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String Quartet in C, K. 465 (“Dissonance”)

November 14, 2021 – Schumann String Quartet

One of Mozart’s most earthshaking developments upon moving from his native Salzburg to Vienna in 1781 was meeting Joseph Haydn and hearing the older composer’s Opus 33 Quartets. Their profound influence spurred Mozart to compose his six so-called “Haydn” Quartets—the first three between December 1782 and July 1783 and the second three between November 1784 and January 1785. Mozart dedicated them to his friend as “the fruit of a long and arduous labor,” saying, “During your last stay in this capital you yourself, my dear friend, expressed to me your approval of these compositions. Your good opinion encourages me to offer them to you and leads me to hope that you will not consider them wholly unworthy of your favor.” Mozart’s highly unusual dedication to a composer and not to an aristocrat or intended performer shows the extent of his admiration.

Haydn had expressed his approval on a visit to Vienna in February 1785, when he heard Mozart, his father Leopold, and two friends play the quartets. He famously told Leopold: “I tell you before God as an honest man that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by reputation. He has taste, and what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition.”

Haydn’s Opus 33 Quartets, which the composer himself had said were written “in an entirely new manner,” influenced Mozart particularly in their new equality of part-writing for the four individual instruments and in their treatment of thematic elaboration as an integral part of the whole. Mozart’s famous C major Quartet, completed on January 14, 1785, crowns his entire set of Haydn Quartets with its contrapuntal exploration and brilliance. The work received the nickname “Dissonance” in the 1780s because of the clashing pitches (cross-relations) in its slow introduction, resulting from Mozart’s bold approach to counterpoint. The public did not originally appreciate these dissonances—the irate Hungarian Prince Grassalkovics tore up his performers’ music, an Italian publisher returned the Haydn Quartets to Mozart’s original publisher Artaria saying they were full of mistakes (presumably the Dissonance Quartet’s introduction loomed large as a culprit), and French encyclopedist François-Joseph Fétis even printed a revised introduction.

Haydn himself may have had misgivings about the opening, but stated, “Since Mozart wrote it this way, he must have had good reason to do so.” His less than enthusiastic endorsement seems surprising from the composer whose Creation famously opens with Chaos—in the same C minor key—which employs similar dissonances before bursting brilliantly into C major at “Let there be Light!” But, we have to remember, he wrote the oratorio over ten years after the Dissonance Quartet. Could he, in turn, have been influenced by the younger composer?

The disquieting intensity of Mozart’s slow introduction grips the listener, heightening the sense of release into the sunny main body of the movement in C major. His singing first theme with its propulsive undercurrent arrives by means of imaginative counterpoint at his more forthright second theme with its cascading fast notes. And, assuaging any thirst for a more typically lyrical second subject, he offers another more lilting theme in this new key area. His charming main idea with ingenious variants serves as the basis for the exposition’s closing, for the movement’s development section, and for the coda.

Following the tender melody that opens the intimate slow movement, Mozart introduces a little turn figure—in dialogue between violin and cello—that he invests with great significance as the movement proceeds. He also creates a second theme out of simple repeated notes. But what is most remarkable is how he treats his “recapitulation.” Proceeding without a development section—a common enough procedure for a slow movement—he begins what seems like an ornamented version of his main theme, but injects a bit of development as he progresses into the “dialogue.” Similarly he incorporates some development into the recap of his second theme, producing poignant dissonances. Nor can he resist introducing a lovely new violin melody toward the end against the little turn figure.

In the minuet Mozart plays with contrasts—soft and loud, chords and unisons—and delights in injecting frequent sinuous chromatic elements. The compelling melody of the minor-mode trio begins hesitantly then soars—presented by the violin in the first half and by the cello when it returns in the second.

The exuberant sonata-form finale gets much of its propulsive energy from the quick repeated notes of the outset, which Mozart treats in myriad inventive incarnations. He also outdid himself with touches of humor—Haydnesque surprises—but also dramatic modulations, a tender almost Schubertian passage, and spurts of virtuosity, which make this a fitting conclusion to the six Haydn Quartets.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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