These program notes are for the Accordo performance on October 7, 2013.
Of the six string quintets by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Quintet no. 4 in G minor, K. 516 is the most somber. He completed the quintet on May 16, 1787, while his father Leopold was gravely ill; the elder Mozart died less than two weeks later. It is perhaps simplistic to tie the sorrow expressed in the quintet to the grief Mozart experienced during the time he composed it; nevertheless, an inescapable gloom pervades the work. In all of his string quintets, Mozart expands the standard complement of a string quartet with the addition of a second viola, rather than a second cello or a string bass. This choice creates symmetry in the opening of the fourth quintet, as Mozart introduces the tragic opening theme of the Allegro by dividing the quintet into two smaller sub-ensembles. The first phrases of the melody occur in the first violin, accompanied by the second violin and first viola. The first viola takes over the melody, accompanied by the second viola and cello. Rather than following the convention of modulating to a different key, the second theme begins in the home key of G minor. Before long, however, it meanders into major harmonies, producing more cheerful versions of the previous material. After a development section in which gestures from both themes pass between all the instruments, the recapitulation revisits the opening. This time, however, the second theme does not wander into the realm of major, eliminating any hint of optimism.
With its heavy, disruptive chords, the Menuetto is rawer than most minuets. It gives only the slightest hint of the refined nature of the courtly dance before succumbing to despair. The contrasting Trio section lightens the mood as the carefree melody glides over the bar lines, but the weighty minuet inevitably returns. The third movement, Adagio, ma non troppo, features a hesitant melody in the first violin gently urged on by the other instruments. It becomes a delicate dialogue between the first violin and cello, often punctuated by silence. The first violin proposes an anguished descending line, but with the assistance of the first viola, that gesture becomes almost playful. The movement ends contentedly, wafting upward before the gentle final chords. The last movement begins with a despondent Adagio; the first violin launches into an operatic lament, supported by pizzicato cello and a trudging accompaniment from the inner instruments. After the tragic cavatina draws to a close, the mood shifts abruptly for a chipper Allegro that seems entirely untouched by the dark sentiments which pervaded the entire rest of the quintet. The skipping rondo melody recurs several times in the finale, alternating with episodes that maintain the bright mood.
As Johannes Brahms composed his String Quintet in G major, Opus 111 on vacation in the Austrian spa town of Bad Ischel in the summer of 1890, he fully intended for it to be his last chamber work. Upon submitting his final revision, he informed his publisher, “With this note you can take leave of my music, because it is high time to stop.” As it turned out, Brahms would write more chamber music after meeting clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld, who inspired Brahms’s clarinet trio (composed in 1891), clarinet quintet (also 1891), and two clarinet sonatas (1894). Even so, the composer’s second string quintet serves as a triumphant culmination of a substantial career, as the work encompasses the diverse musical styles that Brahms combined to create his idiosyncratic compositional voice. Like Mozart, Brahms opts to double the viola rather than the cello in his string quintets. The Allegro non troppo, ma con brio launches the quintet with vibrant oscillations in the violins and violas, accompanying a sweeping theme in the cello. Brahms originally intended this opening for a never-completed fifth symphony; even with reduced instrumentation, the opening maintains a broad, orchestral character. Elements of the opening theme seep into the other instrumental parts, fragmenting the melody and clearing the way for the second theme. This theme has a distinctly Viennese flavor as the violas play a waltz-like duet against an elegantly restrained accompaniment. As the violins take over the duet, the character becomes more distinctly “Brahmsian,” with complex rhythmic interplay and lush harmonies. The second violin settles into a gently lilting melody, which the first violin lifts higher to ethereal effect. The development section begins by extending this melody, but it hovers uncertainly before plunging into turmoil. Gestures from the opening of the movement are exaggerated, making an already-dramatic statement even more impassioned, but all is restored for the recapitulation when the cello reclaims the first theme. The coda hints at a sedate conclusion, but the movement has been too momentous to end quietly.
The Adagio presents a brief series of variations; the theme falls neatly into three sections: a mournful, folk-like melody introduced by the first viola, a graceful duet by the violins, and then a cadenza-like turn from the viola. With each variation, the components of the theme become more complex and rhapsodic, but the movement ends with the initial simplicity of the opening melody, this time played by the first violin. The third movement, Un poco allegretto, features a plaintive waltz with a sighing melody in the first violin. The contrasting middle section of the movement features a genial exchange between the violas and the violins, with the cello providing a rolling accompaniment. Though the somber waltz inevitably returns, the conclusion hints at the kinder aspects of the middle section. The finale, Vivace ma non troppo presto, delves into the “gypsy” style that Brahms employed so often in his career. It begins with conspiratorial rumblings in the violas and cello, but the addition of the violins cause it to erupt into a boisterous dance. Structurally, the movement is a rondo, with the initial tune recurring several times, but its character is heavily influenced by the csárdás, a Hungarian folk dance in duple meter. Like the csárdás, the movement ends in a much faster tempo than it begins, with a frenzied drive to the conclusion.