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Composed: 1786

About this Piece

Mozart’s first quartet for piano and strings, in G minor, K. 478—apparently the first work ever written for this combination—was to have been followed by two more compositions with the same scoring. However, when the publisher, Hoffmeister, complained that the public found the Quartet too difficult and would not buy it, Mozart released him from his contract. Even so, he went on to write a second Piano Quartet in E-flat, in 1786, some weeks after the completion of Le nozze di Figaro. As badly as Mozart needed a commercial success at this difficult period of his life—when his Viennese celebrity, only some three years old, was already beginning to fade—he still did not take to heart Hoffmeister’s complaint about the Gminor Quartet’s demanding piano part.

The present work’s keyboard scoring does not reflect any contriteness; the piano is extremely active throughout and in the last movement has some distinctly concerto-like passages. This is not to say that the E-flat-major Quartet is any less chamber-like than the G-minor. There is a splendid balance between the keyboard and the strings, and any sacrifice of prominence suffered by the strings due to the piano’s natural sonorous superiority is compensated for by the number of strings-only passages throughout the work. (Since Mozart had already solved the not inconsiderable problem of combining the piano with a full complement of instruments in the some 20 piano concertos he had composed by this time, he was not about to be confounded by the wedding of piano and string trio.)

As they do in the first Quartet, the four players begin together, but here with not so much thematic material as a succession of ideas, whose main purpose seems to be to lead to a brief (two-measure) thought in B-flat, given first in single notes in the piano’s treble without accompaniment and then imitated by the violin. Later, this motif becomes extremely important in being singled out for a series of dramatic minor-key excursions in the development section. And it is this selfsame motif that is brought back in the brief coda before the final cadential chords.

The main theme of the Larghetto second movement (containing a figure not unlike the prominent motif in the opening Allegro) initiates music of the Romanza type that Mozart was so fond of. The lyricism is equitably shared by strings and keyboard, with the latter sometimes cast in a purely accompanimental role. Pianistic justice will out, however, and in the last movement the keyboard is the dominant force. The strings are not exactly neglected, but the piano is clearly the star of this multi-theme rondo that unfolds in such masterly fashion that one can only bask in the glow of the Mozart genius. —Orrin Howard