History of the String Quartet (2) Mozart: The “Haydn” Quartets


Statue of Mozart outside the house of J C Bach in Orange Square, Pimlico Road.


Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791                                                    

The Six Haydn Quartets     

  1. String Quartet No 14 in G K.387 (The Spring)

  2. String Quartet No 15 in D minor K.421

  3. String Quartet No 16 in E flat K.428                              

  4. String Quartet No 17 in B flat K.458 (The Hunt)

  5. String Quartet No 18 in A K.464

  6. String Quartet No 19 in C K.465 (The Dissonance)

 Matthew Taylor will be continuing his history on string quartets with an examination of Mozart’s Haydn Quartets and particularly illustrating Nos 4 and 6, the Hunt and the Dissonance respectively. This note is intended to give some background to Mozart as a composer and to these quartets without attempting to dissect them.

 Mozart was born in Salzburg, then a sovereign part of the Holy Roman Empire. Leopold, his father was a kappelmeister and composer to the Archbishop of Salzburg and first gave lessons to Mozart’s older sister, Nanerl when she was seven and Mozart who was then three picked up as he watched. His only teacher was his father and it was clear that not only was Mozart a freakish prodigy in playing but in composition as well.

 The talent of the two children was exploited by Leopold in several years of European travel involving various trips between 1762 and 1773 displaying their talent before royalty and other courts as well as meeting other composers. Nearest to home is the visit by Mozart aged 8 visiting Johann Christian Bach (the London Bach) at his home in Pimlico. More recently there is outside the house in Orange Square by Pimlico Road a statue of Mozart. (see above). These journeys over an eleven year period were arduous and despite his renown as a wunderkind no work came his way at the end of it.

 At 18 he was offered work with the Archbishop at Salzburg where he wrote his five violin concerti. It was not well paid and Mozart became restless and looked for work elsewhere. In August 1777 he resigned his position with the Archbishop and planned to look for an appointment in Mannheim or Paris. This time his father was not released and Mozart was accompanied by his mother. At Mannheim he met members of the Mannheim school and also met and fell in love with Aloysia Weber, one of four daughters from a musical family – the composer, Weber, not yet born, would be their cousin. Nothing materialised and Mozart and his mother continued to Paris. There he hinted at having been offered a position of organist at Versailles but turned it down. He also received commissions for which he was not paid. Worst of all, his mother was taken ill and died there.

 Mozart resumed employment with the archbishop in Salzburg but was never content. After the success of the production of Idomeneo in Munich he was invited to Vienna in 1781 where he opted to stay. He resigned again his position with the Archbishop who refused to accept and instead sacked Mozart with a “kick in the ass” administered by a steward. It also strained relations between Mozart and his father who clearly felt embarrassed by his son’s behaviour to his esteemed employer.

 The years 1781 to 1785 were extremely productive period for Mozart – all periods were – and it was in that time that he met Haydn and wrote the quartets dedicated to him . It was an enlightened time, following the death of Joseph II in 1780 , and set against the backdrop of the liberating reign until his death in 1790 of Leopold II, a period more or less contemporaneous with Mozart’s remaining years of life. It was there in Vienna that Mozart again met the Weber family who had moved from Mannheim. Mozart became interested in Aloysia’s younger sister, Constanza whom he married in August 1782

 Some commentators describe Mozart’s Vienna years as a struggle for recognition and suffering from poverty. In fact his Vienna career began well. He performed often as a pianist, including the celebrated competition before the Emperor with Clementi on 24 December 1781, and he soon had established himself as the finest keyboard player in Vienna. He also prospered as a composer, and in 1782, just before getting married he completed the opera The Abduction from the Seraglio, which premiered on 16 July 1782 and achieved a huge success. The work was soon being performed throughout German-speaking Europe, and fully established Mozart’s reputation as a composer.

From 1782 to 1785 Mozart mounted concerts with himself as soloist, presenting three or four new piano concertos in each season. As he could not always obtain a theatre, he booked unconventional venues, a large room in an apartment building and the ballroom of a restaurant. The concerts were very popular ensuring recognition. With substantial returns from these, he and Constanze adopted a rather plush lifestyle. They moved to an expensive flat; Mozart began to live it up and bought a fine fortepiano for about 900 florins, and a billiard table for about 300. They were able to send their son, Karl Thomas, to an expensive boarding school, and they kept servants. Saving was therefore impossible, and the short period of financial success did nothing to soften the hardship the Mozarts were later to experience.

On 14 December 1784, just when finishing the Haydn Quartets, Mozart became a freemason. This played an important role in the remainder of his life. He attended meetings, a number of his friends were masons, and on various occasions he composed masonic music.

