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Piano Quartet in G minor, K478

About the Work

Wolfgang Mozart
Quick Look Composer: Wolfgang Mozart
Program note originally written for the following performance:
The Kennedy Center Chamber Players play Boccherini, Paganini & Mozart Sun., Jun. 3, 2012, 2:00 PM
© Richard Rodda

As Mozart reached his full maturity in the years after arriving in Vienna in 1781, his most expressive manner of writing, whose chief evidences are the use of minor modes, chromaticism, rich counterpoint and thorough thematic development, appeared in his compositions with increasing frequency. Among the most important harbingers of the shift in Mozart's musical language was the G minor Quartet for Piano, Violin, Viola, and Cello (K. 478), which he completed on October 16, 1785 in response to a commission for three (some sources say six) such works from the publisher Franz Anton Hoffmeister. Hoffmeister had only entered the business a year earlier, and Mozart's extraordinary and disturbing score, for which the publisher saw little market, threw a fright into him. "Write more popularly, or else I can neither print nor pay for anything of yours!" he admonished. Mozart cast some quaint expletives upon the publisher's head, and said it was fine with him if the contract were canceled. It was. (Composer and publisher remained friends and associates, however. The following year, Hoffmeister brought out the Quartet in D major, K. 499, which still bears his name as sobriquet.) Artaria & Co., proving more bold than Hoffmeister, acquired the piece, and published it a year later; there are hints in contemporary documents that it enjoyed a number of performances in Vienna.

Alfred Einstein, in his classic 1945 study of Mozart, called the G minor tonality in which the K. 478 Quartet is cast the composer's "key of fate.... The wild command that opens the first movement, unisono, and stamps the whole movement with its character, remaining threateningly in the background, and bringing the movement to its inexorable close, might be called the ‘fate' motive with exactly as much justice as the four-note motive of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony." Contrast to the movement's pervasive agitation is provided by a lyrical melody initiated by the strings without piano. The Andante, in sonatina form (sonata without a development section), is probing, emotionally unsettled music, written in Mozart's most expressive, adventurous harmonic style. Of the thematically rich closing rondo, English musicologist Eric Blom noted, "[It] confronts the listener with the fascinatingly insoluble problem of telling which of its melodies ... is the most delicious." So profligate is Mozart's melodic invention in this movement that he borrowed one of its themes, which he did not even bother to repeat here, for the principal subject of a piano rondo (K. 485) he composed three months later.