Mozart’s K.421 string quartet in D-minor is the second of six string quartets dedicated to Haydn. There is little first-hand documented evidence for the dating of K.421, however, there is anecdotal evidence of Mozart working on this quartet while Constanze was in labour with their first child, Raimund (Irving, 1998, p.13). This would place its origin on 17th June 1783. Bonds (p.13) noted that a dedication to Haydn, the highest regarded composer of the day, “was in itself a good selling-point”.
Table 1 (below) provides a structural, topical and tonal overview of K.421 no.1. It outlines the phrase groups, key and the topics present within each subsidiary structure to that of the exposition, development and recapitulation.
Mozart introduces his D-minor quartet with a diatonic descent of a tetrachord, connoting the ‘lament’ topic. The first violin leaps down an octave, establishing an inverted tonic pedal point. This repetition of the tonic anchors the descending bassline in D-minor, setting the tonality of this movement. The bassline in the consequent phrase is a chromatic alteration of the antecedent. The use of secondary dominants serves to destabilise the D-minor tonality, driving it to G-major. Then a German 6th on G# reverts to D-minor, functioning as a dominant preparation chord. The expectation of the arrival on the dominant is heightened by its avoidance in bar 2, the six-four harmonisation of ⑤ is “entirely tonic in its function” (Caplin, 2014, p.440). However, the function of the arrival of the dominant in bar 7 is not cadential, as it returns to the tonic before the true cadential progression in bar 8. Instead, this harmony brings us back to the D-minor tonality after it has been undermined by the chromatic alterations in the consequent phrase. The consequent phrase is also transposed an octave higher, increasing its intensity. This, combined with a dynamic change to f, evokes a tempesta / Sturm und Drang atmosphere to contrast with the antecedent’s ombra character. The alteration of the cello to partake in the quaver accompaniment harmony rather than to continue with the minims further causes sonic priority of the first violin’s now frantic expression.
Caplin (2014, p.450) provides an interesting interpretation of the metric position of the closing cadences of the aforementioned antecedent-consequent phrases. The antecedent phrase on first inspection looks to resolve on beat 1 of bar 4 as a weak perfect cadence. However, the consequent phrase cadences in the middle of bar 8. This metric discontinuity is unusual, causing Caplin to posit a possible solution. Throughout the movement many cadences appear in the middle of the bar, this suggests that “we are dealing with a situation of what eighteenth-century theorists called ‘compound meter’, whereby each notated measure consists of two simple measures” (p.450). If we consider this also to be true of bar 4 then “we would have to hear the arrival on the A in the melody as articulating dominant harmony (despite the lack of bass voice)”.
The transition is arrived at through imitative descent through the quartet with an octave between each instrument. This antiphonal imitation causes inevitability of change as each instrument is accounted for, therefore this imitation could only possibly happen 4 times for a string quartet, each instrument has played, and each iteration has descended by octave. Mozart, in effect, runs out of octaves and runs out of instruments.
The second subject contains much more periodic phrasing (8+3+4 see Table 1). Written in the relative major from D-minor, the F-major tonality evokes a warmer, milder tone (Ishiguro, 2010). The bustling semiquaver accompaniment gives energy to the second subject, to contrast with the more languishing first subject and transition.
Irving (1998) makes reference to Forkel’s concept of musical oration when discussing the opening and development of K.421. When likening Forkel’s Erfindung to Quintillian’s inventio as “the stuff of inspiration” (p.63), Irving states this may be harmonic as well as melodic. This may in part account for the opening theme introducing each major section in the movement; exposition, development, recapitulation. Irving notes the harmonically driven nature of the development, such as the modulations from Eb-major in bar 42, to A-minor at bar 46, a tritone. The use of the flattened supertonic key to begin the development section is perhaps unusual, however its effect is strong as the increase in flats creates a duller sound on string instruments, by lessening sympathetic resonances and avoiding open strings. This serves to further achieve the ombra topic.
Bars 46-49 are firmly in the learned style. The quartet is split between the two violins creating suspensions, and the viola and cello alternating the ‘trill motif’ and a sustained dominant pedal (see extract 1). Suspensions of the ninth occur with the second violin leaping over the first violin, creating an illusory stepwise ascent. This form of suspension also appears in the beginning of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater (Sanguinetti, p.131, 2012). This passage also presents yet another almost completely chromatic descending tetrachord.
