1787: Mozart: String Viola Quintet No. 4 in G minor

TUESDAY, June 23, 2020

I’m obviously not a string player…

I started on this on Saturday, February 29, 2020. My ignorance of stringed instruments is somewhere between huge and infinite. I spent years playing and teaching brass, and I’ve also spent a lot of time working with woodwinds. I know something about how the work because there are big similarities. But strings? They are these alien instruments, and I don’t understand anything about them.

For me string players have to be incredibly good or I can’t listen…

When listening I always gravitate towards symphonic music because of the immense tone color, variation in sound, huge dramatic range, and so on. Strings are just not my thing. That means that I am horribly critical of string players. It they are not really great, and not playing music that interests me hugely, I just tune out.

Not everything Mozart wrote is great…

I also have a love-hate relationship with Mozart. I acknowledge him as one of a couple composers with such immense talents that just thinking about what he could already do as a young teenager is frightening. But along with his immense talent he also had the ability to write music that often feels to me empty, as if he could do anything and yet at times just “phoned it in”. Not everything he wrote was profound or incredibly original. Not by a long shot.

But when he was good, he was really good!

This does not change the fact that on his best days, when he was fully engaged and inspired, he was able to write music of such originality that it is mind-blowing. Apparently he reserved minor keys for serious moods, and the key of G minor had a special significance for him.

String quartets…

By the time of Mozart string quartets achieved a popularity that made their playing incredibly common. It gave professional musicians and amateur musicians an opportunity to play together in a way that was both artistic and social, so great music was written for four strings players. The form was for cello, viola and two violins.

A 5th wheel?

Deviating from this form was not too common. I don’t know enough to speak knowledgeably about how of this happened, but I believe string quintets were always a bit unusual. In fact, exactly what the 5th instrument is in any quintet does not seem to have been set in stone., and it is not always a stringed instrument. It can be a 2nd viola, a 2nd cello or even a double bass. There are cello quintets, and viola quintets. The extra instrument gives the name.

Mozart viola quintet in C minor, age 31…

Here is an example of a “viola quintet”, and it’s one of those compositions by Mozart that was very obviously among his best and most serious efforts. He used his very personal and tragic key, G minor, and for me this is an absolute home run. He eventually gets to major in the last, final movement, but he stays in minor for so long that it is highly unusual, and obviously a personal statement.

A favorite of Tchaikovsky..

K. 516 indicates that it was written quite late in his tragically short life, so in my mind this work is in all ways a standout and well worth listening to. When a genius composer cherishes something by another, earlier genius composer, you know it is very special.

I think this piece is a very good introduction to string music. It caught my attention nearly four months ago and was in my queue of “things to listen to over and over again”.

2 thoughts on “1787: Mozart: String Viola Quintet No. 4 in G minor

  1. I really liked this. I wasn’t quite sure what “viola quintet” really means, since there are other instruments besides viola so I looked it up. Apparently as soon as there are two violas, that’s what it’s called. I also discovered that Mozart played viola, and loved the instrument. (Two things I didn’t know before).

  2. I don’t play strings but I still maintain that if you want to hear the composer’s most intimate thoughts, you listen to their small works, for solo, trio, quartets, etc.

    Wolfie definitely didn’t phone this one in. This isn’t polite music for background joy during some rich person’s party.

    This one seems to come from the heart. I don’t think I had ever ran across this one, thank you for posting it.

    And always, even if it’s serious and in minor key, there’s the giggle and the wink.. incorrigible, he was!

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