W. A. Mozart — Quintet in D Major for Strings, K. 593

Mozart, mature


Wolf­gang Amadè Mozart (1756 – 91) was an invet­er­ate player of cham­ber music. Today, with 20/20 hind­sight, we might assume that such an august musi­cal genius would grav­i­tate to the first vio­lin parts when he played string quar­tets with his friends. But in fact Mozart much pre­ferred to play the viola on such occa­sions. He loved the instru­ment, with its warm, mel­low tim­bre, and he seems thor­oughly to have enjoyed being at the cen­ter of the music, rather than play­ing one of the more imme­di­ately notice­able outer voices.

By the time Mozart fin­ished writ­ing his first string quin­tet, in Decem­ber 1773, the seventeen-year-old had already com­posed fif­teen string quar­tets. It is pos­si­ble that Mozart decided to try his hand at the more unusual five-instrument form because Michael Haydn, younger brother of the com­poser Franz Joseph Haydn and a good friend of the Mozart fam­ily, had writ­ten what he called a “Not­turno” for two vio­lins, two vio­las, and cello in Feb­ru­ary 1773. This must have been suc­cess­ful, because the younger Haydn soon fol­lowed it up with a sec­ond quin­tet, and in Mozart’s let­ters from that year he speaks of play­ing both works.

Oddly, Franz Joseph Haydn, who wrote so much cham­ber music and whom Mozart revered, never wrote a string quin­tet. When asked why, he is said to have replied that no one ever com­mis­sioned one from him. A great excep­tion to the usual quin­tet instru­men­ta­tion of two vio­lins, two vio­las, and one cello is Schubert’s sin­gle string quin­tet, D.956 in C major, where the cello is dou­bled rather than the viola.

Though Mozart wrote far more string quar­tets (twenty-three) than quin­tets (six), he obvi­ously had a great per­sonal affec­tion for the five-voice form. Two string quin­tets com­prise the last cham­ber works he wrote: K. 593 in D major, com­pleted in Decem­ber 1790, and K. 641 in E-flat major, which he fin­ished on April 12, 1791. Both works were writ­ten on com­mis­sion, though exactly who com­mis­sioned them remains a mystery.

A cou­ple of years after Mozart’s death the quin­tets were pub­lished with the note: “Com­posed for a Hun­gar­ian Ama­teur.” Since Mozart’s wife, long after the fact, said her hus­band had writ­ten some music for Johann Trost (a vio­lin­ist from Eszter­háza and a musi­cian to whom Haydn had ded­i­cated some of his quar­tets), some writ­ers have spec­u­lated that Trost was the “Hun­gar­ian Ama­teur” in ques­tion. We know that, before Haydn left Vienna on Decem­ber 15, 1790 for the first of his two vis­its to Lon­don, he joined Mozart in play­ing the younger man’s quin­tets, espe­cially (accord­ing to Max­i­m­il­ian Stadler, a friend of Mozart’s and one of the other string play­ers) the new Quin­tet in D major. Stadler added that, dur­ing these cham­ber music ses­sions, Haydn and Mozart took turns play­ing first viola.

Mozart’s D major String Quin­tet is in four move­ments. The first, one of the most unusual first move­ments in all of Mozart, begins with a twenty-one-measure Larghetto intro­duc­tion in ¾ time. This is — sur­pris­ingly — brought back in a slightly mod­i­fied form at the end of the movement’s main, duple-meter Alle­gro sec­tion. The first move­ment is then fin­ished off, rather abruptly, by an eight-measure restate­ment of the movement’s prin­ci­pal theme.

The Ada­gio is one of Mozart’s most beau­ti­ful lyric cre­ations, with the indi­vid­ual instru­ments jux­ta­posed with enor­mous skill. In the Menuetto, the com­poser makes dra­matic use of sud­den shifts in the dynam­ics, ask­ing the play­ers to go from forte to piano within one or two beats. The Alle­gro finale is in 6/8 time. The delight­ful, bounc­ing open­ing theme gives no hint of the aston­ish­ing polyphony that Mozart will employ before fin­ish­ing the Quintet.

This arti­cle appeared orig­i­nally in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and is used here with per­mis­sion.