String Quintet in E-flat, K. 614

May 19, 2019: Calidore String Quartet; Matthew Lipman, viola

Mozart’s five string quintets (six with the addition of the quintet version of the Serenade for wind octet, K. 516b), show a certain connection with the Haydn brothers, Michael and Joseph. The first, K. 174, an early work from his Salzburg days, no doubt grew out of Mozart’s interest in the quintets of his colleague Michael. Already at this date Mozart was eager to try his hand at the fuller sonorities made possible by the additional of a second viola to the standard string quartet configuration.

The later quintets—the glorious C major and G minor, written in Vienna within a month of one another in the spring of 1787, and the last two, in D major and E-flat major, written four months apart in the winter and spring of 1790–91—show a distinct connection with Joseph Haydn. The older composer was reported to have played Mozart’s quintets with him frequently—including the first private reading of the D major, K. 593—and no doubt would have done the same with the E-flat major, K. 614, had Haydn’s career not taken him to London. The music of this last Quintet shows the definite stamp of Haydn’s influence.

Dated “April 12, 1791” in Mozart’s own catalog of his works, this E-flat Quintet turned out to be his last major chamber work. The first edition, published posthumously in 1793 with K. 593, bore the inscription “Composto per un Amatore Ongarese” (Composed for a Hungarian Enthusiast), and the publisher, Artaria, was reported by the Wiener Zeitung to have said that both quintets were written in response to “the very active encouragement of a music lover.”

Scholar Ernst Franz Schmid suggested in the mid-twentieth century that the commissioner of the two quintets may have been Johann Tost—who had been a second violin player in Haydn’s orchestra at Esterháza and later became a wealthy businessman—though Tost was actually born in Moravia rather than Hungary. Mozart’s widow had mentioned in a letter to publisher André in 1800 that Mozart had done work for Tost, who said he possessed some of her husband’s manuscripts and had promised to identify them for her by their themes, but whether he did so and whether the two quintets were among them remains unknown. Eminent scholars Otto Eric Deutsch and H. C. Robbins Landon took up Schmid’s supposition, but Tost’s involvement remains speculation. Suffice it to say that Mozart seldom composed works without some financial gain in mind, and Tost as commissioner is a likely candidate.

Mozart often played viola in the readings of his chamber music with Haydn and others, but he rarely led off boldly with a viola theme which is how the E-flat major Quintet begins. The two violas play a “hunting horn” call in lively 6/8 meter—typical for “hunt” themes but atypical for a Mozart first movement. Robbins Landon suggests that he may have borrowed the idea for a 6/8 first movement from Haydn’s Symphony No. 67 in F major, but an even closer model might be his own “Hunt” Quartet, K. 458. Mozart ingeniously explores this theme with counterpoint, trills, and cello interjections, even transforming it into a lyrical second theme. Another “viola moment” occurs in the recapitulation when the first viola gets to lead off the second theme.

The slow movement unfolds as a stately theme with four free variations. Scholar Charles Rosen points to the slow movement in Haydn’s Symphony No. 85, “La Reine,” as a possible influence. Mozart interjects a remarkable chromatically inflected interlude before the first variation begins.

The minuet skips along merrily, its playful simplicity masking some sophisticated touches, such as making his main motive rise in the violas instead of making its usual descent. The charming trio section draws on the pastoral device of a rustic drone.

Mozart’s finale perhaps pays the greatest tribute to Haydn. As Rosen points out, its jolly main theme bears a remarkable similarity to the finale of one of the quartets that Haydn dedicated to Tost in 1790, op. 64, no. 6, but even more, Mozart’s style throughout reminds us of Haydn’s mischievous wit. The exuberant movement unfolds in masterful sonata-rondo form, with one of its most delicious surprises coming in the form of a fugato section in the development. We can only hope that Haydn got to experience this captivating piece of chamber music even though Mozart’s tragically early death prevented them from ever playing it together.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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