June 1789. In the Russo-Austrian Turkish War, which last year cost the Austrian army thousands of dead and a further 80,000 men who died of illness or fell into Turkish slavery, the Habsburg troops besieged Belgrade, which they will take in October – but are in May 1789 there, in the swamp area around Semlin, 172,000 soldiers fell ill with dysentery and malaria, 33,000 died of the epidemic. Joseph II had returned from the battlefield with tuberculosis and malaria (and will die in early 1790), dysentery and malaria were also brought to Vienna by returning soldiers. The campaign of the previous year had devoured vast amounts of money, almost as much as the Seven Years War. The situation in Vienna is desolate, both politically and economically, soldiers and deserters crippled on the streets, an epidemic is to be feared.
Down and out
But the world situation is probably Mozart’s smallest problem. He is completely in debt, and composition commissions are to be expected neither from the emperor nor from the aristocrats, who are subject to the war tax. From a costly trip to Prague, Leipzig and his actual destination, Berlin, Mozart returns disaffected and, above all, without the income and orders he had hoped for. The Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm II. Had allegedly signaled an interest in employing Mozart at the Berlin court, but when he arrived in Berlin and wished to “show his talents to Ew. To lay the feet of your royal majesty «, the Prussian king reacts very coolly and orders that his cello teacher should take care of the Viennese Kapellmeister. The king doesn’t want to hear him, not even a few weeks later, only the queen, writes Mozart, “in the thiergarten in an inn,” “but there’s not much to do,” he explains to his wife, whose name he is throughout his journey (“Make your dear, beautiful nest clean, because my Büberl really deserves it” is one of the more harmless passages) and occasionally sends quite jealous letters. Conclusion: Nothing but expenses, “When I come back you have to look forward to me more than the money”.
Mozart is broke and desperate, he writes begging letters, especially to his Masonic lodge brother Michael Puchberg: “God! I am in a position that I do not wish for my worst enemy. «On his return his wife falls ill, Mozart pays for himself a celebrity doctor who is actually unaffordable for him and who prescribes an expensive cure for Constanze, Mozart is getting more and more debts, and even his concerts the Viennese no longer want to see: he advertises intensively for two weeks, but there is currently only one ticket buyer in all of Vienna, while five years earlier 176 people had subscribed to his concerts. Mozart is broken, down and out. In June 1789 he entered only one composition in his catalog raisonné: “A quartet for 2 violin, viola et violoncello. For His Mayestätt the king in Prussia ”, the string quartet in D major, K. 575, which he dedicated to the Prussian king because of a very vague hope of subsequent payment.
Under the surface
But what is Mozart doing in his desperate situation? What kind of piece is he composing? “In his life Mozart never had more than ten minutes to think about how bad everything is,” Hans Werner Henze was convinced. That certainly does not apply to Mozart’s financial worries, but it does to his way of composing. It would be a »romanticizing idea« (Georg Knepler) to expect that Mozart had to compose a sad piece in the midst of all the desolation of his existence. No, despite the personal situation, this string quartet is vocal, lyrical, positive, without too strong emotional outbursts: three movements “Allegretto”, first movement and finale even in alla breve time, so practically twice as fast. The main theme of the first movement is a gently ascending triad, followed by calmly descending thirds, and in the final fourth movement Mozart uses these triads again, rhythmically reduced. The slow movement is a variant of his popular song »Das Veilchen«, translated into three time, which frames a concerted dialogue between first violin and cello. Pure understatement.
Is everything in perfect order with the desperate composer? Chamber. As is so often the case with Mozart, there are signs of melancholy, of dissonant disagreement with the world beneath the surface of cheerfulness. Already in the first movement there are first chromatic indications that something might not be right, especially in the development with its harmonies that are wildly led through the keys; and again and again we hear the typical syncopated bars – of course, the syncopations and dissonances are quickly resolved: “Like the quarrel of lovers, the dissonances of the world are. Reconciliation is in the midst of a dispute, and everything that has been separated can be found again, ”ends Holderlin’s“ Hyperion ”.
This is also the case in the middle section of the minuet, which is much more of a “German dance” expanded into a sonata form, i.e. a preliminary form of the Viennese waltz (Mozart wrote numerous “German dances” for the carnival balls in the Viennese redouten halls in 1789). Stumbling blocks are built in by emphasizing unstressed parts of the bar and suddenly there is a two-bar for two bars, before broken seventh chords wander through the voices and lead back to the original dance. And in the finale, which goes far beyond the usual rondo form, the uninhibited modulation of the theme across the most varied of keys with minor insertions, seventh chords and all kinds of fallacies: “As soon as we feel on safe ground, an abyss opens up,” characterizes Eva Gesine Baur Mozart Music and speaks of “unsatisfied longing”, the conductor Daniel Harding mentions “this restlessness”, ETA Hoffmann states: “Mozart leads us into the depths of the spirit realm.” Mozart only allows the cheerful conclusion when he has “the depths of seriousness and the tragedy has measured «(Knepler) – and then such a conclusion is no longer really cheerful. The listeners sense: Something is wrong! And that’s exactly how it is. The cheerful Mozart knows about his precarious situation, he knows about the pandemic that is spreading from Belgrade to Vienna, and he also suspects that an outdated social order is being buried – Mozart has demonstrably campaigned for clarification: »Are you a poor fool – so become K[lerike]r. If you are a rich fool, become a tenant. If you are a noble but poor fool – do what you can for bread. But if you are a rich, aristocratic fool, become what you want; just not a man of understanding – I ask that, «was the text on a leaflet that Mozart had written himself and distributed at a masquerade ball in 1785. The tragic ambivalence, the tragic contradiction in Mozart’s personality, certainly also includes the fact that, as an independent musician who sympathized with the French Revolution, he is dependent on the nobility, for whom the situation is currently becoming extremely precarious, as a client.
