String Quartet No. 16 in E-flat, K. 428

January 29, 2023: Danish String Quartet

Upon his move from his native Salzburg to Vienna in 1781, one of Mozart’s most momentous musical developments was meeting Joseph Haydn for the first time and hearing his Opus 33 Quartets. Their profound influence resulted in Mozart’s composing his six Haydn quartets—the first three between December 1782 and July 1783 and three more 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.”

Haydn heard the first three performed at Mozart’s home on January 15, 1785, and the others on another visit February 12, played by Mozart, his father Leopold, and two friends. Leopold proudly reported to his daughter Nannerl back in Salzburg what Haydn had told him: “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.”

The E-flat major Quartet bears no date in the manuscript, but scholar Alfred Einstein’s best guess was that Mozart composed it in June or July 1783. That may still be the case, though more recent research has allowed that it could date from as late as the following January, which is still a year before the final two of the group, K. 464 and K. 465 (“Dissonance”). Whether or not it is the third of the Haydn Quartets, its lyrical warmth contrasts greatly with the other five quartets while showing every bit as much originality.

The sonata-form first movement is at the same time concise yet rich in inventiveness. The opening melody, played softly by all four instruments in octave unison, leaps an E-flat octave that only later becomes confirmed as the movement’s key after a bit of lovely wandering. The second theme, led off by the violin and reiterated by the viola also indulges in quick harmonic deflections. The development briefly revisits the first theme forcefully—in a canonic pairing of violins answered by viola and cello—but focuses mostly on bits of the second theme interspersed with dramatic arpeggios. Mozart brings on the recapitulation through a striking harmonic inflection at the last moment
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A movement of breathtaking lyricism and inventiveness, the Andante con moto gently spins out a melody at great length in an otherworldly four-part texture with exquisite tensions and relaxations. This extraordinarily rich, chromatic harmonization unfolds over a regular sonata form with a short but true development section.

Mozart’s Menuetto immediately lands the listener in a rustic Haydnesque realm with its merry octave plunges (almost braying)—which reverse the octave leaps of the first movement—and its lightly stepping passages, drone effects, and occasional “horn fifths.” The trio casts a fascinating and mysterious shadow over the proceedings—the drones now host ethereally haunting music before the merrymaking of the Menuetto resumes.

The main theme of the finale begins in hesitating two-note fragments before letting loose with running fast notes. Mozart plays with all manner of rhythmic displacements—a fitting tribute to Haydn’s own such witty techniques. The movement is in a modified sonata form, that is, without a development, but the character and contrasting sections certainly suggest a rondo. Comic pauses and sudden dynamic shifts—especially at the very end—contribute to the movement’s high spirits.

© Jane Vial Jaffe

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