Quartet in D minor K.421

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (b. 1756 - d. 1791)
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Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (b. 1756 - d. 1791)

Performance date: 27/06/2023

Venue: Bantry House

Composition Year: 1783

Duration: 00:27:29

Recording Engineer: Tom Norton, RTÉ

Instrumentation: 2vn, va, vc

Instrumentation Category:String Quartet

Artists: Armida Quartet - [String Quartet]

Quartet in D minor K.421 [1783]

1. Allegro

2. Andante

3. Menuetto – Allegretto

4. Allegretto ma non troppo 

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. 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 so the two friends were making up the rules as they went along, with Mozart building on the foundations laid by the older composer. 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.

Constanze used to say that Mozart wrote this Quartet 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 is a school of thought that considers all Mozart’s D minor works speak 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 seizes the opportunity to create a wonderful palette of colours. The melodic contours, the descending bass and the expressive language even recall the Baroque era. After the exposition repeat there is a short but intense development full of rich, dark colours. Mozart asks for a repeat of the development and recapitulation, a request that modern performance tends to ignore. The movement ends firmly upbeat despite being in the minor.

The Andante is a sombre movement with its quietly elegiac theme and its curious hesitancies and sudden outcries. There is a short central section that briefly lightens the mood with its song. The minor key is held relentlessly in the severe and many-voiced Minuet. In dazzling contrast, the Trio provides a ray of sunshine, the first violin playing a popular folk melody over a pizzicato serenade-like accompaniment. The Finale is a set of four variations and coda on a plaintive theme in Siciliano rhythm. Early on we hear a rhythmic motif in triplets on a single note, which is to reappear as a leitmotiv in the third variation and more dramatically in the coda. The first variation sees the first violin part richly ornamented. The second has great sport with misplacing the accents, upsetting the rhythm to great effect. The third variation is given to the viola while the leitmotiv reasserts itself in the upper voices. The transformation of the theme in the final variation borders on the magical, revealing a transient beauty that is gradually swept away by the return of the leitmotiv in the coda, where it rises to a passionate fortissimo before leading the way to the closure.

Francis Humphrys