In advance of this summer’s festival, Artistic Director David Yang is sending out some of the program notes he has written on the repertoire, in this instance Mozart’s String Quartet in D Minor, K. 421.
In 1785, Mozart dedicated a new set of six string quartets (including the D Minor, K.421) to his friend, colleague, and mentor, Josef Haydn. Beneath the dedication, Mozart wrote a personal note to the man who had single-handedly invented the genre:
A father who had decided to send his sons out into the great world thought it his duty to entrust them to the protection and guidance of a man who was very celebrated at the time, and who happened moreover to be his best friend. In the same way I send my six sons to you. Please, then, receive them kindly and be to them a father, guide, and friend! I entreat you, however, to be indulgent to those faults which may have escaped a father’s partial eye, and in spite of them, to continue your generous friendship towards one who so highly appreciates it.
Dedicating these to a friend instead of an aristocrat underscored the special bond shared by the men, 34 years apart in age. They first met in 1783 with Haydn the king of musical Europe and Mozart a rising star. The two immediately struck up a friendship and regularly read quartets with composers Baron Dittersdorff on first violin and Johann Vanhal on cello. Haydn played second and Mozart (like all the greatest composers) played viola. Upon attending the premiere of the new quartets with Leopold Mozart, his protégé’s father (and perhaps the first tiger-mom), Haydn told him: “before God and as an honest man I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name.”
The two saw each other for the last time in 1790 before Haydn was to depart for England. As Haydn recounted to a friend:
Prince Esterházy [Haydn’s patron] granted permission for the journey but it was not right as far as Haydn’s friends were concerned. They reminded him of his age (sixty years), of the discomforts of a long journey, and of many other things to shake his resolve. Mozart especially took pains to say, “Papa! You have had no training for the great world, and you speak too few languages.” “Oh,” replied Haydn, “my language is understood all over the world!” When Haydn fixed his departure and left on 15 December, Mozart on this day never left his friend. He dined with him, and said at the moment of parting, “We are probably saying our last farewell in this life.” Tears welled from the eyes of both. Haydn was deeply moved, for he applied Mozart’s words to himself, and the possibility never occurred to him that the thread of Mozart’s life could be cut off by the inexorable fates within the following year.
Mozart died on 5 December, 1791; he was 35. In his condolence letter to Mozart’s wife, Constanze, a despondent Haydn offered free musical instruction to their young son. As it turns out. that son, Raimund Mozart, had been born during the composition of K.421 and when I say during the composition I mean Constanze was in labor, claiming that the recurring rising theme of the second movement alluded to her hollering in pain while Mozart studiously scribbled away on the quartet.
Matching its inception at such an emotional moment, K.421 is unrelentingly dramatic. The first movement begins almost ridiculously beautifully with a hushed sigh. The second movement is wistful followed by a third movement that begins angrily but has a delightful almost silly middle section. The last movement, a theme with variations, has a nobility punctuated in the final variation by a trumpet-like call that passes from one member of the quartet to another.
David Yang, Artistic Director