Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
“Unfinished” is the state of being alive. We are still here, but so much still to do. Will we complete our life’s work, the day’s chores, the next 5 minutes? As yet, we don’t know how it will all end.
One of my favorite pieces for string quartet by Mozart is “unfinished.” I like to think of him intently composing, staring at the page, and midway through, his wife Constanza beckons from the next room, Mozart turns, stands up, walks away from his desk, and never returns to this piece again. It is really polished, complex, beautiful, quintessential Mozart, completely formed in his head and flowing out onto paper. But it stops, mid-piece, unfinished forever.
What is REALLY interesting to me is that the piece ends at the moment of greatest “crisis” in the musical development. This is a rondo with a recurring “verse” and Mozart ends the piece at the “point of furthest remove” from the verse (he never returns): he has ventured FAR AWAY from home, and things are dark, unresolved, literally at a point of twisted anguish. And it ends. This is an exquisite object lesson on so many levels, but, more crucially, you can really HEAR it in the music. It leaves you TOTALLY HANGING.
The beloved Emerson Quartet recorded this unfinished piece along with the set of 6 complete string quartets Mozart composed out of love for his mentor and friend Haydn. They are Mozart’s best quartets forever known as the “Haydn” quartets. This fragment was a POSSIBLE finale for one of the these quartets, K. 464 in A major. Why was such a wonderful, promising, rondo, while still incomplete, not worth finishing? Surely Mozart didn’t just forget about it. Did he not like it? Did he paint himself into a corner? The unattributed writer of the Emerson CD liner notes posits an explanation:
“Originally Mozart had planned a 6/8 gigue-like [jig-like] finale, which would have continued the [dance] suite-like orientation of the first three movements; but this would meant duplicated the character of K. 458’s finale. Mozart settles on an “anti-dance” in alla breve [2/2, solemn, contrapuntal, learned] approaching a high style.”
Nonetheless, when I listen, I feel that I am in Mozart’s mind, realtime, channelling him as it were. A discarded musical swatch by Mozart is still worth every note. As the dear Michael Steinberg would sometimes say, “he needs us now more than ever to hear him.”
Mozart died when he was 35. One can’t help but think a life “unfinished.” This “fragment” resonates with that fact and so it means that much more to me. And yet, the music Mozart DID finish in his brief life has literally changed the world. Unfinished pieces are sometimes the most beautiful of all: they are unimpeachably genuine, and they reflect the true, fragmentary nature of our lives. In the raw, in the flesh, real.
P.s. I woke up this morning to write my 200th program note and I hoped for it to be personal, spontaneous, something I really wanted, and needed to say, for myself. It just came out of no where. I have FINISHED my 200th program note. Thank you Mozart for helping me complete a task that has been in my head and heart for years. It is my way of adding a little “finish” to your own supreme art.