It must be!
The Chiaroscuro Quartet is currently playing exemplary music in this Mozart quartet. The fact that the nucleus of the ensemble is likely to consist of Alina Ibragimova as Primaria and the cellist Claire Thirion suits the piece with its cello cantilenas and the dialogues between these two instruments as well as the fact that the musicians with gut strings and Playing historical arcs – so the details emerge more clearly, while the sound appears almost a bit muffled, at least extremely velvety and invites you to listen more intensely. String quartets can hardly be interpreted more lively and more directly, with the Chiaroscuro Quartet we experience very great, fascinating chamber music art.
Did you consciously put together the program of your Berlin guest performance on October 11th along the theme of melancholy? At the beginning, three of Henry Purcell’s nine “Four-Part Fantasias for 3 to 7 Violas da Gamba” were performed, which are rarely seen in a concert hall, and if so, then more by gamba consorts like Jordi Savall’s than by a string quartet. That is a shame, because with these fantasies the Chairoscuro Quartet laid a keynote for its guest performance: Each is made up of several short parts, mostly alternating between quieter and moving sections, which sometimes end abruptly. A kind of melancholy polyphony, as unusual as it is enchanting. In Beethoven’s String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 18 No. 6 with its Mozartian first movement, the last movement even bears the title “La Malinconia”. In the 18th century this no longer had a direct negative or even pathological meaning, but was expressly understood as “noble” as in Kant, whom Beethoven read again and again: “Mournful removal from the noises of the world from a legitimate weariness is noble. “Already in the second movement, a magical Adagio ma non troppo, we hear the Chiaroscuro Quartet’s interpretation of the melody of the song with sharp, sharply dotted contrasts,“ queste note ben marcate ”, in the two lower instruments; the variations take place in the secondary voices. Here, too, wild harmonic entanglements: the theme is in E flat major, the middle section in E flat minor, which is very far from it, in the coda then suddenly C major, before the movement ends in E flat major again. In the last sentence the dialectic of melancholy and cheerfulness, of disgust and weariness in the face of the “noises of the world” that seems to be bearable only through averted sadness – who would not know such feelings, in Beethoven’s time as it is today? And then again the cosmopolitan, cheerful, letting oneself get involved in the course of the world, only become endurable through the quiet contemplation of a melancholy basic feeling. But the serenity is interrupted again and again by quiet, thoughtful pausing, by recollections of the Adagio – until we finally experience a “Must it be?” Moment that seems to point to Beethoven’s last work, the String Quartet op. 135. The Chiaroroscuro Quartet and, above all, the onrushing Alina Ibragimova answer this last Beethoven question with a ludicrous Prestissimo sweep: Yes, we understand, it has to be! No question …
At the end of this fascinating concert Mendelssohn Bartholdy, the string quartet in E flat major op. 12, the mature work of a twenty year old. It begins with an Adagio introduction, which defines the character of the entire work: the first movement with its cantilever Allegro remains lyrical like Mozart’s, and like this Mendelssohn also introduces new thematic material in the development. This is followed by a magical, wistful dance-like canzonetta, one of the most beautiful string quartet movements ever. A short, slow movement and an artfully constructed finale, in which themes relate to those of the first movement – Mendelssohn – like Mozart, like Beethoven – is concerned with cross-movement units: »The relationship between all 4 or 3 or 2 or 1 pieces of a sonata the others and the parts, so that by simply starting through the whole existence of such a piece one already knows the secret … «Everything is connected with everything: the different movements of a string quartet, the different string quartets of the composers, the moods. Only rarely are there such artfully compiled and interwoven concert programs. And of course Mendelssohn is also a master of melancholy, the entire work also a work of yearning.
Melancholy also includes “aimless longing” (Laszlo F. Földenyi), that is, “this unfortunate tendency to all places where I am not and all things that I do not have” (Walter Benjamin). Presumably, you can add personal and social conditions to the places and things that we do not (yet) have, but which we long for: last but not least, a different, better, more just world. Thoughts and mental states during a pandemic, focused in a magnifying glass by the excellent Chiaroscuro Quartet. An experience of particular depth!