Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Mozart’s Piano Quartets

Statements of superlatives are dangerous because they can ride roughshod over the sorts of important details that would otherwise force us to qualify those superlative statements.

George Herman “Babe” Ruth (1895-1948) in 1922
George Herman “Babe” Ruth (1895-1948) in 1922

For example. The consensus “greatest baseball player” of all time is Babe Ruth (1895-1948), whose stats as a power hitter were so far ahead of his contemporaries as to put him in a league of his own. (His stats as a pitcher – had he continued to pitch regularly throughout his career – might very well have put him in a league of his own as well; pitching for the Boston Red Sox in 1916 and 1917, he threw 650 innings and won 47 games with an ERA of 1.88.) 


Babe Ruth’s stats must be taken within the context of his time. Players today are significantly bigger, faster, and better conditioned than were the players of Ruth’s time. Professional baseball today draws from a much wider population base than did baseball in Ruth’s time; Ruth never had to play against Black American players, or Dominican, Venezuelan, Mexican, Japanese, or Korean players. And the Babe rarely had to face middle and late-relief pitchers throwing 100 mile-per-hour fastballs. Would the Babe Ruth of 1920 dominate the game today in the way he did 100 years ago? Not a chance. 

So back to the superlative statement of calling Babe Ruth the GOAT: the “greatest of all time.” To be accurate that statement must be qualified: Babe Ruth was the GOHT: the “greatest of his time.”

Wolfgang Mozart in 1789, drawing by Doris Stock
Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791) in 1789, drawing by Doris Stock

Having thus discussed and acknowledged the problem with superlatives, it’s time for us to take the leap and state one: in terms of number, quality, and variety, Wolfgang Mozart was the greatest composer of chamber music to have yet lived. 

Do we need to qualify that statement?

No, we do not. In fact, we can take it a step further by asserting that Mozart was also the most innovative composer of chamber music to have yet lived, as he single-handedly invented the violin sonata (violin and piano), the piano trio (violin, cello, and piano), the piano quartet (violin, viola, cello, and piano) and the string quintet (two violins, two violas, cello) as we understand those genres today. Admittedly, Mozart was not the first composer to write works using these instrumental combinations, but it was Mozart who elevated them all from amateur to professional musical vehicles, by rendering the parts independent of each other and imbuing them with a compositional complexity and technical virtuosity that went far beyond anything that had come before him. (Joseph Haydn might be considered the “father of the string quartet”, but in fact, it was Mozart who, in his mature quartets, elevated the genre above its amateur origins as well.)

Mozart’s two piano quartets are among the greatest pieces of music ever written (that’s not an opinion but rather, an irrefutable fact). And there is an (almost) brand new recording of the Mozart piano quartets that is so good that it has replaced my cherished Beaux Arts Trio/Bruno Giuranna recording as my favorite. 

Let us talk a bit about the quartets themselves before getting to the recording.

One of the reasons Mozart’s piano quartets are so sensational is that he pulled not a single compositional punch in writing them. Like so much of his late music – including the six string quartets he dedicated to Haydn, his string quintets, and his operas The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosi fan tutte – Mozart’s piano quartets push the very edge of virtuosity and musical coherence as they existed at the time. The piano quartets are artistic triumphs. It almost goes without saying, then, that in their own time, they were commercial disasters. 

As Mozart matured, his father Leopold became increasingly concerned over what he perceived as Wolfgang’s commercial naiveté and artistic “arrogance”: his son’s desire to write music that did not address popular taste. Leopold harangued Wolfgang – endlessly – to keep his artistic sights low and his commercial sights high. For example, in a letter to his son regarding the composition of the opera Idomeneo in 1780, Leopold wrote:

“I recommend that you think, when at work, not only of the “musical” but also the unmusical public. You know that for every ten connoisseurs, there are a hundred ignoramuses! Do not neglect the so-called popular.” 

Leopold might just as well have been asking Wolfgang to pole vault 22 feet. Whether he was simply unwilling to – or perhaps even unable to – the mature Mozart refused to “dumb it down” in order to appeal to a wider audience. Rather, his mature muse demanded absolute freedom of expression, and in this, he was much more a nineteenth century man than an eighteenth century one. No doubt: Wolfgang Mozart loved money and the finer things in life more than most, but never at the expense of his music. And never was Mozart’s refusal to “dumb-it-down” more apparent than in his two piano quartets, as the story behind their creation bears out.… continue reading about the development of these quartets, and my prescribed recording, only on Patreon.

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