Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Death and Mozart

But I want to come back to Mozart, and to K. 516. This string quintet immediately seizes you with its haunting beauty; yet there are a number of things about the piece that are enigmatic. What are those crashing, intrusive chords that interrupt the minuet? Why is there that curious, creepy second viola solo in the Adagio? And the last movement - a lopsided, ripping tarantella that nobody could dance to?

A few years ago, I had an epiphany about this piece. Mozart wrote this at the time that his father was dying. He completed the quintet at the beginning of May 1787; his father died only a couple of weeks later. There is a story, probably apocryphal, that Mozart added the second Adagio as a memorial to his father. In any case, the quintet was written at a time when the impending loss of his father, the man he worshipped ("After God, papa", he said), feared, loathed and loved.

There is a theory, propounded by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross that we deal with grief in five stages: denial, anger, bargaining (or guilt), sorrow, and acceptance. These stages correspond precisely to the movements of this quintet, and they reflect the tragic and complex relationship between Mozart and his overbearing father.

The first movement is about denial: denial that anything is going to happen, denial of the terror of death. Mozart, in his last letter to Leopold, gives voice to this denial:

"I have formed during the last few years such close relations with this best and truest friend of mankind [death], that his image is not only no longer terrifying to me, but is indeed very soothing and consoling... I hope and trust that while I am writing this, you are feeling better... Nevertheless I trust that I shall soon have a reassuring letter from you..."

"Words fly up, but thoughts remain below," said Hamlet's stepfather. And so it is here - Mozart may say he has no fear of death, but this movement of the quintet puts that to the lie. The entire movement is one of trepidation and denial. From the opening bars, the restless, chromatic,  g minor melody over the impelling eighth-note thumping of the inner voices give the sense of the unsettled, of denial of fear and death; something is very wrong  here, but we don't know exactly what.

It was, until this piece, universally the practice that, in a work in a minor key, the second theme is in the relative major; this provides a respite from the dark mood usually set up by the initial theme in the minor. And, indeed, Mozart writes a bridge to the second theme that could easily lead to a tune in b flat major.

But he continues, relentlessly, in g minor.

Even when, toward the end of the exposition, Mozart moves into the relative major, he never settles there. The music constantly moves restlessly through a series of modulations, always harking back to the minor.

Throughout the movement, there is a feeling of denial, of repression of an ugly reality.

And then, the second movement: anger!

... and angrier!

The trio is really the only respite from the unrelenting pain of the first three movements. Here is a lyrical interlude, relaxed and flowing, a moment to forget the violent outbursts of the minuet.

Which only intensifies the anger when the minuet reprises.

The third movement of the quartet is about guilt. In the Kübler-Ross model, the third stage of mourning is bargaining, but in the case of Mozart, guilt is a big part of the bargain. Mozart was tormented by the thought that his raunchy humor, his profligacy and his libertine lifestyle were causes of his straightlaced and austere father's death.

Guilt is a feeling that sneaks up from behind, hits you from the place you least expect it. In this movement, it comes from just such a place - from the second viola. Here it is, that gnawing guilt biting at just the worst moment:

This passage is embedded in a movement that, like the first, is ambivalent and disturbing. It is in a major key, but is not happy. It has a middle dancelike section, but it is a joyless dance - like a woman dragged to the dance floor against her will.

The guilt gives way to the fourth stage of mourning - true sadness. The fourth movement of the quintet is, in a way, the purest, most straightforward - despairing, true, but there is no ambivalence, no repression. It is pure sorrow.

Mozart at his saddest. Compare this to the aria "Ach, ich fühl's, es ist verschwunden" from the Magic Flute: Pamina, believing that Tamino no longer loves her, contemplates suicide. Same g minor key, same lugubrious 3/4 time, almost the same melody. Here is Dame Kiri Te Kanawa singing with John Mauceri conducting.

The quintet segues into the the final allegro movement, the despair is ended; or is it? For this is no ordinary, cheerful finale; it is a madcap, almost hysterical tarantella, the traditional dance of the spider, the dance of death. This movement represents the final stage of mourning - acceptance and return to normal - but for Mozart, it is not a mere return. It is a liberation, liberation from a tyrannical father and a life of guilt, of rebellion and of obsequy. It is Mozart, dancing on his father's grave.

The whole first section is shifted a half a measure, so the theme has a sense of starting in the middle, with the inner voices clipping behind after the beat; a combination that, besides being unsettling and insane, is very hard to play together!

Nor is this movement free from the ambivalence of the first three; for there is a subtle harking back to the eerie second theme of the first movement - cleverly disguised in major, but felt nonetheless.

There it is: Mozart's K516 as a musical statement of loss and grief. Of course, Mozart wrote his quintet long before Elisabeth Kübler-Ross expounded her theory (in 1969). But the aptness of the quintet's structure matches the theory like a glove; and that match is an opportunity to understand the quintet better.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

The saddest music ever

Many years ago, when I first played the fourth movement of Mozart's g minor quintet K516, I was sure this was the saddest music ever written. We played it at a memorial service for a violinist friend from our chamber music club who had died recently. We were coached by Peter Kamnitzer, then violist of the Lasalle quartet, who insisted that we play it softer than I had ever played before. That was really the first time I ever really played pianissimo, and that, too, made a strong impression on me.

Here is the Salomon quintet playing the movement:

But then I played the Schumann piano quintet. And I decided that the slow movement, that dreary, funereal theme with the violins thumping like muffled drums, was the saddest music ever written.

(Sviatoslav Richter and the Borodin Quartet).

Years passed, I got better, and learned the Brahms Opus 60 piano quartet. This is music to commit suicide by. Indeed, Brahms asked his publisher to print it with a picture of himself holding a gun to his head. The death knell rings of the piano, and the dark, descending chorale in the strings in the opening are a hopeless descent into the maelstrom. Here is Martha Argerich, Dora Schwarzberg, Lyda Chen and Mischa Maisky:

But all these pieces were just warming up sadness. This summer I played the Bartok 6th string quartet at the Raphael Trio chamber music workshop. This piece is beyond sadness. That opening viola solo, the signature tune that introduces each of the four movements, pervades the entire piece with an aura of unrelenting catastrophe. The climax of that melody, the breaking sob toward the end of the introduction, foretells of what would come shortly after it was written: Bartok, the idol of Hungary, alone and penniless in a New York flat while 6 million go to their slaughter and Europe is consumed in flames. I have a visceral reaction every time I play that passage, chills run up my spine and the roots of my hair tingle.

That's the Takács quartet. At the end of the workshop, we performed the third movement, the Burletta or burlesque. This is Bartok's mean joke of a scherzo: full of slippery sliding, cockeyed quartertones and quirky tempo changes. It is funny, but not in the haha sense. It inspires the kind of embarassed, horrified chuckle you make when you see the three-legged midget at the freakshow doing somersaults. Here is the Alban Berg, playing it (without the signature introduction), considerably better than I ever will.