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.