String Quintet No.4

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

String Quintet No.4 in G minor

K516, KV516

About this work

The Quintet in G minor, K. 516 is the second of two string quintets Mozart completed within a month's time during the spring of 1787. Prior to that year, he had contributed but a single example to the genre, nearly 15 years earlier: the Quintet in B flat major, K. 174. Mozart's choice of two violins, two violas, and cello for all of his string quintets is unusual in the Classical era; composers like Boccherini generally opted for the use of viola and two cellos. A precedent for Mozart's choice may be found in a number of light Austrian divertimento-type works, including a Notturno by Michael Haydn, active at the Salzburg court and well-known to Mozart and his family.

Mozart entered the G minor Quintet in his thematic catalog on May 16, 1787, on the heels of the Quintet in C major, K. 515. While there is no documentary evidence to explain why Mozart returned to the medium after so many years, there seems to be little doubt that K. 515 and K. 516 were composed as a contrasting pair in much the same manner as the Symphonies Nos. 40 and 41. Indeed, while the C major Quintet may be seen as directly analogous with the "Jupiter" (the Symphony No. 41 in C major, K. 551) in its breadth and elevated Olympian utterances, the G minor may be seen as counterpart to the Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550. The use of minor modes was comparatively rare during the Classical era, and for Mozart, G minor was perhaps the most deeply personal of all keys, one in which he expressed not only powerful passions but also tragedy. The prevailing combination of melancholy and sometimes violent drama in the G minor Quintet is underlined by Mozart's extraordinarily skillful exploitation of the dark sonorities inherently possibly within this instrumentation.This is particularly evident, for instance, in the vivid contrast drawn between the prevalent somber coloring and passages that highlight the violin's topmost registers.

Efforts to escape to the major mode in the opening Allegro are resolutely denied by the prevailing darkness. As in the C major Quintet, the Menuetto is placed second in the work, though it does little to lift the mood. The Adagio non troppo is a lonely, despairing hymn. Though the finale finally turns to the parallel major key of G, it is not a "happy" major but one that occupies an ambiguous terrain, a characteristic common in Mozart's late works. A year after completing the C major and G minor Quintets, Mozart advertised them for sale, along with his string quintet arrangement of the Serenade in C minor, K. 388.

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