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.


  1. Yoel, Congratulations on your new virtual home! You're off to a splendid start and I look forward to more. In general, I resist putting words to the emotional (or other) "content" of music-- but I admire those who, like you in these posts, can do it more or less convincingly ;-) I never thought of this as a 5-movement work; rather, what you call the 4th mvmt is a slow intro to the last. (With Eliz.K-R in mind, does this mean that sorrow is a pre-requisite for acceptance? (My answer: yes.)) And special thanks for your last clip, pointing out the echo, in major, of the first mvmt.theme. This is something I never registered consciously, despite having heard and played this piece more times than I can count. Ch.S.

  2. I found this post via a link on Wikipedia and find your analysis of this music quite interesting. I am an artist working on a exhibition of my photographs related to the themes of beauty and death. After reading your post, I will be looking for a recording of this music to play at the opening.
    Btw, I also play the cello.

  3. Dear Yoel, thanks for turning my attention to your insightful article. I find it intriguing that we should both independently reach similar conclusions regarding Mozart’s G minor string quintet. Indeed, as I explained on my blog (http://keystomozart.wordpress.com/2009/04/18/interpreting_k516/), this work embodies – possibly more than any other composition by Mozart – the idea of an overall process. This is shown already by the highly unusual disposition of tempo indications, representing a gradual – but consistent – process of retardation (with the exception of the vivid final rondo). Such organization of tempi is nowhere else to be found in Mozart’s works. Expressing complex emotional notions such as “denial” or “guilt” through the medium of music is, however, a tricky matter. Although I accept your reading of the first movement in connection with the first phase of the grief process, I think that what the musical surface expresses is, in the first place, hectic activity and obsession (this also relates to the “sticking to G minor” for the presentation of the second theme you refer to in your comments). Interpreting the obsessive activity of the first movement in terms of “denial” is a “high level” metaphor. I find this reading absolutely convincing, albeit only in a larger context, that is, when observing that the Adagio introduction to the final movement picks up the harmonic and melodic material of the first movement and “resolves” it, thereby acknowledging the loss and ending the state of denial. Your reference to the “creepy” viola motif in the third movement is highly illuminating, but interpreting it as an expression of “guilt” is only one of many possibilities, not necessarily the most straightforward. Owing to the highly fragmented texture of this “Adagio ma non troppo”, I read the entire movement as already embodying the one but last phase of the grief process, the phase of “depression” and “sadness” (beside Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, I have been working with further descriptions of the grief process, differing in several points from hers, e.g. Bowlby 1980 and Kast 1986). Indeed, the “dance” episode you refer to is by no means a “happy” one. But I tend to interpret it in terms of “memories of past happiness”, haunted by the recognition that this happiness is gone forever. However, where our readings mostly disagree is with regard to the final rondo. I don’t see anything “daemonic” about this movement (another “demonizing” interpretation is, by the way, to be found in Bodenheimer 1991), and certainly don’t think Mozart was “dancing on his father’s grave” (notably, at the time Mozart composed the quintet, Leopold was still alive; beside anticipating his death, the quintet may have well processed the loss of Mozart’s mother who had suddenly died while both she and her son were staying in Paris in 1778, about a decade prior to the composition of the quintet). The metric anomaly of the rondo is, in my opinion, rather a token of unsteadiness, frailness. This may signify a phase of “convalescence” following a “successfully overcome” grief process. Based on my investigation of Mozart’s use of keys (you may find a summary at http://urirom.com/pages/en/phd-dissertation.php), I reckon that G major possibly symbolized for the composer the sphere of “youth”, maybe also his own youth (think of the youthful, sprightly “Kleine Nachtmusik” in this key which dates, in fact, from the same year as “Don Giovanni”). Naturally, G major was the ONLY major key Mozart would be able use to end this G minor work. And yet, I recognize some of the characteristic features of Mozart’s “youthful G major style” in this movement. According to my reading, this movement symbolizes “new life”, a reinstallation of the well-known Mozart vivacity which has been “depressed” throughout the foregoing movements. This movement is, if anything, the “sanest” of the five. Best, UR

  4. Thank you for your comments. Blogspot apparently didn't like what you had to say, and threw your comment into the spam folder, but luckily I have retrieved it.

