Mozart's "Dissonance"

Thomas Cole
“View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts,
After A Thunderstorm - The Oxbow” (1836)

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Still dissonant after 240 years

Among the highlights of this summer we’ll be performing Mozart’s String Quartet in C Major, K 465. There is a transcendent moment near the beginning that makes my heart leap in my chest. Mozart sets it up perfectly: the cello starts mysteriously with slow, pulsating notes as the other voices enter in succession with sustained dissonant notes out of the key – first the viola, followed by second violin, and then, most jarringly, first violin. Mozart’s own publisher found the opening so bizarre he thought it must be an error (this quartet was nicknamed “The Dissonance” in Mozart’s time due to its weirdness to contemporary ears).  The tension builds for two minutes until it ends with a kind of question which then transforms into a fast melody of almost preternatural beauty and simplicity.  It is like hiking up a mountain in the rain when suddenly the clouds part and you are presented with a glorious view.

Such music poses challenges to the performer. In an interview, the great Mozart interpreter Alfred Brendel was asked what Artur Schnabel meant when he said: "Mozart is too easy for children, but too difficult for professionals.”

Alfred Brendel: In Mozart's works everything is exposed. There are relatively few notes and each of them counts. Not only that you find the right key, but that you give each key the right nuance, the right inflection. If you are not careful you fall into a trap. Most players either don't see the complications and think the pieces are too easy, or they do see the complications and find them too difficult.

The incomparable Alfred Brendel

Stories of how entire works flew direct from Mozart’s head to the page are accurate. His manuscripts rarely reveal any changes or corrections. That he was able to compose with such ease is staggering. That he was 25 years old and only recently arrived in Vienna from the backwater that was Salzburg to meet his idol, Joseph Haydn (to whom he dedicated this set of quartets) almost defies belief.

Mozart’s dedication to Haydn says:
“Your good opinion encourages me to offer [these] to you,
and leads me to hope that you will not consider
them wholly unworthy of your favor.

Please, then, receive them kindly and be to them
a father, guide, and friend!”

We have the good fortune to perform this piece several times at the festival, allowing our interpretation to evolve over the course of the week. There is both a thrill to performing a piece the first time and a different sort of satisfaction as one becomes more comfortable with a given work - that elusive ease which Brendel refers to might be conjured more easily once a performer or group has a few performances under their belt. Then again, that early spontaneity - before a group has settled in - opens up other possibilities.

To really nail Mozart in a concert involves a tug of war between putting into practice what you’ve so carefully rehearsed (intonation, matching articulation, dynamics, balancing the voices) while also opening yourself up to something unexpected and wonderful. Without the former, you have a glorious mess; without the latter, you may as well have a computer give the concert.

David Yang, Artistic Director

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