Thoughts on Mozart's Remarkable String Quintet in G minor, K. 516

As part of an ongoing musical exchange, I was assigned the late String Quintets of Mozart to explore, with the goal of picking a "favorite" and discussing it.  Here is the result...

First, I have to say I’ve really enjoyed this project.  But, I have to emphasize that I feel out-of-my-depth here a bit, both stylistically and ensemble-wise.  I like to think I am an avid lover of chamber music, and that I listen to a lot of string quartets, piano trios, etc., and know most of the big works in each genre, but again, it’s not really true.  It’s just the things I love I’ve listened to ad nauseam… So, approaching this, you’ll have to excuse my many thick-headed lapses of observation—obviously this isn’t music I’ve known very long, and there are probably issues that anyone who’s a true avid listener of chamber music of this sort would consider more wisely than I…

Of all the Quintets I listened intently to each one, and came to know K174, K406, K515, K614, and K516 pretty well—I think I could pick out what was what and maybe individual movements (haha).  K593 I still don’t know as well as the others.  But, individual highlights here were: the beautiful expanding chorale texture of K593 in the opening of its Adagio movement.  Perhaps it’s again simply a kind of selfish comfort that made this stand out for me--this moment is so typical of textures in Dvořák’s String Quartets’ slow movements.  And, in fact, (this you may find interesting) I was reminded of a melodic contour which is, unaccountably, identical to the one seen here in the first violin: String Quartet No. 10 in E-Flat Major, Op. 51, the 3rd Romance movement (16:31 in the recording).

Anywho.  I’ve read some interesting things about Mozart’s String Quintet K 516.  It seems, most importantly, that both of these works (K 515 and 516) are considered by many to be the high point of his music for chamber ensembles.  At the same time this inherited criticism looks a bit related to the attitude toward late Schumann.  But, many had to take these two quintets especially into consideration—Schubert is one I’ve read mentioned in this way.  Every composer uses a particular instrumentation to make up the string quintet—Schubert of course uses an extra cello, and this was perhaps, at least in part, to avoid comparisons with Mozart (I got this from Martin Chusid’s article on Schubert’s chamber music).  He also models many things about his monumental C major Quintet—by the way, was it Arthur Rubinstein who said he wanted to listen to this as he was dying?—on Mozart’s 515.  The opening theme of the first movement is similar to that of the same theme in Mozart, and the last movement is a perfect formal re-working of Mozart’s example.

But, I’m sort of dancing around the bush.  K516 goes hand-in-hand with 515, so much so that one author seems to find them illustrative of “the two sides of Mozart the artist” (from Talich quartet’s recording liner notes by Jean-Luc Macia).  This particular author finds the G minor Quintet, whose key is apparently symbolic for Mozart as one of tragedy and death, a work which is tainted with an event in Mozart’s life: his father’s death.  In another article I read from an Italian music publication (Mozart and the Grief Process – Interpreting the String Quintet in G Minor K. 516 by Uri Rom) I find this literal translation of psychological states to each movement:

<Numbness (shock, denial, flight into hectic activity)
Searching and yearning (anger, pain, anxiety, ‘pangs’ of grief)
Depression (withdrawal, disorganization)
Recovery (acceptance, reorganization)>

I don’t know how possible or not this might be, but I always find these things interesting—that, is, how people love attributing certain things in life to what happens in the music.  The few times I’ve looked into it more, it’s always more complex than these simplifications, but at least it’s something to get the conversation started. 


Recording (Grumiaux Trio + 2)

I. This movement is striking immediately for its opening chromaticism—the first few times I listened to it it kind of stuck in my craw.  I don’t just mean the first four bars, but moments like mm. 19-23; it’s difficult to prepare your ears for something this I-don’t-care-what-you-expect audacious.  Perhaps audacious isn’t the word, but it strikes me as unusually disorienting and a bit Mozart having some fun at my expense…  I can’t help but associate the ear-catching rhythmically “skipping” figure first seen in m. 44 as related to the motive in that earlier K406 stormy C minor Quintet.  Important?  Interesting.  No clue.  HA.  But this particular cell is worked out in other spots, interestingly.  The development here I find strangely moving—it’s almost Beethovenian in procedure, but on an intimate plane.  I find this in the fragmentation of the melodic cells (the exposition’s 1st theme from m. 97, 2nd theme in m. 107), but more perhaps in the way the second theme is developed imitatively—this inevitably emphasizes its very expressive upward 6th in each voice.  The second thing I find unexpectedly moving about this movement is its key correction (I forget the technical word for this) in the recapitulation occurring at mm. 145-156—I know pinpointing this moment as a highlight might seem a bit obvious; of course it’s always the case that at this moment in the recapitulation the composer must make some adjustments to set up an inevitable move back to the tonic, and then you just… hear… that… it’s different.  But the way Mozart realizes this seems, to my ears, somehow almost an internal fissure in how expressive he lets it be.  The circle of fifths is also almost a catharsis—there are so many moments in Mozart (and in Bach) where you stumble upon a circle of fifths which is an oasis of relief, and here I find the harmonic cycling to be an outlet of expression/emotion.

