Mozart was perky because he was a keen observer. With deft virtuosity, he threw the notes onto the paper – always with surprises. He knew life and: He knew how to make the complicated seem simple.
In the 36 years of his life he wrote chamber music for more than 30 years, over a period of 20 years his quartets. They reveal an impressive arc of development: from the early works, which one might hardly call such, through the middle phase to the ten late master quartets. Of course, towards the end of his life Mozart composed differently, more densely, more maturely. But, conversely, does that speak against the importance of his early quartets?
It is a bit like with his symphonies: The late works are regarded as undisputed highlights, the early ones are often underestimated because they are classified as juvenilia. A reckless fallacy.
If you look at Mozart’s first quartets, you can see what makes him tick. His mind is always haunted by the opera. His music lives on imaginary figures that represent the plump life in different facets: the gaiety of youth, exuberance, jubilation. In contrast, lyrical devotion or tender melancholy lurks. There is also deep brooding, even sadness.
Mozart composes his quartets at a historical crossroads. Musical life gradually detaches itself from the framework of spiritual or political occasions. The second half of the 18th century represents a change, away from the purely aristocratic-feudal to the bourgeois. Music increasingly moves from the courts of the nobility to a domestic setting. There, especially the string quartet finds an ideal breeding ground. No one recognized this as much as Joseph Haydn, who irrevocably anchored the genre in the repertoire. And Mozart is a direct contemporary witness. But unlike Haydn, Mozart is more often inspired to his works by concrete external circumstances, by personal motives. While he writes his symphonies and piano concertos for a larger, but also more anonymous audience, the quartets are written for a comparatively small group of connoisseurs. Mozart does not always conjure up this music exuberantly out of a hat. Especially in the six quartets dedicated to Joseph Haydn, he meticulously assures himself of his models, which also include Johann Sebastian Bach.
Mozart composed his quartets either in close succession while traveling – as in the case of six Italian works (“Milan Quartets”) between October 1772 and May 1773 – or immediately after a trip – as in the late “Prussian Quartets” from the spring of 1789. Or he deliberately takes his time, as in the case of the six “Haydn Quartets,” which were written over a period of more than two years beginning in December 1782.
Perhaps the best PR action that Mozart involuntarily experienced took place following the performance of three quartets in January 1785. It is not entirely clear who had a hand in this. What is certain, however, is that Joseph Haydn subsequently spoke to Mozart’s father the sentence that will cement Mozart’s fame like a monument: “I tell you before God, as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer I know in person and name: he has taste, and above that, the greatest compositional knowledge. If one wants to get a closer look at this synthesis of “taste” and “compositional science” in Mozart, one should definitely approach his string quartets, ideally in direct comparison with works by his contemporaries.