String Quartet No.17

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

String Quartet No.17 in Bb major

K458 • “Haydn Quartet No. 4: The Hunt”

Recommended recording

Curated by Guy Jones, Head of Curation

About this work

Nicknamed the "Hunt" because of the hunting-call motif that opens the work, the B flat quartet is the fourth of six string quartets composed by Mozart between 1782 and 1785. Over nine years separate the first of this group, K. 387 in G, from its predecessor among the quartets, K. 173 in D minor, composed in 1773. Various factors may account for this long gap. On a practical level, Mozart had been much occupied with long journeys to Italy, Germany, and France. But the string quartet was also, at this time, a relatively new medium still in the process of development. From the genre's beginnings in works that were little more than divertimenti, one man above all others was bringing the string quartet toward the point where it would ultimately be recognized as the most challenging of all forms of composition. That man was Joseph Haydn, whose long effort would be fully acknowledged by Mozart. Indeed, a direct impetus for Mozart's return to quartet writing seems to have come from Haydn, who in 1781 published a new set of six as his Op. 33. Mozart almost certainly first met Haydn shortly after settling in Vienna in 1781, and the two men soon established a friendship based on mutual admiration. As is known from a famous anecdote recorded by Irish tenor Michael Kelly, they also played quartets together with two other notable Viennese composers, Johann Vanhal and Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf. The inspiration provided by Haydn is clearly apparent in the quartets Mozart composed in the wake of these encounters. It is therefore hardly surprising that on completing six quartets of his own (K. 387, K. 421, K. 428, K. 458, K. 464, and K. 465) Mozart's publication would bear a famous dedicatory preface to Haydn that has led to them becoming somewhat confusingly known as Mozart's "Haydn" quartets. In the course of Mozart's touching tribute to the older master, he refers to the "long and laborious endeavor" that had gone into them, a unique admission from a man who normally composed with extraordinary facility, and a pointed reminder of the extreme challenge posed by this most pure of musical forms.

The B flat quartet was entered in Mozart's own thematic catalog on November 9, 1784, although he probably started work on it some 18 months earlier. Like all its companions, it is cast in four movements. The jaunty opening of the Allegro vivace assai with its hunting call prefaces a movement whose ease seems at odds with compositional problems, yet sketches show that it took the composer several attempts to satisfy himself. As in the case of all but two of the six quartets, the Menuetto is placed second, a brief movement not without its moments of gentle humor. The Adagio that follows is dominated by a long, decorated theme in the first violin and a quietly eloquent dialogue between violin and cello. The final Allegro assai returns to the opening movement's mood of good-humored ease.