Movement 1: Allegro
Movement 2: Menuetto: Allegretto – Trio
Movement 3: Andante
Movement 4: Allegro
Mozart’s chief sources of income were now his modest salary as court Kammermusicus and the fees he earned from pupils and from the sale of manuscript copies and publication rights of his works, mainly chamber music. Purchasers of manuscript copies traditionally enjoyed privileged use of a work or set of works for a fixed period before publication. But with Mozart already being branded a ‘difficult’ composer in some quarters, he found few takers for the string quintets K515 and 516 and the quintet arrangement, K406, of the C minor Wind Serenade (eighteenth-century chamber works were usually sold in sets of three or six). After advertising the three string quintets in manuscript copies ‘finely and correctly written’, for the sum of four ducats, in the Wiener Zeitung of 2 April 1788, Mozart was forced to make the humiliating announcement shortly afterwards that: ‘As the number of subscribers is still very small, I find myself obliged to postpone publication of my three quintets until 1 January 1789.’ Mozart eventually sold the three works to the firm of Artaria, who issued K515 in 1789, K516 in 1790 and K406 in 1792, the year after the composer’s death.
Completed on 19 April 1787, the String Quintet in C major K515 is the most amply scaled of all Mozart’s chamber works. Its breadth and grandeur of conception, prompted by the richness of the quintet sonority, makes it a counterpart to two Olympian orchestral masterpieces in the same key, the Piano Concerto K503 and the ‘Jupiter’ Symphony. Rosen has rightly called the first movement ‘the largest sonata allegro before Beethoven’. Indeed, it prefigures Beethoven’s F major ‘Razumovksy’ Quartet, Op 59 No 1, in its evocation of vast, calm vistas, created by a succession of expansive themes against (for a classical work) unusually slow-changing harmonies. From the cello–violin dialogues of the opening theme, with the parts reversed when the theme is repeated in C minor, through the gorgeous chromatic deflections, to the exposition’s oscillating closing theme over a cello pedal (shades here of the Figaro overture shorn of its nervous energy), everything unfolds with Apollonian majesty. Exploiting the medium’s potential for rich polyphony, Mozart builds the development to a magnificent climax in an intricate double canon on the Figaro theme, with first violin imitated by cello, second violin by first viola. There is further polyphonic elaboration in the coda, whose serene spaciousness is in keeping with the proportions of the whole movement.
Whereas the first movement employs the five instruments in myriad permutations, the Andante—in sonata form without development—is in essence a love duet for first violin and viola, with increasingly florid arabesques that culminate in a rapturous quasi-cadenza. The mood is one of unsullied Arcadian bliss, like one of Mozart’s Salzburg serenades deepened and transfigured. In contrast with the surrounding movements, the minuet (placed before the Andante in some editions) is a curiously evasive, unsettled piece, beginning tentatively with a ten-bar phrase (four bars plus six) which Mozart proceeds to develop in ever-changing textures. The trio, appreciably longer than the minuet, is just as extraordinary: its first fourteen bars sound like a gigantic, speculative upbeat to the Ländler tune played by the violins in octaves over an accompaniment suggestive of a village band.
The catchy contredanse melody that launches the finale has a similar popular flavour. But from this innocent opening Mozart constructs a complex sonata-rondo on a vast scale (539 bars) to balance the first movement. A leisurely procession of memorable ideas includes a second subject which deflects mysteriously from G major to E flat major. But it is the contredanse tune that dominates the discourse, fragmented and worked in ingenious contrapuntal combinations (including being turned upside down), right through to the canon between first violin and cello in the coda.
from notes by Richard Wigmore © 2010