Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
String Quintet in G minor
Explained using the 5-4-3-2-1 Method
Duration: About 30 Minutes
Time of Creation: 1787
World Premiere: Unknown (First Publication 1787)
Table of Contents
Mozart's String Quintet in G minor in 5 Sentences
Mozart’s String Quintet in G minor was composed during the same period that Mozart was writing his opera Don Giovanni. The key of G minor is worth emphasizing, because no other key stands so consistently for darkness and despair in Mozart’s complete works: just think of the famous Pamina aria or Mozart’s penultimate symphony. The work’s overall dramaturgy also fits the somber key, for first, dark timbres dominate (Mozart doubles the violas), and second, remarkably, the tempo slows down in each movement…and slows down still…until the brightening occurs only at the very end. Mozart’s string quintets were inspirations for many later composers, such as Brahms (Clarinet Quintet) and Schubert (String Quintet in C Major).
4 Highlights from Mozart's String Quintet in G minor
Highlight 1: a throbbing, plaintive first movement....
There is a “throbbing” in the accompanying voices throughout most of the first movement. This gives the impression of inevitability. Above this rises a lament:
Highlight 2: ...a minuet in the wrong place....
Classically, a slow movement would come now. But Mozart brings the dance movement (a minuet) first and thus achieves two things: first, a rhythmic contrast results after the continuous throbbing in the first movement; second, the increasingly slow tempo is achieved throughout all movements.
Highlight 3: ...a religious third movement....
Mozart studied the chamber works of his model, friend, and mentor Joseph Haydn intensively. In 1787, that is, while Mozart was writing his String Quintet in G minor, Haydn’s Passion music “The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross” was published in a version for string quartet. There are interesting parallels between the religious aura of this work and the third movement of Mozart’s String Quintet:
Highlight 4: ...and an enigmatic ending.
In the last movement, Mozart first revisits some of what we already know from the first three movements: For example, we hear again the throbbing from the first movement. But then…comes a real mystery. After about 25 minutes of somber music, and at a point where nothing seems to be going on, suddenly comes a bright, lively, brisk rondo (24:20) with which Mozart concludes his work. Sudden joie de vivre? Or sheer irony à la Mahler? One does not know.
3 Questions and Answers about Mozart's String Quintet in G Minor
Question 1: Are there any relationships between Mozart's String Quintet in G minor and other of his works?
Towards the end of his life, Mozart interestingly tended to write works “in pairs.” Just before his String Quintet in G minor, for example, he completed the strongly contrasting String Quintet in C major. His last two symphonies are also in G minor (No. 40) and C major (No. 41) and were written at the same time.
Question 2: Why does G minor stand for suffering and despair in Mozart’s music?
Mozart thus took up a tradition that had been evident since Johann Christian Bach, especially in opera: many arias that deal with forebodings of death were in G minor. In addition to Johann Christian Bach, the opera composers Antonio Sacchini and Niccolò Piccinni should also be mentioned here.
Question 3: Is the instrumentation of Mozart's String Quintet in G minor special?
Mozart’s String Quintet in G minor is often called a “viola quintet” because Mozart uses two violas. Schubert, for example, is different: in his String Quintet in C major, the cellos are doubled.
2 Recommended Recordings of Mozart's String Quintet in G minor
Recording 1: Quatuor Van Kuijk (live, 2020)
An impassioned performance of Mozart’s String Quintet in G minor was played by Quatuor Van Kuijk, with tempo choices mostly on the upper edge: