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Piano Quartet in G minor, K. 478

May 8, 2022: Arnaud Sussmann, violin; Anna Polonsky, piano; Paul Neubauer, viola; Fred Sherry, cello; Michael Parloff, lecturer

According to Georg Nicolaus von Nissen (who married Constanze after Mozart’s death and wrote a biography of the composer), Mozart was contracted in 1785 by the publisher-composer Franz Anton Hoffmeister to write a series of three piano quartets. Mozart began the G minor Quartet in July that year—this is the date he entered in his own catalog for the work—and completed it on October 16, as indicated on the autograph manuscript. With this Quartet he had introduced a new genre to Vienna by adding the viola to the already prevalent piano trio combination.

Hoffmeister complained that the Quartet was too difficult and that the public would not buy it. Reportedly he told Mozart, “Write more popularly, or else I can neither print nor pay for anything of yours!” Mozart released Hoffmeister from the contract saying, “Then I will write nothing more, and go hungry, or may the devil take me!” Hoffmeister allowed Mozart to keep the money he had already been paid. Mozart had already written the companion Quartet in E-flat major, K. 493, but never began the third. Hoffmeister did in fact issue the G minor Quartet in 1785, but lost money because of poor sales. He began engraving the first violin part of K. 493, but sold the plates to Artaria, who published the work in 1787.

It is not surprising that Mozart’s piano quartets would have seemed unattractive to the Viennese public. Amateurs who were used to sightreading piano chamber music at salon gatherings found them too challenging. Even when the quartets had been rehearsed, the audience found them hard to appreciate because of the noisy surroundings and the poor performances at these social gatherings. An anonymous critic in 1788, after complaining bitterly about mangled, dilettantish performances, presumably of K. 493, wrote:

What a difference when this much-advertised work of art is performed with the highest degree of accuracy by four skilled musicians who have studied it carefully, in a quiet room where the sound of every note cannot escape the listening ear, and in the presence of only two or three attentive persons!

Like its E-flat major successor, the G minor Quartet is laid out in three movements: a large sonata-form first movement, a melodious slow movement—in this case in sonatina form (sonata form minus the development), and an exuberant rondo finale. Striking features of the G minor Quartet’s first movement include the earnest unison opening by all four players and the unusual dynamic emphasis of the second theme, grouping the subject into units of five beats.

The graceful second movement, in the relative major, allows the seriousness of the first movement to abate. The piano presents the songlike first theme and the strings the second theme. Streams of thirty-second note figuration extend both themes. Mozart makes subtle alterations in the “recapitulation”—the cello in particular receives more attention.

The finale turns the mood to one of out-and-out cheerfulness. Mozart clearly had a fondness for the D major theme of one of the episodes, which Alfred Einstein called “a moment of perfect bliss.” Instead of overexposing it in this movement, in which it never recurs, he reused it in the Rondo for piano, K. 485. Mozart sets the listener up for the conclusion only to divert the course by a crashing deceptive cadence, after which he winds up again for the true finish.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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