String Quartet No.20

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

String Quartet No.20 in D major

K499 • “Hoffmeister”

About this work

Between 1782 and 1785, Mozart composed six string quartets, which were subsequently published late in 1785 with a dedication to Joseph Haydn. They represent the pinnacle of Mozart's contribution to the form, a group of works that not only solve the problems of this difficult medium, but which also represent his tribute to the pioneering quartets of his friend and colleague. Thereafter, Mozart would compose only four more string quartets, including this one, subsequently turning his attention to the string quintet.

This isolated D major Quartet (scored for the normal disposition of two violins, viola and cello) was entered in his own thematic catalogue on August 19, 1786, less than two months after the premiere of Le nozze di Figaro. It owes its nickname to the Viennese publisher Franz Anton Hoffmeister, who first issued the quartet in the same year it was composed. Nothing is known of the circumstances of its composition, although it has been suggested that it was commissioned by Hoffmeister, who was also a friend of Mozart's.

Shortly before the composer's death in December, 1791, the quartet was the subject of a review in the journal of the German Philharmonic Society. The reviewer, who was also considering the Piano Quartet in E flat, K. 493, notes that "Both these quartets are written with that fire of the imagination and that correctness, which long since won for Herr M. the reputation of one of the best composers in Germany. The first consists of four, the second of only three movements, and even the Minuet in the former is composed with an ingenuity (being interwoven with canonic imitations) that one not infrequently finds wanting in other such compositions." It is the Minuet (the second movement) that has subsequently excited particular comment from Mozart's biographers, being described by H. C. Robbins Landon as "one of the most original in eighteenth century music" and by Alfred Einstein as "unique." While the quartet is generally recognized as being less complex than the six "Haydn" Quartets, it remains a work of great beauty, with an Adagio of great profundity, and a final Molto Allegro which treads the ambiguous line between tragedy and comedy that so often characterizes Mozart's later works.