    My impression of the last movement is based, I think, more on the physical sensation of playing it than on hearing it. Especially if you are playing second violin or viola (either part), you are seized by this sense of always rushing to keep up, of being constantly out of kilter. It is not a sensation that is alleviated by practice - it is built into the way the movement is written. Nor is it a sense of frailty or unsteadiness, it is more one of exhiliration, a kind of desperate joyfulness. Perhaps demonic is the wrong word, For me, at least, I cannot hear this movement without reliving the kinetic feeling of playing it, of getting sucked into this vortex of whirling dancers.

    Interesting the progression of tempo markings. I hadn't noticed that.

    Thanks again.

  5. Wow...nice analysis

  6. Great blog. I heard the Mozart G minor Quintet last summer and Google brought me here. Your analysis really made the music even more moving for me..

    Thanks for your great music blogs... :)

  7. I must disagree with the interpretation of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's quintet in g minor K 516 in terms of the Kubler Ross model of grief. In my opinion, the piece

    represents the triumph of creative or artistic spirit over external adversities. As you are well aware, Mozart's personal life was often not too pleasant - there were

    financial difficulties and health troubles. But his music transcended these worldly fetters and it is this transcendence which Mozart has captured in this quintet.

    While I more or less agree with the interpretations of the first four movements (there are minor difference here too, for example I have not found the first movement a

    denial and the third appears to me like a funeral march) it is the fifth where we are not in sync. For one, this movement is not a tarantella by any means - every piece in 6/8 is not one. The true tarantella rhythm can be found in compositions such as Beethoven's Op. 47/3, Schubert's D 810/4 and his D 958/4. It is also not hysterical or madcap - these appellatives may be applied to the aforementioned Schubert's D 810/1&4, Beethoven's Op. 133/6 or Op.57/3 and even at a stretch to Mozart's K. 550/1&4 but not here. So what if the initial rhythm is syncopated - Beethoven's Op. 92/4 also begins with an extended syncopation but does anyone question its happy and rumbustious mood ? The melody here is undeniably joyous, and the cause for the joy is its creator's ability to write this melody in the first place. In the last three hundred years of European music, perhaps onl three men have been gifted the ability to write tunes of such ethereal quality and Mozart was one of them. And his talent could not be curbed or subdued by any external factors.

    The similarity between the descending motifs in the first and last movements is well spotted, and it can only reinforce this interpretation. For in the first movement,

    it played a major role in a minor key; now it has a minor role in a major key. This represents the trivialization of the external adversities in comparison with the

    gift which Mozart has received from God. Indeed, the motif plays a keystone role in the first movement, it also has a prominent appearance in the third but now it is

    inconsequential, being swept along on the tide of happiness which surrounds it. And, this happy flood has also sharpened the minor third to a major one, thus making

    the figure lose its sense of gloom and foreboding.

    In summary, Mozart's K 516 is an overwhelmingly strong statement of the triumph of the artistic spirit over terrestrial adversities.

  8. I just discovered your excellent blog - though it seems you may have abandoned it - concurrent with my "discovering" the Mozart g- Quintet. Although I trained as a classical pianist, that was a few lifetimes ago and there have been huge gaps in my knowledge of repertoire outside the pianistic canon.

    My first hearing of this sublime piece left me in tears. I am aware of the difficulties of Mozart's life (Maynard Solomon's fantastic biography is essential) including his tortured relationship with his father, and his probable infidelity to his beloved Constanze, a situation that remained painfully present and unresolved at the time of his death. It doesn't seem a stretch to believe that he may have worked through any number of emotionally wrenching situations through his music. The uncompromising sense of sorrow and an almost nightmarish hopelessness in the first three (and a bit) movements seem without parallel in his work. (And a romantic sensibility - the opening of the fourth movement could have been written by Schubert, don't you think?). I believe that chamber music at this time was created not for public consumption but for the benefit of patrons in a private setting, so this increases the sense of an intimate, intensely personal revelation.

    So, five stages of grief? Why not! It's as good an analysis as any other, with the caveat that one must be careful of shoe-horning the facts into a theory... Another commenter has disagreed with your "tarantella" last movement, as do I. The last movement seems to me to be a tender recollection of childhood bliss, or, to throw a wider net, of a blissful Arcadian realm where adult cares and tragedies can never intrude, where a mother's love and the golden sunshine of late afternoon are one and the same thing... but the movement is not all perfect innocence. It is not childhood, but the vivid recollection of childhood by an adult who has no illusions about the possibility of returning there... Why this joyous romp after all the sorrow? Why not? Why does the sun rise when someone you love has died? Because - it just does. Because - well, it's a mystery.

    Thank you for starting the conversation. All the very best,

    David Roddis