II. I find this remarkable.  Perhaps mostly for these shocking 13-tone outbursts in m. 4 and 6, and again on increasingly upsetting diminished 7th harmonies in m. 29, 31, and 33.  These five forte double-stopped chords are incredible—this seems to me like something Beethoven would do, but when you hear them here it’s almost a shock.  There is an undercurrent of anger which is so strong it interrupts the dance (and corresponds to a “pang of grief” from Rom’s article). I’m not sure what the narrative is here—one can think of many things… In one of the articles I read (which I will quote on the third movement) I discovered many find this pair of quintets (515 and 516) to be remarkable in their demonstration of Mozart as a composer who often explores the possibilities in texture/sound as an independent entity.  This is one of those literal moments—you go from one tone to 13 and from p to f in one beat.  Also, again the chromatic decay is surprisingly slippery in a place like mm. 14-17.  

III. For this, I will cite this incredibly eloquent and articulate bit of writing (simply because it captures so much about this beautiful movement—from Cliff Eisen’s article Mozart’s Chamber Music): “the two string quintets of 1787, K. 515 and K. 516, offer numerous instances where textural interest threatens to overpower both harmony and form, none more telling than the Adagio ma on troppo of the G minor quintet.  The variety of textures in the first dozen bars alone is almost overwhelming: block chords in bars 1-2, melody and accompaniment in bars 3-4, and then, in bars 5-8, a sudden dissolution of the ensemble, mere snatches of material increasingly separated from each other (the first violin’s figure rises, the cello’s descends), followed by a reconstitution of the middle as the second violin and the violas enter in succession (bar 6) and a fully voiced but deceptive cadence at bar 9 (which is then repeated but leading to a perfect cadence).  As if the textural variety, rests, awkward intervals, disjunctions and isolation of single voices were not enough: the succession of sforzandi (followed by piani) is completely static, a moment of stillness punctuated only by a succession of exploding mini-supernovas outlining the prevailing harmony.  It is a unique moment among Mozart’s works, profoundly captivating for its sheer beauty and its preoccupation not with harmony or melody or rhythm but merely with sound.”

That description of the opening just about makes me tear up (HA)—it seems almost a world is contained in this excerpt of music.  It makes me think of so many things—one of them, in the first bar alone, is the melody (and the first bit of harmonization), which corresponds perfectly to the theme of the Geistervariationen of Schumann (and, by the way, a snatch of theme in the 2nd movement of his Violin Concerto).  I think my own associations tied up with these works inevitably color my impressions of Mozart, which is stupid because I know Mozart came first… one other thing I noticed—very un-profoundly (!)—is the way Mozart is able to show two different sides of the same thing with incredible subtlety.  The simple descending scale of the middle section (mm. 18-19 in the first violin) is then repeated in mm. 27-28, but with a few minor changes (key, melodic repeated notes, nominal intervallic alteration, a rhythmically syncopated accompaniment) its character is completely different.  Beautiful stuff.

IV. I’m starting to run out of steam, but I will just repeat something everyone else has noticed—the sheer length of this Adagio introduction (38 measures), which at least one person I read felt could almost constitute another movement.  Here you have to find a hinting at expansion of form (Romantic composers will take the hint literally and break works into five movements).  I don’t honestly have much to say—I find something similar as to Schubert’s D960 Sonata which I think I ought to discuss in more detail at some point.  I still, still, still (to my deepening shame) can’t quite reconcile the stark, profoundly troubling and intimate confessions of the first movement, and the spiritually miraculous gentleness of the second movement, with the third and fourth movements.  I had this problem with Beethoven’s Op. 10, No. 3 too.  I would like to sink my teeth into 960 at one point, with the uncertain hope that it might become clearer… but the emotional rawness which I find in the first three movements of 516 don’t seem completely absolved by the time you get to the 6/8 Allegro Rondo at m. 39.  I noticed in Grove the later chamber works (614 included) are sometimes dismissed or considered difficult because of their puzzling emotional profiles—for this reason some find one or another work to be ironic.  I could certainly see that here (Uri Rom of the Grief article suggests this).  And I'm possible/probably way off, but I can't help but wonder if it’s not an entirely appropriate thing to do in this Classical aesthetic, letting a tragic work end tragically, or doing even worse—letting a heroic work end tragically (?).

Anyway, my thoughts on a beautiful piece of music …