The sheer impossibility of doing justice to Mozart is beginning to show—so much great music has been ignored here. But as we gather steam on Mozart’s influence on the Romantics, half a century later, let’s take a look at one of his most daring compositions, the Quartet No. 19 in C Major. In or around 1781, Mozart heard Joseph Haydn’s recently composed Op. 33 quartets, perhaps even at their premiere. Mozart was also deep into the study of Bach at the time and the combination pressed Mozart to even greater heights as he started to reincorporate counterpoint into his compositions. In the coming years, Mozart would write scores of string duos, trios and quartets, including six quartets dedicated to Haydn. Returning the favor, Haydn attended the premiere of these works (Mozart played the viola!), leading Haydn to observe that Mozart was without question the greatest composer of the age. Haydn, master of the obvious.
There is so much to say about the 19th, the last of these six, so let’s just focus on its brilliant first movement, which earned the composition the name “Dissonance.” This is brooding, anxiety-ridden music, where the contours of the harmony are so distorted that it is a shock to learn that this is in fact Mozart and not Beethoven (who was surely aware of and inspired by this work), if not something composed in the 20th century. The story is that Mozart’s publishers were so sure that there were errors in the composition that they sent the score back to him for correction. As if.
This is one of Mozart’s most radiant scores, fully exploring the harmonic possibilities of the C major key, while remaining ever loyal to the principles of the Classical Period—sonata form, counterpoint and development.
W.A. Mozart, Quartet No. 19 in C Major “Dissonance”, I. Adagio-Allegro:
Here an excellent live recording of the Hagen Quartet doing the entire quartet.