Theme and Variations

Thoughts and experiences of exploring classical, jazz, and other art music.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Mozart's "Haydn" Quartets

In a previous post I wrote about Franz Joseph Haydn's six "Russian" quartets, Op. 33. These quartets inspired Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to write six quartets over a period of a few years, and dedicated the quartets to Haydn when they were published.

As part of a special deal from The Teaching Company's course Chamber Music of Mozart, you can get The Alexander String Quartet's recording Homage: The Six Quartets Dedicated to Haydn.

The six quartets are: G Major, K.387; D Minor, Op. 421; E-flat Major, K. 428; B-flat Major, K. 458, subtitled "Hunt"; A major, K. 464; and C major, K. 465, subtitled "Dissonant."

The quartets each have four movements. They are structured in the fashion that Haydn had introduced in his quartets, mainly, that each instrument (two violins, viola, and cello) has a voice in the pieces and therefore are not subservient to the first violin.

To explain the subtitles of two of the quartets, the "Hunt" is so named due to the resemblance to hunting horns in one of the themes of the first movement. It does not appear that Mozart gave either of these quartets their subtitles. It is interesting to note that Mozart's father, Leopold, wrote a "hunting" symphony, Sinfonia di caccia, which featured real hunting horns, gunshots from the drums, shouts from the orchestra, and even barking dogs. The "Dissonant" quartet (the sixth and last) takes its name from the very dissonant opening of the first movement.

Haydn is said to have been confused with the opening of the sixth quartet, but said of it, "Well, if Mozart wrote it, he must have meant it."

At a quartet party in February of 1785, Haydn, after hearing the quartets and reading the score, made this somewhat famous comment to Wolfgang's father Leopold, who was visiting Vienna at the time; "Before God and as an honest man, I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name. He has taste and, what is more, the most profound knowledge of composition." This was high praise from the inventor of the string quartet, and one of the most renown composers in Europe in that age.

Personally, I have mostly enjoyed full orchestral works, but these quartets have opened new possibilities for me. I find myself exploring chamber music of other composers as well as of Mozart's. The Alexander String Quartet, which has won numerous awards, plays these pieces quite well. Even the last quartet, which has such and odd beginning, is still wonderful in the passages and movements which follow.

The quartets were somewhat controversial at the time of their composition. A friend of Mozart's, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, complained of the "overwhelming and unrelenting artfulness" of the quartets. Indeed, many of Mozart's contemporaries thought that Mozart used too many notes, and his music was too complex for the audiences of the day. Yet now to modern ears these quartets are vintage Mozart and are very enjoyable.

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