Mid-February – a beautiful spring day is about to end. Yes, I know, it is still cold in the morning and the sun has not yet much strength. But spring is coming – I smell it, I hear it, I feel it and I can sing it too. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote a wonderful piece that may accompany you during an exploration tour through nature looking for the first green tips, the first blossoms, the first signs of renewed life: the String Quintet in G minor, KV 516, performed by the Chamber music ensemble of Paris.
Mozart wrote this piece in four movements in April/May 1788 and scored it for two violins, two viola and a cello. The quintet had become fashionable in Vienna. Publishers were printing Luigi Boccherini’s concertante quintets featuring two cellos, Joseph Pleyel had published a first piece of that kind in 1875 and Wolfgang jumped on that train. He sensed a way to make money quickly and he was desperately in need of money during the summer of 1788.
In a letter to his friend Johann Michael Puchberg he confessed: “I don’t even have the heart to appear before you as I’m obliged to admit quite candidly that I can’t possibly pay you back the money you lent me as soon as I’d intended and I must ask you to be patient with me […] My position is such that I’m absolutely forced to raise some money. […] If you, my most worthy brother, don’t help me in my present situation, I shall lose my honour and my credit, which is the one thing I’d like to keep.” Pleading, begging, and no clear idea how to come to grips with the situation. At the same time he moved to a larger house, more expensive than the previous one.
Mozart quickly finished the scores of both a quintet in C major (KV 515) and the one in G minor and tried to sell copies of the score through repeated classified ads in the Wiener Zeitung and Journal des Luxus und der Moden, the 18th century version of “Vanity Fair”, published in Weimar. Puchberg, a cloth dealer and fellow member of Mozart’s Masonic lodge, would have been the beneficiary of the money, but nobody showed up to buy the music. Mozart decided to postpone the publication of the work to 1789. His hopes for subscriptions concerts remained unfulfilled to that summer.
Succeeding where Haydn failed
But however desperate Mozart’s financial situation was, it didn’t prevent him to write a masterwork that stands out for couple of reasons. He fully exploits the richness of five voices and the possible combinations. In the third and fourth movement, a first adagio is followed by a second one and confers an impression of time slowing down, stretching to infinity, the second adagio actually being a kind of introduction to the real finale – Mozart wrote de facto a piece in five movements.
Adding a second viola was a major step – Joseph Haydn had failed in this endeavour, he said he “could not find the fifth voice” – and Mozart produced a composition where joy and sadness, playful lightness and bittersweetness are held in a delicate balance. The music strongly appeals to the listener’s senses, says the German musicologist Martin Geck, and Mozart shows the way that Ludwig van Beethoven and Franz Schubert would later take in the field of chamber music.
© Charles Thibo