In 1781, Mozart did what many ambitious young musicians might do: he moved to the big city, in this case to Vienna, the cultural capital of German-speaking Europe. While the transition brought him many new experiences and opportunities, among his most treasured was contact with Franz Joseph Haydn, who was at the height of his career and twenty-four years Mozart’s senior. Just that year, Haydn’s set of six Op. 33 string quartets were fresh off the presses and generating buzz. The works changed what people thought two violins, a viola, and a cello were capable of.
Inspired, Mozart composed six quartets of his own, taking the older composer’s Op. 33 as an invitation to expand the genre in virtually every direction imaginable. On offer here is first of these “Haydn” Quartets, the affable and brilliant K. 387 in G Major. The work shows off everything that makes the string quartet shine as a genre: conviviality, dialogue-like exchange between performers, and extreme contrasts in mood and texture.
At the outset of the first movement, it feels as if the audience is plunged into a conversation among friends—notice the interchange of musical ideas between the first and second violin. A startling turn to a minor key marks the start of the development, but overall, the work is not in Mozart’s most dramatic mode. Instead, we are invited to a dinner party where all are welcome. The second movement, a playful minuet, shows the influence of Haydn in its quirky, off-kilter accents and misplaced downbeats. At its center is a jagged trio in G minor that opens with the ensemble scolding in stern unison octaves that contrast with a pleading, yearning phrase in response.
The third movement is a spacious aria for the entire ensemble. It shows true chamber music thinking at its best: the players must move as one, seamlessly trading motives and bits of melody back and forth. Finally, the fourth movement takes us by surprise in its inventiveness and a completely changed texture. It is densely contrapuntal and vertiginously fast. As elsewhere in this quartet, things change like quicksilver, keeping us—and the players—on our toes.
A note of caution: if you can help it, hold your applause at the end. The piece might not be over when you think it is!