The myth of Mozart's
poverty in his last years has been accepted as gospel for so long that it is
difficult to dispel. How else to explain the legend of the pauper's grave, the
frantic begging letters to Michael Puchberg, the total failure of his last
series of subscription concerts and the many other signs of financial
insecurity. The answer is that Mozart would not have been out of sympathy with
many people of today, mortgaged to the hilt with maxed out overdraft and credit
cards, facilities he would have grasped with both hands. Like any self-employed
businessman, Mozart's income was irregular, apart from his small salary as
Imperial Court Composer (and even that was usually in arrears), while his costs
were painfully consistent so he was forced to bridge the gap by borrowing.
Mozart's income came from commissions, most especially his operas, his concert
performances, publications and teaching and these sources were more than
adequate for his family's needs, but demanded consistent application and
planning over and above his real work of composing and performing.
The two string
quintets, K.515 in C major and K.516 in G minor, date from April and May 1787.
It was a difficult time in his life, he was quite seriously ill with a
streptococcal infection that damaged his kidneys, he was moving house out to
the suburbs and his father was mortally ill and died at the end of May.
Coincidentally in the middle of this the sixteen-year-old Beethoven arrived in Vienna looking to study
under Mozart, but was forced to return home as his mother was dying. The
quintets were composed without a commission, but Mozart hoped to sell the
manuscripts by subscription, a vain hope as it turned out for no one
subscribed. In such a way did he come to write two works, whose absolute
perfection has inspired all who heard them.
The Allegro opens
with a wonderfully elegant theme with just a hint of the passion hidden beneath
the surface. The second subject has a
yearning quality, a reaching out, but still in the forbidding G minor. After the exposition repeat, we are launched
into developmental passages of emotional turmoil and complexity, which perhaps
justify the seeming exhaustion of the coda.
Not even the famous G minor Symphony can approach the passion of this
The tension is turned up by placing the Menuetto
second and staying in G minor, where even the Trio's move to G major fails to
provide more than a few moments of tranquillity. The Adagio is almost
overwhelmed by a sense of irredeemable loss but this is coupled with music of
such tender beauty that the sadness is almost washed away by its own
tears. The thin line between pathos and
sentimentality is trod with Mozart’s quicksilver assurance – he is no tragedian
seeking to batter our emotions into a response. The nearest he comes to that is
the extraordinary Adagio introduction to the last movement, where time suddenly
stops. The mournful but soaring theme is haunted by the relentless pizzicatos
of the five-note figure on the cello.
Whether everything is resolved by the lilting 6/8 dance of the Allegro
is far from clear, for we keep hearing a persistent echo of the second subject
from the first movement.