Mozart and his public:♦
A failure to communicate?
Inspired by the November 9 performance of Mozart’s G Minor piano quartet, K. 478, by Mitsuko Uchida and the Brentano Quartet, I’ve lately spent a lot of time revisiting the piece. Aside from the pleasure of re-acquainting myself with one of the gems of the chamber music repertory, I’ve found myself pondering the mysteries of Mozart’s relationship to his contemporary musical public.
The program notes for that concert repeated the story that inevitably seems to accompany every performance and recording of this work: In 1785, supposedly, the Viennese publisher Franz Hoffmeister commissioned Mozart to write three piano quartets, but K. 478 was so beyond the capacities of Viennese amateur musicians that Hoffmeister abandoned the project. The second piano quartet—in E-flat, K. 493— was composed in 1786 only because another house, Artaria, was willing to publish it.
The story seems to have originated with Georg Nissen, who married Mozart’s widow Constanze and was one of Mozart’s first biographers— not the most reliable source, perhaps. But the eminent Mozart scholar Daniel Heartz, whose Berkeley seminar on Mozart and Vienna influenced me profoundly, regarded the anecdote as historical fact, and it seems plausible to me there’s at least some truth to it.
Follow this link to the passage I hear in my head whenever I think of K.478. It comes a few measures from the end of the work’s long, complicated first movement, a movement that is truly enormous by late-18th Century standards when it’s played, as it should be (and as it was in November), with all of Mozart’s repeats. It’s one of the most vehement passages Mozart ever wrote. Even without Nissen’s account, it’s hard to imagine Viennese musical amateurs grasping the movement’s scope or emotional depth.
I can easily imagine a conversation between Hoffmeister and Mozart going something like this:
“Wolfgang, you’re the man! Ya know I love ya! But that piano quartet…? I just can’t move it. What were you thinking, anyway? G-minor? That Sturm und Drang thing is so 1770s!”
“You’re kidding me!” Mozart replies. “I thought they’d love it. You know– a little old-time excitement– and even you could play the piano part. The left hand hardly has to move!”
“Yeah … well, what can I tell you? The young ladies won’t go for that shit, even if you think it’s easy.”
Having written that, I’m sure that’s just the way it happened. And nobody can prove me wrong, can they?
Ah yes, there’s the matter of G minor. Mozart wrote only three other pieces in this key: the early 25th Symphony (the music that accompanies the opening scene of the movie Amadeus), and two famously dark works, the 40th Symphony, K. 550, and the G minor String Quintet, K.516.
Too demanding for everyday life
I think a lot about that quintet, but I almost never listen to it. For me, from beginning to end, it’s just too emotionally demanding for everyday life. Because of its key, this piano quartet is often thrown into the same bag by commentators. But fierce though the first movement may be, I don’t find it plumbs anything like the tragic depths of the later G minor works. You’ll find nothing in it like this devastating passage from K. 516, and its other two movements are, respectively, idyllically lyrical and good-humored.
As I play through K. 478, I can believe that Mozart really was trying to write for the general public. Despite all its intensity and complexity, purely from the point of view of technique, the G minor piano quartet seems not particularly hard to perform. I can play about three-quarters of K 478 almost satisfactorily, and I imagine that with just a little practice… Well, it’s an illusion, of course. In the end, as with all Mozart’s music, that elusive last little bit is almost impossible for just about anyone to achieve.
Was Mozart capable of intentionally writing an easy piece? I don’t think he was.
Beethoven certainly could do it, perhaps because nothing seems to have come easily to him. Maybe Beethoven had days when the music just flowed out of him. But everything we know about Beethoven– his tortured sketchbooks, his horrible penmanship, his struggles with the people around him and with his own deafness– makes it hard to imagine. Difficult as Beethoven might have been, I nevertheless think his own struggles endowed him with a sort of empathy for lesser musicians that Mozart didn’t have. Beethoven’s Für Elise is genuinely easy.
A genius— and a self-absorbed twerp
Lately, the popular image of Mozart as a helpless infantile genius has been corrected, notably by Maynard Solomon’s recent biography, Mozart: A Life. By 1785, Mozart had fully succeeded on his own in establishing himself as a hot commodity in the big city. Nevertheless, because he’d been a child prodigy, because he could turn out masterpieces in his beautiful handwriting without apparent effort– and, I think, because he was in the end an immature, self-absorbed twerp— throughout his life he remained basically clueless when it came to understanding other people’s musical capabilities or perceptions. The C-major Piano Sonata, K. 545, which Mozart said was for beginners, usually sounds awful when students play it because it’s easy only if you happen to possess perfect technique to begin with. So I’ve come to believe that this wonderful masterpiece, the G-minor Piano Quartet, is also a particularly good example of Mozart’s failure to understand his public.
Its E-flat major counterpart, K. 493, is nowhere nearly as famous, but it surely deserves to be. I wonder what Mozart was thinking when he wrote it. We’ll never know, of course. But it is remarkable how much the E-flat piano quartet resembles the earlier work in form, if not in mood: three movements; a big development section in the first movement opening with a striking melody for piano solo; a witty, complex finale.
Was Mozart making a second try at winning over the public? Or was he composing purely for himself this time? Here’s a representative passage, the transition to the recapitulation of the first movement. Like Mozart’s piano concertos, it’s suave, witty and much more brilliant technically than the G minor piano quartet. An amateur doesn’t have a chance with K. 493.
The group 1807 & Friends will perform the E-flat Piano Quartet at the Academy of Vocal Arts on Monday, January 22nd. I can hardly wait.
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