Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus: K. 516, String Quintet in G minor

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART”s ‘Grand Tours’ as a young prodigy were no doubt full of truly astonishing musical feats, but they also had an element of carnival about them. This is not to say that they ought not to have occurred, or that Wolfgang’s father Leopold was a bad man for putting them on, but historical myths of heavenly perfection in Mozart’s music have somewhat obscured the ambiguities of what must have actually taken place.

The young Mozart was asked to perform many feats of virtuosity and ingenuity. One anecdote has him improvising according to the affective demands of an aristocrat, playing happily, then sadly, and so on. There is nothing especially outlandish about this request relative to any other (playing with a cloth on the keyboard, improvising in all keys, etc.). And the task may have even been useful, in an everyday sort of way: Pete Sampras describes a drill in which his coach would call the placement of a serve after the toss was up, so his serve would become more difficult to read. For a young composer, flipping instantly between affects might be just as curious and useful an exercise, from a purely professional point of view.

But four out of five dentists would agree that emotions are not tennis balls. (Nor is there any good analogy between ‘out-wide/up-the-middle’ and ‘happy/sad’. ‘In/Out’ is closer, but ‘out’ is rarely intentional, so it doesn’t really fit the mold here.) It is very difficult to imagine that improvising in this way would not stir in Mozart – even if only faintly – the shadow of the emotions which were supposed to be stirred in his audience. The question of ‘exactly-whose-emotions-are-these-anyway?’ is one of music’s permanent conundrums, and there is something uncomfortable about these affects being artificially stirred in the young composer according to the whims of a slack-jawed gawker.

It is only an anecdote, of course, and not a calamity in any case. There may be something in it, however, which is useful for considering the unusually personal atmosphere of Mozart’s Viola Quintet in G minor, K. 516. By 1787, Mozart’s mastery of composition was beyond absolute. The musical nuances of his operatic characters could be so subtle, complex, and human as to defy legitimate explanation. But whereas the operas were fictional, and their author could treat their music as belonging to its characters and reflecting their moods, the music of the G Minor Viola Quintet seems to belong to Mozart. This difference is not simply due to the instrumental nature of the work: the E-Flat Piano Quartet, for example (see concert of Sept. 26), has a far more open and theatrical mood. In the G Minor Viola Quintet, the lightning shifts in mood from moment to moment seem not to reflect the characters of discrete individuals in a drama. They seem instead to reflect the shifting moods of an individual: wide-ranging, deeply felt, and touched with something like anguish.

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