The early spring of 1787 was a busy time for Mozart. He was working on a commission for his new opera, Don Giovanni, his father was slowly dying in Salzburg, Mozart himself was not well, he moved house, the young Beethoven arrived on his doorstep looking for instruction and he wrote the two miraculous quintets in C major and G minor back to back. Historians have interpreted the house moving in two diametrically opposed ways. He moved from his elegant but very expensive city centre apartment to a spacious house with a large garden in a quiet suburb. Some Mozart scholars follow Leopold Mozart in immediately assuming the worst, namely that Mozart had been overspending and needed to retrench by moving to less expensive lodgings. Others have argued persuasively that Mozart no longer needed the large city centre apartment that he took on at the height of the success of his subscription concerts when he needed space for his assistants and copyists who helped keep the music flowing for the torrent of concerts. Instead a quiet district and a large garden may have seemed attractive with a young child, another on the way and his own indifferent health. Whatever the answer the majestic, outgoing C major Quintet was written in the old apartment and the tragic, inward-looking G minor Quintet was the first product in the new house.
Music making in Vienna had changed since the height of Mozart’s fame as a pianist and composer a few years earlier. The threat of the Turkish War and the Emperor’s fiscal reforms had reduced the desire and the ability of the aristocracy to spend lavishly on orchestral concerts. Instead there was a growing bourgeoisie who liked to ape the aristocracy by promoting chamber music soirées and were prepared to pay both musicians and composer. Unfortunately Mozart’s chamber music had become increasingly complex for this kind of audience and, hard though it is to believe, there were no subscribers for the set of three quintets in C major, G minor and C minor.
There is something indescribably joyful about the effortless mastery and bewitching beauty of this quintet. The opening cello theme and the violin’s deft answer create a sense of serene spaciousness, as though an entire world existed inside those phrases. This is immediately turned upside down as the cello intriguingly becomes the answer instead of the question. The second group opens into a web of bewitching patterns that leads out to a gently murmuring figure which echoes the opening of Figaro’s overture, though without the bustle.
The Andante is one of Mozart’s sublime rhapsodies, an inspired dialogue between first violin and first viola. The other strings act as a discreet accompaniment, so openly spaced as to enhance the passages where they blend with the two leaders into the richness of the full quintet. In contrast the minuet is much more inward looking and darkly questioning as though suddenly uncertain of its direction. The trio, however, unveils sudden bursts of confidence and the craftsmanship throughout is so exquisite that no listener can remain unmoved. By darkening the minuet movement Mozart redoubles the effect of the buoyancy of the final sonata-rondo. This is one of those movements you wish would go on for ever and, indeed, Mozart must have known this as this is the longest single instrumental movement he ever wrote. He treats the enchanted opening melody with incredible diversity and brilliance at each of its returns. There is a mid-movement imitative episode, whose profound simplicities prefigure the inspired naïvety of The Magic Flute. This is music that restores one faith in the world, perhaps music to heal the broken-hearted.