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Quartet in D minor K.421

Wolfgang Mozart (b. 1756 - d. 1791)

Danish String Quartet (photo credit: Caroline Bittencourt)

Danish String Quartet (photo credit: Caroline Bittencourt)

Composer
Wolfgang Mozart (b. 1756 - d. 1791)
Composition Year
1783
Work Movements
1. Allegro
2. Andante
3. Menuetto - Allegretto
4. Allegretto ma non troppo
Artists
Danish Quartet (Frederik Øland, Rune Sorensen [violins], Asbjørn Nørgaard [viola], Fredrik Sjölin [cello])

Programme Note Writer:
© Francis Humphrys

This dark-coloured, multi-faceted quartet is the second of the six quartets that Mozart dedicated to Haydn, famously describing them as his children and the fruit of long and laborious efforts. Mozart had never said this about any of his other works. We cannot hear the effort involved but the intensity and concentration of the process of composition can be seen on the manuscript scores, nowhere else does Mozart make so many corrections, strewn above crossed-out tempi and dynamic markings.

These quartets that Mozart worked on so hard over a three year period were his response to Haydn's recent publication of his so-called Russian Quartets (Op.33). The development of the string quartet was still in its infancy - Haydn's first quartets date from the late 1750s - so the two friends were making up the rules as they went along, with Mozart building on the foundations laid by the older composer. Both of them followed the convention of the time by publishing their quartets in sets of six, but their individual situations were very different. Haydn was employed as Kapellmeister by Prince Esterházy in charge of a hand-picked orchestra, whose leading string players made up a quartet so he did not have to struggle to sell his works. Mozart, however, was a freelance composer and was dependent on commissions and on selling his music to publishers. He also had to be both a promoter and performer of his own works, most notably the piano concertos. The quartets he dedicated to Haydn were not commissions and were almost certainly composed for his own artistic fulfilment and to gain the respect of Haydn, but economic necessity may have played a part in dragging out the composition process. This was a time when quartets were almost entirely for domestic performance by amateur players. Mozart would regularly host chamber music evenings at his house and his friends, including Haydn and other Viennese composers like Dittersdorf, would join him to play their quartets - Haydn would play first fiddle and Mozart the viola, an event a musical time-traveller would dearly like to witness.

The D minor quartet is the second in the sequence and Constanze used to say that Mozart wrote it while she was in labour with their first child. She even claimed her cries were scored in the great outburst in the second movement. There used to be a romantic school of thought that considered all Mozart's D minor works spoke of darkness and tragedy and that the tragic demeanour of the music reflected some terrible event in the composer's life, which is hardly the case with this work. Much more likely an explanation for the presence of the minor key was the convention that one work in a set of six should be in the appropriate minor key and Mozart undoubtedly seized the opportunity to show how he could make a quartet sound as tragic as one of his operatic heroines.

We all know that Mozart had a difficult life. He was the first composer to try to make a living without a proper salaried post. This was long before copyright existed so there was no question of royalties, so he could see his operas being produced all over Europe and not make a penny from them. On top of that he was a free spender when the money was flowing, so he had to keep working almost without a break. This took a serious toll on his health and like Schubert and Mendelssohn he worked himself into an early grave. So there is little doubt that Mozart's own experience of life's vicissitudes added emotional depth to his evocation of the dark world of the minor key.  

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Quartet in D minor K.421

Composer: Wolfgang Mozart (b. 1756 - d. 1791)
Performance date: Sunday 27th June 2010
Venue: St. Brendan's Church, Bantry, Co Cork, Ireland

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Composer Wolfgang Mozart (b. 1756 - d. 1791)
Work Title Quartet in D minor K.421
Composition Year 1783
Work Movements 1. Allegro
2. Andante
3. Menuetto - Allegretto
4. Allegretto ma non troppo
Artist(s) Danish Quartet (Frederik Øland, Rune Sorensen [violins], Asbjørn Nørgaard [viola], Fredrik Sjölin [cello])
Performance Date Sunday 27th June 2010
Performance Venue St. Brendan's Church, Bantry, Co Cork, Ireland
Event Coffee Concert
Duration 00:27:25
Recording Engineer Anton Timoney, RTÉ lyric fm
Instrumentation Category String Quartet
Instrumentation 2vn, va, vc
Programme Note Writer © Francis Humphrys

This dark-coloured, multi-faceted quartet is the second of the six quartets that Mozart dedicated to Haydn, famously describing them as his children and the fruit of long and laborious efforts. Mozart had never said this about any of his other works. We cannot hear the effort involved but the intensity and concentration of the process of composition can be seen on the manuscript scores, nowhere else does Mozart make so many corrections, strewn above crossed-out tempi and dynamic markings.

These quartets that Mozart worked on so hard over a three year period were his response to Haydn's recent publication of his so-called Russian Quartets (Op.33). The development of the string quartet was still in its infancy - Haydn's first quartets date from the late 1750s - so the two friends were making up the rules as they went along, with Mozart building on the foundations laid by the older composer. Both of them followed the convention of the time by publishing their quartets in sets of six, but their individual situations were very different. Haydn was employed as Kapellmeister by Prince Esterházy in charge of a hand-picked orchestra, whose leading string players made up a quartet so he did not have to struggle to sell his works. Mozart, however, was a freelance composer and was dependent on commissions and on selling his music to publishers. He also had to be both a promoter and performer of his own works, most notably the piano concertos. The quartets he dedicated to Haydn were not commissions and were almost certainly composed for his own artistic fulfilment and to gain the respect of Haydn, but economic necessity may have played a part in dragging out the composition process. This was a time when quartets were almost entirely for domestic performance by amateur players. Mozart would regularly host chamber music evenings at his house and his friends, including Haydn and other Viennese composers like Dittersdorf, would join him to play their quartets - Haydn would play first fiddle and Mozart the viola, an event a musical time-traveller would dearly like to witness.

The D minor quartet is the second in the sequence and Constanze used to say that Mozart wrote it while she was in labour with their first child. She even claimed her cries were scored in the great outburst in the second movement. There used to be a romantic school of thought that considered all Mozart's D minor works spoke of darkness and tragedy and that the tragic demeanour of the music reflected some terrible event in the composer's life, which is hardly the case with this work. Much more likely an explanation for the presence of the minor key was the convention that one work in a set of six should be in the appropriate minor key and Mozart undoubtedly seized the opportunity to show how he could make a quartet sound as tragic as one of his operatic heroines.

We all know that Mozart had a difficult life. He was the first composer to try to make a living without a proper salaried post. This was long before copyright existed so there was no question of royalties, so he could see his operas being produced all over Europe and not make a penny from them. On top of that he was a free spender when the money was flowing, so he had to keep working almost without a break. This took a serious toll on his health and like Schubert and Mendelssohn he worked himself into an early grave. So there is little doubt that Mozart's own experience of life's vicissitudes added emotional depth to his evocation of the dark world of the minor key.