Haydn and Mozart are thought likely to have first met late in 1782. There is written record of their playing together, Haydn, first violin; Dittersdorf, second violin; Vanhal, cello and Mozart, viola. Perhaps it should have been called the Composers Quartet! Haydn was then 51 and Mozart 27. We do not know what prompted Mozart to write the six quartets and dedicate them to Haydn. Dedication customarily followed a commission, usually from an aristocrat who himself would have been a dab hand at playing. Mozart was not an inexperienced writer for the string quartet although his early works, like those of Haydn, were more in the line of divertimenti than the sonata string quartet. Looking down a list of them one can observe Koechel numbers 136-138 which are known as fun divertimenti and usually played by an enlarged chamber group. The difference between them and the Haydn quartets could be compared to the Simple Symphony of Benjamin Britten with that of his second string quartet. 1781 was the year of Haydn’s opus 33 quartets which Mozart would have known and likely to have played with their composer.

 One wonders also whether Mozart might originally have intended three quartets and not six. The first of the quartets was finished on 31st December 1782. The second two were completed in June/July 1783. Then a gap. The Hunt was not completed until November 1784 and the last two on 10th and 14th January 1785.   What we do know is that Haydn first heard them on 15th January which indicates a last minute dot com rush by Mozart to finish them off in time for their meeting again.

 But why the long gap between the third and fourth? It is often said that Mozart had some difficulty with string quartets but this gap was no equivalent of writer’s block like William Walton taking a year to ponder whether to add a fourth movement to his first symphony. First, Mozart could not have afforded that luxury. Secondly difficulty was not a noun in Mozart’s vocabulary and you only have to listen to the Haydn quartets from beginning to end to realize that. For Mozart the difficulty may have simply meant the limitations posed by the instrumental combination when he might possibly have liked to have had another instrument available. Thirdly, composer block is out of the question. A research of 1784 shows the six piano concerti, numbers 14 to 19 on top of one horn concerto, a piano sonata, a violin sonata, several contre-danses and various arias! The answer is probably that the two, Haydn and Mozart, if not all four, had difficulty in getting together. Haydn, as we have seen earlier, was busy enough with his Esterharzy duties. Most of that time was spent at Esterharza, the summer palace in Hungary and if his symphony No 45 (the Farewell) is anything to go by the summers tended to be longer than the winters. In winter the Esterhazy palace was at Eisenstadt, not far away according to one programme note, a mere 40 kilometres, from Vienna. This would have been more than a mere bus ride had they had buses at the time. The chances were that fixing a time to meet from one year to the next was not easy, apart from also getting Vanhal and Baron Dittersdorf to check their diaries. Then suddenly it was on and Mozart dropping whichever piano concerto he was then writing in order to finish off the compilation for Haydn.

 How did Haydn re-act to these quartets? The evidence is contained in the famous letter he wrote to Leopold Mozart

 “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, furthermore, the most profound knowledge of composition.”

 Was it an exaggeration? Perhaps a little. After all Haydn was the greatest composer alive. His own quartets are perhaps a little more inventive or improvisatory but then Mozart’s plumb some spiritual depths. Haydn would not have heard anything from anyone else to match his own or Mozart’s creations. His own quartets would not have come as a surprise to his own ears as did those of Mozart which clearly bowled him over. And one must also bear in mind that Mozart was much the same age then as Haydn had been when he joined Esterhazy in 1760. Imagine if Haydn had died aged 35, as did Mozart, Haydn would not have been the great master he was to become. He would not be played today any more than, say, Vanhal or Dittersdorf. Yet Mozart at age 29 was already a veteran genius.

 Matthew is also planning on playing something from the string quintets, all but two of which come from the last five years. Here you may find Mozart at greater ease. With the use of the second viola it perhaps enabled one of them to give support to the two violins and the other to lead or support the cello. If Matthew gives us quintet no 6, K.614 then we are in for a treat with more hunting tunes to kick us off.

 I do not propose to analyze the Haydn quartets but do get hold of a set of CD’s and the best way to hear them is to listen to them right through, about three hours plus a little break between each one. Don’t read a book or get into a conversation or sit at your computer even to write programme notes. Just listen. However for those members of our group who sit in the back two rows every Monday morning struggling to complete the Observer crossword a special exemption can be made in recognition of their assiduity to the English language and their long time loyalty to Matthew Taylor.

Biographical Note prepared by Lionel J Lewis for the Matthew Taylor Lectures on the History of the String Quartet ©