Mozart connoisseurs and admirers know of course about what is bizarre in the finale of his very last string quartet, K. 590. In its development the harshness of the tone language is particularly unparalleled in the Mozart oeuvre. But the unsettling already starts shortly before the end of the first section: The otherwise so airily sparkling sixteenth notes stall all of a sudden in an almost stranded-like repetitive three-note kink. It is just this spot that Mozart vehemently corrected in his manuscript. The investigation of this correction offers us at hand an analytical key to the understanding of this absolutely special movement.
This spluttering three-note figure, in itself circular, seized up, as it were, against the meter,
dominates the whole development after its first occurrence and is, of course, heard once again at the end of the movement. Mozart later scrupulously corrected it wherever and in whichever part it appears as well. And indeed, to be specific, its articulation. If in the first draft he had always put sixteenths together in a large legato phrase, then he later corrected the legato (but did not cross it out or erase it in the autograph) by placing under the respective notes the familiar two-note grouping of slurs and staccatos:
To date I have never encountered any other autograph where Mozart made such a striking, systematic change in the articulation. Notes, yes, dynamics, yes, but articulation over such a long stretch? Anyone wanting to look more closely at these passages can consult the wonderful online presentation of all the autographs of Mozart’s ten so-called “famous” string quartets in the British Library, London.
Some readers may shrug their shoulders and point out that even in a composer’s “workshop” many such corrections arise, and thanks to the printed editions we indeed know the “correct” text. For me such corrections represent a wonderful entry into the deeper understanding of the music: Autograph corrections are to some extent the visible marks of a compositional problem that the composer solved by intervening to improve or revise. Upon investigating the marks and trying to understand them we immediately find ourselves inside the music. For musicians wanting to perform such masterpieces appropriately, such an analysis calling for the autograph also helps, in my view, for unlike the manuscript the seemingly smooth and perfect music text of its printed editions does not reveal any kind of such mysteries.
So we might ask why perhaps in the case of K. 590/IV would Mozart then later change the original, completely legato version of the “spluttering spot” to a succession of two-note groups (staccatos, slur, staccatos, slur, etc.). The original legato phrasing can certainly not be “wrong” in a literal sense, at most only weaker in design. What though could be “weaker” in it?
I’m going to attempt an interpretation: We do fully understand the fundamental compositional idea of this passage (and all related to it) without articulation. The three continuously repeated sixteenth notes are clearly taken from the opening of the movement’s main theme:
We can understand this main theme as a sequence spiraling downward tone-by-tone. Heard at the movement’s start is only a small excerpt of this motoric descending spiral, to then be more spaciously implemented later (I have identified with “x” the sequence’s descending goal tones always falling on the “strong” beats “1” and “3”):
One of the inexhaustible miracles of this movement is a contrapuntal structure based solely on this sequence figure. (A short video by Richard Atkinson offers a successful visualization and explanation of this.)
At the passage in question the figure now no longer comes from the passage, the sequence is almost forcibly reduced to its first three pitches like a motor that suddenly begins to splutter. And just this number three naturally at once induces an awful confusion in the metrically exact structure of the 4/4 time. For the three tones now persistently begin and end at illogical, irregular spots in the measure structure.
The appeal of these irregular “splutterings” is thereby supported, even enhanced, as the three lower parts stall so to speak, namely on the C-major bordun sound: the two lower parts with their open fifth c/g imitate the sound of the hurdy-gurdy or the bagpipes, the 2nd violin syncopatedly sharpening the missing third each time with the dissonant leading tone d sharp.
“Hurdy-gurdy” or “bagpipes” and jolly music-like “out-of-sync devices” – that is, in my view, Mozart’s original idea of this passage. Momentarily, the highly artificial melody of the art-music milieu is thus brusquely shifted to the dance floor of the country folk. (That’s indeed a familiar, not really so rare trick of “classical composers”, especially of Joseph Haydn. It seems to me anyway that with his finale of the 3rd “Prussian quartet” Mozart tangibly alludes to the superb finale in Haydn’s opus 55, no. 1 – but that would be worth a blog post of its own.) So, the original slur placement also emphasizes the “drone” or amateurish “bagpipe drone” of this passage: The long slur equalizes, that is, to an extent the persistently repeated three tones; without beginning and goal they keep on droning, as it were, formlessly, naively dilettante-like.
Mozart now corrected this “droning” articulation later with one considerably more artful. It is more artful because it is subdivided and more patterned. As such, the now new continuous alternation of two thrusting notes with two slurred notes would be a standard articulation of the period. Yet here it behaves entirely differently: the two-note grouping pretends only to clarify uniformity and norm, thus staccato always as upbeat, slurring always for the strong downbeat. In truth, the now sophisticated articulation still accentuates the “confusion”, while now indeed the strong beats are re-emphasized, but at the same time the original, steadily “droning” three-note figure is now articulated with each repetition – systematically-methodically – in every other configuration:
In other words: Not only does the three into four (of the notes) create a constant syncopated dislocation of perception, which could still be appreciated as hurdy-gurdy music, but the exact 2+2 of the subsequent articulation on the ground of the permanent note displacement also completely overrides the audible relation to the original root of this figure. The original droning three-note figure now gains its own utterly unsettling charm.
And just this charm of the unsettling continues in the bizarre development. What in the original, leveling legato implementation could have left behind there a vapid taste, now gains a piercing coldness and hardness from correcting the articulation.
Summary: The articulation Mozart changed demonstrates a tremendously confident sovereignty over its own musical material; Mozart lifts by a small trick the “weakness” of the originally merely humorous, probably permanently tedious “barrel organ” passage to the height of a great masterpiece.