As a quartet we play a lot of Mozart. At the moment we are concentrating on the earlier quartets, although the later Eine Kleine Nachtmusik remains a staple of any string repertoire. Like no other aspect of the Mozart musical corpus – save perhaps for the operas – the quartets reveal the true genius of Mozart in that they sound exactly as music should. Imagine a string quartet and you imagine them playing Mozart, probably a minuet in a jolly major key on a pleasant summer’s evening. There is an almost extraterrestrial perfection to so much of Mozart’s music, something which is particularly evident in the iconic opening movement of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. Listening to this is the musical equivalent of hearing a speech whose words are inspirational and chime exactly with what the listener would say were he capable of such articulacy. With Eine Kleine Nachtmusik this impression derives partly from Mozart’s unmatched mastery of sonata form, but it is primarily a melodic effect, whereby each bar flows from the previous one as if it were the only natural and possible successor. With such organic melodic precision no other composer can compete, not even Beethoven.
Why then can Mozart’s music fail to move and inspire us quite as much as that of some other composers lacking his melodic and structural genius, most notably Beethoven? It is fair to say that as a quartet we have rather less opportunity to play Beethoven in public; in general Beethoven’s quartets are harder to listen to than Mozart’s. Yet it is worth the extra effort both to play and to listen to Beethoven, as the rewards can be greater, and it is this which perhaps explains why Mozart’s magic can be frustrating. For it is arguable that Mozart’s perfection is of an almost scientific nature, bordering on perfectionism and even fastidiousness at times. Developing the speech analogy, it is as if the words are perfect but the oratory itself is somehow lacking conviction. It is harsh and a little misleading to suggest that Mozart’s music can sometimes sound like it has been written to order, but it is a suggestion not entirely without foundation. For the most part it is impossible to perceive in Mozart any emotional investment in his art – it is notable that Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, a work of joyful serenity, was written at a time of great difficulty for the composer towards the end of his life – which in turn inhibits any emotional response. With Beethoven however we see enough hints of his sometimes dark and complex personality to make the thrilling climaxes and triumphant resolutions for which his music is so famous all the more well-earned.
To be sure Mozart’s music is a wonderful gift, and it is far more important that a composer can observe nature’s rules of harmony, rhythm and structure than emote effectively. But it is perhaps the case that were Mozart’s music a little more illuminated by the composer’s personality its greatness would be even further enhanced.