The Mozart Quintet for Piano and Wind instruments, K. 452, was premiered April 1, 1784 on one of Mozart’s subscription concerts in Vienna. This was in the middle of some of Wolfgang’s best years in Vienna, productive in composition, and financially successful in performance. In the early 1780’s Mozart wrote quite a few piano concertos to perform himself in concerts of his own music. Wolfgang produced these concerts himself, in any large space available, and he relied upon them for much of his income at the time. Operas were not performed in the theaters of Vienna during the Lenten season before Easter, and the theaters were available to put on concerts of instrumental music. Mozart was living as a freelance musician and composer in Vienna during these years, and he used the available space in the theater to put on a grand concert for his own benefit and to attract potential commissions for new music. This was the occasion for the premiere of the Quintet for Piano and Winds.
In a letter to his father Leopold, Wolfgang wrote:
Mon très cher Père,
“ Please don’t be angry with me for not having written to you for so long, but you know how much I’ve had to do during that time! With my 3 subscription concerts I’ve covered myself in glory. My concert at the theatre also turned out very well. I wrote 2 grand concertos and also a quintet that was extraordinarily well received; I myself think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. It’s scored for 1 oboe, 1 clarinet, 1 horn, 1 bassoon and pianoforte. I wish you could have heard it!”
“The best thing I’ve ever written”?!? From the mature Mozart, at the height of his powers in Vienna? That is a lofty statement. Written in 1784, the Quintet was written before the trio of opera buffa collaborations with Da Ponte, before the final three symphonies, and before the Requiem. Still, old Wolfgang had written a lot of great music by this point, including the “Haffner” and “Linz” symphonies, 17 or so string quartets, the Great Mass in c minor, Idomeneo and 14 other operas, (the list goes on and on). Setting aside any hyperbole, it is clear Mozart thought very highly of this quintet.
The work is scored for piano, clarinet, oboe, bassoon and horn. This is a completely novel group of instruments for chamber music of the time. The Mozart quintet is the very first work for this instrumentation, and it is a masterpiece. He certainly was familiar with writing for pairs of winds, having composed numerous Divertimenti and Serenades using wind instruments. The importance of winds in his piano concerti was growing during these years as well, but this chamber group poses unique challenges to the composer. A group of strings naturally blends their sound together in a homogenous texture, but Mozart challenged himself here with five distinctly different timbres to unite. In addition, Wolfgang has to shape the musical phrases while keeping in mind four of the players need to breathe.
Hearing the music, it is easy to discover why Mozart was so proud of this Quintet. As a child prodigy, Wolfgang was a sponge that soaked up all the standard musical styles and genres of his time. In this case however, he had no precedent to follow, nothing to imitate. He had to be truly original to create a satisfying musical work. His solution involved sharing a musical theme among the different voices, in continually changing combinations of instruments. The piano provides a frame, and there is a constant trading of phrases between solo voices and groups of voices. Rarely does the whole ensemble play at once. The winds are treated in true egalitarian fashion, each taking turns and no one dominating the musical texture. The relationship of the winds and piano is evocatively described by H. C. Robbins Landon:
“By far the most difficult task Mozart set himself, and wherein lay his most dazzling achievement, was the composition of the Quintet, K. 452…The lack of blend between four different wind instruments meant to Mozart that chord passages unsupported by the piano would have to be brief. The instruments would therefore have to be contrasted in various permutations against the piano, with none of them being allowed to be disproportionately prominent. Mozart adopted a patchwork method in order to build up themes of any length, by stitching together an array of short motifs, supported by constantly varying instrumental combinations. This method risked a superficial instability but ultimately provided its fundamental unity.”
The Quintet for Piano and Winds, K. 452, is set in three movements. The first movement has a slow introduction to a sonata form. The middle slow movement is followed by a sonata-rondo finale to conclude the piece. The form is similar to the structure of Mozart’s piano concerti of the same years. Mozart himself played the piano at the premiere, and the work was eventually published in 1801. Somewhere along the way, a young Ludwig van Beethoven heard the work and must have been very impressed. Beethoven wrote his own Quintet for Piano and Winds that was published as his Opus 16, in a tribute to the Mozart composition. The piece by Beethoven is an early work, written before any of his symphonies or string quartets. It has the exact same instrumentation as Mozart’s, is in the same key (E-flat major), and follows a similar three movement structure. However, where Mozart gives us a concerto in miniature, Beethoven composes a work with a much more improvisatory character and his own Beethovenian approach to piano writing. The Mozart Quintet is an acknowledged masterpiece of the chamber music repertoire, but Ludwig’s work has had a more mixed reception. Donald Francis Tovey’s particularly icy analysis reads thusly:
“In the quintet for pianoforte and wind instruments, Opus 16, Beethoven is, indeed, obviously setting himself in rivalry with Mozart’s quintet for the same combination; but, if you want to realize the difference between the highest art of classical composition and the easygoing, safety-first product of a silver age, you cannot find a better illustration than these two works, and here it is Mozart who is the classic and Beethoven who is something less.”
I’m not sure Tovey is being entirely fair, but Beethoven clearly invited comparison when he composed his Opus 16. When Ludwig moved to Vienna in 1792, he originally wanted to study with Mozart, but Mozart had already died. Clearly Beethoven studied and admired much of Mozart’s music. Someone once said something to the effect that a person doesn’t paint a tree because they see a tree. A person paints a tree because they have seen another painting of a tree. Beethoven modeled his composition after Mozart, and gives us a very satisfying piece, even if it falls short of the mature Mozart masterpiece. These two “trees” for Piano and Winds can often be found recorded together on the same album, making for a rewarding listen and comparison.