.

The composer, and perhaps the entire world, I guess, was mesmerized by what Haydn was accomplishing, later to become known as the ‘father of the string quartet.’ His influential op. 33 quartets were completed in 1781, the same year Mozart arrived in Vienna. They even became friends during this time, becoming close enough that they would gather to play string quartet works, Mozart on viola, Haydn on violin, with Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf (a real human) on second violin and Johann Baptist Wanhal on cello. Imagine being in that room!

The first of these six quartets, this work in G major, K. 387, was indeed the first of the six to be composed, and was finished on December 31, 1782, just shortly after Mozart arrived in Vienna and Haydn’s op. 33 quartets arrived to the world. The entire set, upon its completion and publication, would be dedicated to Haydn, who upon hearing them for the first time, expressed the sentiment that opens the article. If you’d like to read Mozart’s lengthy dedication to Haydn, Wikipedia has reproduced it here.

A feature of the Haydn quartets is that, suitably, following in Haydn’s footsteps, all six works are presented in four movements, two central movements being bookended by a sonata form and rondo, variation, or another sonata form. The central movements contain a minuet with trio that may be placed second or third, and a slow movement. Both Mozart and the string quartet form seem to have reached full maturity now.

This work’s four movements are as follows, and the playing time hovers around half an hour:

  1. Allegro vivace assai
  2. Menuetto (Trio in G minor)
  3. Andante cantabile, in C major
  4. Molto allegro

Go back and look at most of my Mozart posts. The cover images, which I spend a lot more time choosing for each article than you probably realize or I care to admit, are by and large flowers, or fruit, or something of the sort. To me, that conveys the lightness, the beauty, the freshness of so much of Mozart’s music, but this is one of the first pieces, especially of the string quartets, where I feel the piece is, well, epic, grand, serious, monumental, even. I mean serious in the sense that this work, like the op. 18 quartets of Beethoven, sounds even today like history is being made when I listen to it. Anyway…

The Hagen Quartet’s reading comes in at just under a half hour, and in it, the movements are of almost equal length. What I’d like for you to look out for, though, in this work, instead of my blathering about how ‘it’s purdy,’ is the part of each movement that stands out as giving that movement greater depth, or seriousness. Weight, we’ll say. To my ear, at least, there are passages in each of the four movements that make this entire work of much greater depth and substance than anything we’ve heard before.

Go on. Listen, a few times even.

Welcome back.

Just listening to this first movement, in sonata form with its two themes, you may not think that we have the necessary fuel required to arrive at anywhere terribly serious. The first of the two themes is warm and sunny, the second seeming then little more than a cheery addendum to what came before it. There’s cheer, and subtlety, and overall a greater complexity in the writing. As Robert Cummings says:

The opening movement … features fairly intricate instrumental writing: thematic lines are often started by one instrument and completed by another. It also contains a complex, substantial development section; yet the music is quite easy for the listener to grasp.

The mark of a master is it not, making the complex seem simple? I think this more intricate writing is especially obvious in places like the transition between the two main themes. The development section to which he refers appears after the exposition repeat, and its arrival is marked by a dramatic hesitance and what suddenly feels melancholy, the turn of a corner bringing with it a remarkable change of scenery. It’s breathtaking.

The second and, rarely, longest movement is the minuet with trio, and there’s a clear hint (really the answer) in the listing of the movements above, with the trio in G minor. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. Beethoven is known for presenting musical jokes, but he and Mozart have a common ground in Haydn. Listen to how off-kilter and out of step this triple-meter movement sounds. The minuet itself seems to avoid falling into step, and it’s also bouncy in a kind of sputtery, jerky way that seems almost a caricature of what a minuet should be. After all this dodging the real spirit of a minuet, though, the trio comes in, and is remarkably serious in stark contrast with what came before it, one of the most significant portions of the entire quartet to me.

The third movement is song-like, in the subdominant key (one step lower than the dominant, hence the name) of C major, but there’s a real sense of movement here away from C major, and there’s immediately a notable spaciousness in the enormous gap between the registers of the violin and cello (as there obviously is to begin with), quite different from the unity and togetherness we’ve heard thus far. Wikipedia tells us that this movement’s theme “explores remote key areas.” I’d say it’s one of the only places in the quartet where the rest of the quartet plays, well, second fiddle to the first violin’s aria-like part, but even here, there is plenty of contrapuntal texture and greater use of chromaticism. Just beautiful.

The finale, though, is, I think, the real gem of the work, and maybe the height of Mozart’s writing for the quartet thus far in his entire oeuvre. Many sources liken this finale to the finale of the (much) later Jupiter symphony, which also makes extensive use of fugal elements. This finale, though, begins with a five-note idea, and really… it’s almost as if nothing more need be said about it. Each of the four instruments enter, it’s all aboard, and we’re off on a really remarkable ride, as much for its playfulness and energy as for its incredible polish and execution. After all this build-up, and all this momentum, you may be surprised how the piece closes.

The seriousness in the finale, though? I’d say it’s in the fugal textures, the fugue, or just counterpoint in general, is a pinnacle of musical complexity and skill, and yet the result is exhilarating and refreshing.

This article is a few days late, and the others for this week probably will be, too, but we’re going to be done with Mozart (for now) after the weekend. Stay tuned for what’s next and thanks so much for reading.

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