String Quartet No.16

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

String Quartet No.16 in Eb major

K421b, K428 • “Haydn Quartet No. 3”

About this work

Of Mozart's six quartets dedicated to Haydn, this is one of the most genial and, in some respects, most Haydn-esque in its delight in unexpected shifts of harmony. Mozart worked on this quartet over the course of two months in summer 1783; perhaps he had this piece in mind when in his dedication he described the group as "the fruit of a long and laborious effort" -- it seems he knocked each of the others off in as little as a single day. It is believed that this may have been one of the pieces performed at a quartet party the following year in which the players were violinists Haydn and Dittersdorf, violist Mozart, and cellist Vanhal.

The opening Allegro ma non troppo movement initially seems to ease itself in, Haydn style, with a slow introduction, but this turns out to be merely a somewhat broad, harmonically teasing short statement that rambles straight into the cheerful first subject. Playfulness suffuses the themes, with little phrases tossed imitatively among the instruments and a clucking motif holding the material together. Skies darken somewhat in the brief development section, perhaps a mild allusion to Haydn's dramatic Sturm und Drang period, but good cheer returns with the recapitulation, which subtly varies the material rather than merely repeating it.

The Andante con moto is more serious, with most of the instruments playing a noble progression of chords while one member, often the cello, winds a dignified melody through the harmonic foundation. Oddly, that initial melody devolves into a routine bass line of triplets while the chords resolve into more of a melody. The movement is in what was at the time considered the "Romantic" key of A flat major, but a moment of harmonic uncertainty causes the melody to lose its bearings after its first statement, leaving a skeletal variation on the theme before the first section is repeated. This time the theme overcomes the episode of harmonic instability after nothing more than a brief pause for the players to find their way back home.

The minuet begins with either a gentle sneeze or a donkey bray, depending on the performers' forcefulness, surely a Haydn-esque effect. It then proceeds in a fairly stately fashion, except for braying interruptions and humorously hesitant episodes, as if the players were tiptoeing through an especially tricky patch of music. The trio section, coming before a repeat of all of this, noodles a troubled little tune over a bass drone.

The finale, Allegro vivace, alternates a teasingly hesitant series of chords with boisterous passage work -- an effect of "on your mark, go!" The energetic second subject refuses to trip over its offbeat chords. The first theme returns, then gives way to a melodramatic episode culminating in a passage that overlaps material drawn from both the chords and the passage work from the beginning. The music reappears in its original form, prepares to scamper away quietly, but ultimately makes a grander exit with four loud, affirmative chords.