Mozart, String Quartet in D Major, K. 499, “Hoffmeister”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1756-1791

String Quartet in D Major, K. 499, “Hoffmeister”, 1786

Franz Anton HoffmeisterThough Haydn got a good head start on the game, Mozart’s string quartets seem to eventually interleave with Haydn’s later works as both Viennese composers evolved the classical string quartet together in a kind of interactive dialog. Historical reception has helped us by winnowing a bit of the wheat from the chaff to focus on the highlights. In Mozart’s case, we tend to ignore the dozen or so early quartets focusing on the “Famous Ten” in a sequence beginning after Mozart’s move to Vienna and his discovery of both Bach and Haydn’s latest creations. First, there are Mozart’s magnificent and meaty six quartets dedicated to Haydn, and, last, some years later, the three so-called “Prussian” quartets of a special “late”, delicate and refined character. And in between, a singleton, a lone “one-off”, bearing the nickname “Hoffmeister.”

Franz Anton Hoffmeister was a friend, colleague, benefactor and he was also a composer and a very successful music publisher. Mozart had previously sent his two landmark piano quartets to Hoffmeister for publication, but after the first (in G Minor) sold poorly (it was considered too difficult), Hoffmeister declined on the second. The lone Mozart string quartet bearing Hoffmeister’s name may have been by commission, Mozart settling a debt, or possibly making a quick buck on another project in a time of need (as he did with the Prussian quartets). The context is blurry, but the music is not. It is truly one of Mozart’s finest, and, due to its relative rarity shadowed by the other “sets”, it is quite special. It really does stand in its own world.

Composed a year or so after the last of the “Haydns”, this four-movement quartet literally seems to blend the contrapuntal glories of its predecessors while incorporating a suave, ornamented delicacy characteristic of its successors. The opening movement begins, moderato, with a light, introductory gesture that becomes a core motif saturating a turbulent arc of development where the Rococo grows sinews and the galant grows more gave. A seeming wealth of themes or just fluid expressive gestures tells a sonata story full of sharp dramatic contrasts and a deepening of plot. The musicologist Alfred Einstein described this quartet as “despairing under a mask of gaiety.” A sense of refinement and intensity pervades the elegant Menuetto as a sweeping dance gives over to a worried trio that ends just a beat shy, the happy minuet almost nervously interrupting and, throughout, some of Mozart finest counterpoint, dense but naturally expressive. A slow movement, lyrical, almost more choral and singing with the combined ensemble offers repose, yet again, with a duality of sweet and sober. The finale is high art contrasting wisps of delicate wit with a dense welter of tangled polyphony. A lilting, recurrent refrain maintains the hijinks of a classical rondo while a changing themes, harmonies and a tendency towards a swirling imbroglio of counterpoint deepens towards a sonata dialectic. This is exquisite Mozart “light and dark” with clear pointers to Beethoven and Mendelssohn as he races through such elegant, serious play.

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