String Quartet in G major, K. 387

January 4, 2015 – Emerson String Quartet

One of Mozart’s most earthshaking developments musically upon his move from his native Salzburg to Vienna in 1781 was meeting Joseph Haydn for the first time and hearing the older composer’s Opus 33 Quartets. The profound influence of these works on the younger composer resulted in his composing six Quartets—the first three between December 1782 and July 1783 and the second three between November 1784 and January 1785. He dedicated these “fruits of a long and arduous labor” to his esteemed friend 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.”

In fact, on that occasion in 1785 when Haydn had heard Wolfgang, his father Leopold, and two friends play these Quartets, Haydn had 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 he 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 their treatment of thematic elaboration as a integral part of a whole work rather than belonging only to traditional development sections. Mozart’s Haydn Quartets show these elements in abundance along with his own inspired brand of grace and inventiveness.

Mozart completed the G major Quartet, K. 387, the first of the Haydn Quartets, on December 31, 1782. The stunning variety of the four movements and their combined effusive optimism have made this perhaps the most popular quartet of the six. The first movement revels in contrasts—soft and loud, determined and tender, ascending and descending, diatonic and chromatic. The opening gesture’s forthrightness followed by its gentle tag immediately demonstrates this, as does the contrast between the entire first theme and the gently marching second theme with its repeated notes. Not only is the development remarkable for Mozart’s ingenious spinning out of these ideas, but the recapitulation delights in further elaboration.

The Menuetto takes dynamic contrast to a new level of detail when, following two graceful downward leaps, his chromatic lines alternate soft and loud with every note. As a counterbalance Mozart introduces a second theme—as part of this section’s miniature sonata form—now featuring repeated notes followed by chromatic descents. Drama explodes in the trio in minor-key unison where one might often find more pastoral repose.

By now we expect dynamic contrast, which certainly abounds in the slow movement, though with a preponderance of quiet that is especially striking at the close of the first phrase. What becomes more salient as the movement unfolds is the contrast in textures between slow-moving lines and the fast notes of Mozart’s filigree, which is not always confined to the first violin part. A striking harmonic surprise prepares the second theme of this slow-movement sonata form (that is, exposition and recapitulation without a development section). In the recap’s brief delicate extension, Mozart emphasizes the triplet motion that had made an appearance toward the end of the first theme and become a defining feature of the second.

The last movement gives us a wonderful preview of the composer’s crowning Jupiter Symphony, both in its four-note theme and in its fugal (imitative) treatment. The miracle of Mozart’s fugal style here comes in the ease with which he switches back and forth between contrapuntal and homophonic texture (melody and accompaniment). Thus his fugal writing becomes an enticing propellant rather than an academic exercise. These effortless shifts of style correspond to structural divisions in which the fugal texture presents the main thematic material of sonata form, and the homophonic texture the transitional and cadential material. Mozart takes his leave with a nice Haydnesque touch—forceful, seemingly conclusive chords that then give way to the quiet “true” ending.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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