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


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.