The opening melody is developed imitatively in bars 53-58. Each repetition of the melody highlights an ascending sequence within the D-minor harmonic scale of A-Bb-C#-D – ⑤⑥⑦①, followed by the continuing ascent acting in G-minor (D is now ⑤ rather than ①) ⑤⑥⑦①. This, of course, counters the previous connotations of the opening melody with a descending figure in the accompaniment. This learned thematic development contains a prolonged dissonance offensive to the Italian composer Guiseppe Sarti, that of the A with Bb in bar 54. This was evidence enough for Sarti to label the “author (whom I neither know nor wish to know)” as “nothing more than a piano-forte player with spoiled ears, who does not concern himself about counterpoint” (Quoted from Irving, 1998, p.77). Of course, this dissonance is “logical in its imitative context”, however its reception is notable.
Mozart’s treatment of the recapitulation is “straightforward” (Irving, 1998, p.34). The extended transition in the recapitulation serves as a ‘secondary development’ section. Here, Mozart develops ideas not dealt with in the development section, and he must make up for the missing half-bar arising from the opening theme. He does this in bar 84 with the addition of a tentative, syncopated, stacattisimo quaver section. The Neapolitan chord at bar 97 adds harmonic colour to the alteration of the second subject, (Caplin, 1998). A “brief, additional coda” (Irving, 1998, p.34) at 112b-117 rounds the movement off nicely, “highlighting upper and lower chromatic neighbour tones to the tonic note, D”.
Sarti was not Mozart’s only critic, King (1968, p.20) quotes the Vienna correspondent of the Magazin der Musik as claiming Mozart’s quartets to be “too highly seasoned – and whose palate can endure this for long?”. Dittersdorf, in a conversation with Emperor Joseph II in 1786, allegedly likened Mozart to Friedrich Klopstock, Haydn to Christian Gellert. This was due to how “Klopstock must be read repeatedly in order to understand his beauties, whereas Gellert’s beauties lay plainly exposed to the first glance” (Irving, 1998, p. 78). Although these views may well have prevailed during Mozart’s life, it is in part due to his chromatic tendencies and hidden “beauties” that his compositions have endured.
Braunbehrens, V. (1991). Mozart in vienna. (T., Bell, Trans.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1986).
Caplin, W.E. (1998). Classical form. New York: Oxford University Press.
Caplin, W.E. (2014). Topics and formal functions: the case of the lament. In D. Mirka (Ed.) The oxford handbook of topic theory (pp. 415-451). New York: Oxford University Press.
Edward Klorman [Edward Klorman]. (2016, Mar 30). Video 2.4 Momigny, vocal arrangement of Mozart, quartet in d minor, k. 421, allegro moderato [Video file]. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/160946579
Galand, J. (2014). Topics and tonal processes. In D. Mirka (Ed.) The oxford handbook of topic theory (pp. 453-473). New York: Oxford University Press.
Gjerdingen, R.O. (2007). Music in the galant style. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Irving, J. (1998). Mozart ‘the Haydn quartets’. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
King, A.H. (1968). Mozart chamber music. London: BBC.
Mirka, D. (Ed.) (2014). The oxford handbook of topic theory. New York: Oxford University Press.
Momigny, J.J.D. (1803-1806). Cours complet d’harmonie et de composition. Retrieved from file:///C:/Users/conno/Desktop/Uni/2nd%20Year/Music%20in%20Vienna%201770-1830/Score-2.4-Momigny-Vocal-Arrangement-of-Mozart-Quartet-in-D-Minor.pdf
Mozart, W. A., & Finscher, L. (1962). String quartet in D-minor, K421. London, England: Bärenreiter.
O’Hara, W. (2017). Momigny’s Mozart: Language, Metaphor, and Form in an Early Analysis of the String Quartet in D Minor, K. 421. Mozart society of America, 21 (1), 5-10. Retrieved from https://static1.squarespace.com/static/53777798e4b0875c41487b50/t/58f10892579fb335328ac6ea/1492191382447/MomignysMozart.pdf.
Ratner, L.G. (1980). Classic music: expression, form, and style. New York: Schirmer Books.
Rosen, C. (1971). The classical style: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. London: Faber and Faber Limited.
Sanguinetti, G. (2012). The art of partimento. New York: Oxford University Press.