The Kennedy Center

String Quartet No. 20 in D major, K. 499 "Hoffmeister"

About the Work

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
© Robert Markow

STRING QUARTET NO. 20 IN D MAJOR, K. 499 "Hoffmeister"


Born in January 27, 1756, in Salzburg

Died in December 5, 1791, in Vienna


In between the six quartets dedicated to Haydn (Nos. 13-19) and Mozart's final works in the genre, the three "Prussian" quartets (Nos. 21-23), there stands an isolated quartet bearing the subtitle "Hoffmeister," composed in August of1876 (a year and a half after the last of the "Haydn" quartets).

      In 1785, Franz Anton Hoffmeister (1754-1812) established a music-publishing shop in Vienna, supplying the city's musical amateurs with a constant flow of chamber music that they loved to play at home - music by such composers as Albrechtsberger, Beethoven, Clementi, Haydn, Pleyel and Vanhal. Hoffmeister eventually moved to Leipzig, where he established another firm that eventually became C.F. Peters, one of the leading music publishers in the world today. Hoffmeister was also a flutist and a highly prolific composer of music for his instrument (25 concertos, 46 quartets, 12 quintets and much else). The Mozart-Hoffmeister connection goes further: Mozart incorporated the tune of one of Hoffmeister's songs into his Flute Quartet K. 298. Moreover, the first two great piano quartets ever composed (K. 478 and G minor and K. 493 in E-flat major) went to Hoffmeister, though he published only the first of them (the G-minor quartet didn't sell, as it was deemed too difficult for the intended clientele). And finally, Hoffmeister was a close friend and benefactor to Mozart. In dedicating a quartet to him, Mozart was either repaying a debt or acknowledging a level of friendship he did not often cultivate among other composers.

      The quartet opens in a somewhat jaunty mood that belies the degree of sophistication and seriousness that lie ahead. That initial unison motif outlining the D-major arpeggio pervades the entire movement, returning in varied form as it alternates with brief snatches of contrasting material that never last long enough to establish a new tonality or to become full-fledged themes. Passages in B minor, E major, F-sharp minor and F major struggle for prominence with the "correct" contrasting tonality of A major, beguiling the listener with as rich a harmonic framework as Mozart ever compressed into the exposition of a quartet movement. The development section is no less entrancing. A prominent "tick-tock" accompaniment derived effortlessly from the inner voices of the exposition imposes its relentless presence as the movement's opening motif continues to evolve. When that motif slides unexpectedly into the recapitulation, the effect is as if the sun had returned from behind dark clouds.

      The Menuetto has a good-natured charm to it while the contrasting central Trio is of more somber cast. The prominent use of triplets in the Trio looks backward to the triplets in the first movement and forward to the finale as a unifying device.

      A sense of consoling warmth pervades the slow movement, music of ravishing sweetness and tender sentiment. The opening duet for two violins is later transferred to the viola and cello, whose fuller tone and darker color lends an even further measure of beauty to the very sound itself. To biographer Alfred Einstein, "the Adagio speaks of past sorrow with a heretofore unheard-of depth."

      The light-hearted mood of the finale scarcely conceals its wealth of contrapuntal complexity. A frothy opening subject for the first violin consists of swirling triplets set to minimal accompaniment. Soon thereafter all four voices are merrily engaged in those swirling triplets. A strongly contrasting subject bears a somewhat martial tone; one almost expects to hear punctuations from trumpets and drums. But each reiteration of the ditty is quickly swept away in clouds of triplets. It's all good fun, right up to the surprise ending.