The Kennedy Center

Divertimento in E-flat major for String Trio, K. 563

About the Work

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
© Richard Freed

At the end of the summer of 1788, in which Mozart composed his three final symphonies, he followed those remarkable works with one no less remarkable in the realm of chamber music, the towering string trio that came to be labeled a divertimento. He composed the work for his Masonic lodge brother Johann Michael Puchberg, from whom he was desperately borrowing money at the time, and in the following spring it was performed, not in drawing rooms, but in public halls during the course of the tour in which he also introduced two, or perhaps all three, of his new symphonies. It is the only original composition for this combination of instruments that he carried to completion and is, as Alfred Einstein put it, "one of his noblest works."

This indeed noble and warm-hearted string trio observes the classic divertimento format--six movements, including two minuets, one slow movement in sonata form and another cast as a theme and variations--but it has nothing else in common with the lighter "entertainment music." Mozart composed earlier for various larger ensembles. As Einstein noted, "it is a true chamber-music work, and grew to such large proportions only because it was intended to offer . . . something special in the way of art, invention, and good spirits. . . . Each instrument is primus inter pares, every note is significant, every note is a contribution to spiritual and sensuous fulfillment in sound."

While good spirits are abundantly evident and the richness of the coloring achieved with such modest instrumentation is remarkble in its own right, the work is more or less defined by its unfeigned intimacy, and its overall emotional character is somewhat subdued. Throughout the six movements, the substance and depth of the music exude such radiant maturity--just perceptibly touched here and there with a hint of wistfulness or melancholy or, in the variation movement (the Andante), something a bit darker and more dramatic, farther still from the concept of "entertainment music"--as to call to mind the expression Mozart's senior colleague Joseph Haydn used in writing of his own final symphonies, composed in London after Mozart's death: "the mellowness of old age honorably won." Mozart himself, of course, was never to experience old age, but in this music gave us a stunning glimpse into the world he might have revealed if he had lived at least as long as, say, Beethoven.

Beethoven, for his part, apparently took K. 563 as his direct model, at just about the time of Mozart's death, for his similarly proportioned String Trio in the same "noble" key of E-flat (Op. 3). Mozart wrote no other chamber music of such dimensions for strings alone--nor did Beethoven, until the unprecedented quartets of his last years.