By Andrea Moore

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Duo for Violin & Viola in G Major, K. 423

The combination of violin and viola never became a codified chamber music genre, but there are some significant contributions to the form, among them a set of six that Joseph Haydn wrote in the 1770s. Mozart wrote two pieces for this combination in 1783 (the other one, K. 424, will be performed in February), and Joseph Haydn’s younger brother, the composer Michael Haydn, is an essential part of their story.

Michael Haydn was employed in Archbishop Colloredo’s service in Salzburg. Among other things, Colloredo is remembered for his repeated clashes with Mozart and his father, Leopold. Mozart’s family letters describe the Archbishop as rude and insensitive, and Wolfgang eventually petitioned to be released from Colloredo’s service, resulting in both his and his father’s termination. Given this history, Mozart might not have been surprised to learn that Haydn was in a predicament with Colloredo: ordered to produce a set of six duos for violin and viola, Haydn fell ill in the midst of the project, and Colloredo threatened to withhold his salary. Mozart quickly stepped in to write the missing duos, which later became K. 423 and 424 in his own catalogue, delivering them to Colloredo under Haydn’s name. While many scholars (and other listeners) claim to be able to hear a difference between those duos written by Haydn and those by Mozart, hindsight may well play some part in that.

One distinction between Haydn’s four and Mozart’s two, however, is that Mozart’s are much more like true dialogues of equals, offering violinists and violists an unusual opportunity to go head-to-head, possibly owing to his own great skill as a violinist and violist. Haydn’s pieces tend to relegate the viola to a more supporting role.

The first movement is a traditional sonata form, with a shift in mood and tone in the development section, which opens with a series of double stops. In the lyrical second movement, the violin takes a more melodic role, while the lower voice offers support—this is not just harmonic underpinning, however, as Mozart often gives the viola countermelodies of its own. The finale is an energetic Rondo, with dramatic interest coming from rapid shifts in rhythm and dynamics

Ludwig van Beethoven, String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 74, “Harp”

The summer of 1809 was dreary for Beethoven: the French had occupied Vienna, the imperial family had fled, and Beethoven was largely cut off from the larger world. More broadly, 1809 might also be thought of as Beethoven’s year of E-flat. Missing his great patron, Archduke Rudolph, in the summer of that year, he wrote his piano sonata in E-flat, Op. 81, Les Adieux, dedicating it to Rudolph, with each movement title a poignant tribute to their separation: the farewell, the separation, the reunion. His fifth piano concerto, “Emperor,” in E-flat Major was also written that year and dedicated to Rudolph. This string quartet in E-flat Major was dedicated to another patron, Prince Lobkowitz, to whom Beethoven had also dedicated his Op. 18 string quartets. Unlike Op. 18, and the quartets of Op. 59, both of which were published in sets, this is the only one of its opus number.

This quartet is often paired with Op. 95, from the following year, and often with the implication that this one is the “lighter” of the two.  Musicologist Joseph Kerman said, of Op. 74, that it was “not one to raise deep questions and great issues.” That may or may not be true, but it is fairly straightforward in structure and behaves more or less as expected. The first movement has the standard slow introduction, followed by an Allegro in sonata form. The nickname given to the piece by its publisher, “Harp,” comes from the pizzicato arpeggios that occur in the middle of the Allegro, with a quick echo at the end. The second movement is marked cantabile, and its opening melody returns between contrasting sections, twice, with variations and elaborations. The third movement stands in contrast to the rest of the piece, suggesting Beethoven in his heroic mode (as does the Emperor concerto), and possibly with a rare humor shining through. In C Minor, like his Symphony No. 5, this movement alternates between its Presto sections and two Trios, which are even faster. Above all is a recurring motive, 3 notes + 1 note, that sounds a great deal like a reference to the opening of Symphony No. 5, played at breakneck speed. Also like the Fifth, Beethoven writes an ambiguous transition from the third to fourth movements, a quiet near fadeout of the material that makes no pause between movements. The final movement dispenses with the heroic mode, and is a fairly straightforward set of variations, which alternate between lyrical and more propulsive. The viola is given an unusually prominent melodic role in the second variation, and the piece concludes with a quick, short coda.

Louis Vierne, Piano Quintet in C Minor, Op. 42

Louis Vierne was born in 1870 in Poitiers, into a family of musicians. He studied piano, organ, and violin in childhood, adding solfège and harmony studies at his boarding school. At 16, he came to the attention of César Franck, who advised him to pursue organ studies, and Vierne began auditing Franck’s class at the Conservatoire before enrolling formally. Unfortunately, Franck died only a few weeks after Vierne entered his class. Although Vierne quickly became assistant to Charles-Marie Widor, who replaced Franck, this loss was not atypical for Vierne’s life, which was greatly marked by bereavement.

It was also marked by professional disappointment, including being twice passed over for the position of professor of organ at the Conservatoire, despite holding the most prestigious organ post in Paris, that at Notre Dame, which he won by audition in 1900. By all accounts an exceptional organist, and perhaps an even more extraordinary improviser at the organ, much of Vierne’s own compositions are for that instrument. This oeuvre includes six organ symphonies, which build on Franck and Widor’s works in the same genre, and expand on them in terms of their formal and harmonic constructions. He also wrote dozens of smaller works for solo organ, a few choral works, a fair amount of instrumental music (including one symphony), and a number of songs for voice and piano.

The 1910s were a terribly difficult decade for Vierne, marked by loss and disappointment. In 1911, he was passed over (probably due to nepotism) for the Conservatoire job for the first time. His ten-year old son died in 1913, and the war began the following year. Already vision-impaired since birth, he was diagnosed with glaucoma in 1915. And in 1917, both his elder son and his brother were killed in combat. It is difficult to imagine the emotional toll of all of these events, but Vierne produced some of his most intense works in their aftermath, including his fourth organ symphony, and this Quintet.

The piece is inscribed, “En Ex-Voto. à la mémoire de mon cher fils Jacques. Mort pour la France à 17 ans.” (Following a vow. In commemoration of my dear son Jacques. Died for France at the age of 17). In a letter he wrote after receiving the news, Vierne described his intentions for this piece, saying he would write “a quintet of vast proportions through every part of which shall flow the spirit of my tender feelings and the tragic destiny of my child. I shall bring this work to a conclusion with energy as fierce and ferocious as my grief is terrible. I shall produce something of power, of grandeur and strength which shall move fathers to the depths of their hearts with the most profound feelings of love for a dead son. As for me, the last to hold my name – I will bury him with a roar of thunder and not with the plaintiff bleating of a sheep resigned to its happy fate.”

The piece opens with a bleak and dissonant piano introduction, followed by the expected Allegro first theme, and a lyrical second theme first stated by the cello. The second movement is elegiac, opening with a long melodic passage in the low strings, before the piano enters alone. The movement is generally restrained, but punctuated with intensely emotional outbursts, featuring a fair amount of dissonance, soaring unison strings, fraught tremolos, and heavy piano chords. The final movement is tumultuous, beginning with the jagged opening chords, and again making use of tremolos as a way of creating tension. The movement settles into a kind of calm before erupting into the thunderous coda hinted at in Vierne’s letter.