'Concentrating on perfectionism is never a good idea, so we focus on musical concepts instead' Masterclass: Mozart String Quartet K428

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In the first movement of Mozart’s third ‘Haydn’ quartet Johanna Staemmler, second violinist of the Armida Quartet, discusses the importance of harmony, colour and intellectual complexity

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The Armida Quartet has recorded all 23 of Mozart’s string quartets and this one, in E flat major, is one of my favourites. There is no sense of hierarchy from the first violin down, and its individual voices come together to create a beautiful, special character.

Mozart wrote this piece in 1783, after moving from Salzburg to work as a freelance composer in Vienna. There he paid frequent visits to the Dutch diplomat Baron Gottfried van Swieten, who introduced him to contrapuntal works by Bach and Handel. This influence, combined with the compositions of his friend Haydn – particularly the op.33 string quartets – inspired him to compose using a mixture of the old and modern influences that can be heard in all six of his ‘Haydn’ quartets, of which this is the third. These works mark a new era of intellectual, complex composition for Mozart. He did not write them for huge public crowds, as he did with his operas, but for the musical connoisseurs and educated composers among whom he wished to consolidate his position.

To understand this piece, it is particularly helpful to look at Haydn’s op.20 no.1 and op.33 no.2 string quartets in E flat major, as well as Mozart’s own earlier E flat major string quartets. All have interesting parallels with K428, sometimes starting on the same notes and using similar themes for the middle movements. Mozart used ideas from some of these pieces and made them his own, in works that cleverly contrast consonance and dissonance, dark and light, singing and speaking, individual and group, and progress and tradition…

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