Josephine G. Winter Chamber Music Series
Chamber Music Series: Mozart
Ludwig van Beethoven – Quintet in E-flat for Piano and Winds, Op. 16
W.A. Mozart – Viola Quintet in G minor
Friday, January 27, 2023 | 7:00 PM
First Presbyterian Church
The pairing of works by Beethoven and Mozart provides an opportunity hear the interplay between two masters of the late-18th century. Beethoven’s Quintet for Piano and Winds is the work of a youthful protégé of Mozart. Composed at the age of 26, Beethoven was still finding his place as a composer in Vienna, a mecca for music in 18th-century Europe. Mozart composed his G minor Viola Quintet there in 1787, a masterwork by an accomplished and acknowledged genius at the age of 31. It is worth noting that Beethoven deeply admired Mozart and his music, and he sought to learn from him on his first, brief foray to Vienna in 1787, before having to return to Bonn due to his mother’s illness and death. A meeting between the youthful Beethoven and the esteemed Mozart is almost certain to have occurred, though the length and nature of their encounter is less clear. These two works also may give some insight into the personal music-making of the composers. The piano part of Beethoven’s quintet was undoubtedly first performed by him and gives some indication of his keyboard virtuosity. Mozart, a virtuoso on the piano and violin, also played viola as a chamber musician and it may well be this preference for the viola in such a setting that motivated him to compose six quintets with added viola. Finally, the depth of expression achieved by Mozart in his last quintets surely set the stage for the intensity Beethoven achieved in his own chamber music, especially his string quartets.
In 1796 Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was still a young and rising figure on the Viennese music scene. He’d been in the capital city for four years composing, performing, and teaching, while gaining support from young aristocrats and building a steadily growing repertoire of smaller scale works, mainly piano sonatas and chamber music. Vienna, however, was still the city of Haydn and Mozart, Beethoven’s hero, and Beethoven seems to have quite consciously chosen the types of works he composed and published knowing that the music of these great masters still rang in the ears of his Viennese patrons. There are few Beethoven works that so closely mimic the characteristics and qualities of its model, in this case Mozart, as the Quintet for Piano, Oboe, Clarinet, Horn, and Bassoon, in E-flat major, op. 16. A decade earlier Mozart composed his only quintet for the same ensemble, in the same key, and with the same arrangement of three movements. Both works are masterpieces, though Mozart’s was a relatively late composition (for him) and Beethoven’s is early.
Like its predecessor, Beethoven’s quintet opens with a slow introduction marked by dotted rhythms, not unlike many symphonic introductions, that builds anticipation for the first Allegro theme presented in the piano. The movement then develops in the manner of a piano concerto with most of the thematic material first heard in that instrument. Despite a few surprises along the way, the movement is delightfully classical in mood and refined in character. The Andante is once again led by the piano, but this movement is much more Beethovenian in character as the opening section alternates with new episodes led by different solo wind instruments. Each recurrence of the opening music is elaborated in the manner of variations, a technique characteristic of Beethoven throughout his lifetime. The quintet concludes with a bouncing Rondo, again led by the piano. Here too Beethoven characteristically prods us each time the jovial theme returns with subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle changes.
When attempting to understand the motivation for composing a work for less familiar instrumental combinations, sometimes the composer’s own preferences are worth considering. In the case of Wolfgang Mozart’s quintets for string quartet with extra viola, Mozart (1756-1791) was an accomplished violist and may have envisioned himself playing such a work. We do know that the actual reason for composing the Quintet in G minor, K. 516, and its companion, in C major, K. 515, remains a mystery. Fortunately for us, he did compose them and by doing so, Mozart left two of his greatest chamber music masterpieces. Interestingly, while Mozart composed music for all types of chamber music ensembles, most critics, historians, and listeners feel that it is in the viola quintets, especially the pair just mentioned, that Mozart achieved the pinnacle of his chamber music output. The Quintet K. 516 is also one of only two major, late period works by Mozart in the key of G minor. The other is the Symphony No. 40, considered one of Mozart’s greatest symphonic masterpieces. Both share a few important similarities including a companion masterpiece in the key of C major (i.e. Symphony no. 41 “Jupiter”), an undetermined reason for their composition, and a seriousness and gravity of character unmatched in virtually all of Mozart’s other works. The two quintets were composed within a month of each other in the spring of 1787, and the symphonies in the space of two weeks in the summer of 1788.
As fascinating as the history of the music is, its compositional and expressive qualities are even more compelling. There is much speculation about the “meaning” of this music and whether the serious and reflective qualities it possesses relate to some external event in Mozart’s life. This is, of course, impossible to determine with certainty, but it is worth noting that the quintet has many exceptional features. The first movement begins with a melodic idea in the first violin that will come to dominate the movement, a rising broken minor chord followed by a descending chromatic figure, all of which creates a dark mood of both striving and tension. Even in these first eight measures Mozart has shown us the various ways his theme may be manipulated and shaped. The minor-key character of the movement is particularly unrelenting. Typically, a second theme provides relief from the minor, but in this movement, Mozart delays the appearance of the secondary key and when he does give it, it doesn’t last long. The movement ends with two abrupt, loud chords reaffirming the key of G-minor at the close. The second movement is a minuet and trio, a type of movement completely expected in Mozart’s chamber works, but usually placed third rather than second in order. This minuet is unusual for its rather “un-dancelike” character with sudden accents and fragmented phrases. The seriousness of the first movement has carried over with only the Trio section providing some relief. The slow third movement, Adagio ma non troppo, played with mutes throughout, begins with a chorale-like theme but quickly disintegrates into a brief four-note idea that continues the searching character heard in the opening movement. The following section introduces a long descending melody over a throbbing accompaniment, among the most poignant moments of the movement. The finale begins in a state of utter despair linking the last two movements emotionally, but also providing dramatic psychological contrast to the exuberantly dancing finale. ©2023 Robert S. Katz, Ph.D.