Program Notes: Mozart’s String Quintet No.4

by Jack Bryce

board member and
Carleton College
professor emeritus

Watch this live 1966 recording of London's Amadeus Quartet:

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Jim Jacobson, cello, commenting on a challenging Webern piece from last season.

Jim Jacobson, cello, commenting on a challenging Webern piece from last season.

The String Quintet number 4 in g minor, K. 516 (1787) is one of a pair of string quintets which offer an intriguing contrast. Number 3, K. 515 in C major (also 1877), is as sunny and bright as tonight’s #4 is brooding and dark. (This puts one in mind of his last two symphonies, #40 and #41 in g minor and C major, K. 550 and 551, written in the following year.) The first, Allegro movement of K. 516, all in g minor, is elegant and deft, but thoroughly sad. The second movement, Menuetto: Allegretto, has been called a minuet in name only, as its grim g minor theme, with very heavy chords on the third beat, seems anything but danceable. The central trio, a bright G major, brings temporary relief, but still strikes me as awfully sad. The third movement, Adagio ma non troppo, though in Eb major, is the saddest yet. That master of sorrowful music, Tschaikovsky, said “No one has ever known as well how to interpret so exquisitely in music the sense of resigned and inconsolable sorrow.” One almost wonders how we can continue to follow Mozart in this direst of moods as the fourth movement begins in Adagio; but the mood seems to shift, and then all of a sudden we are launched into a most cheerful G major Allegro in 6/8, as sunny as one can imagine, with plenty of repeats just so we can catch the last lovely bit yet again. To my ears there is a wistful quality even to much of this last movement, but there’s no doubt it’s a stunning contrast to what has gone before. Critics have often questioned it, in fact; but late Mozart is simply magic, and by now I’m ready to follow the Master wherever he leads.

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