Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Wolfgang Mozart, Piano Quartets K. 478 (1785) and K. 493 (1786)

Yesterday’s Music History Monday post dealt with the incredulity we should all feel when faced with the astounding magnitude of Wolfgang Mozart’s talent and the beauty and quality of his music.  It is appropriate, then, that today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post should celebrate at least some of Mozart’s astonishing music, and I have chosen his two Piano Quartets and what is a brilliant and relatively new recording, one released in 2018.


The title of this album of Mozart’s two piano quartets is “Apotheosis.” The program booklet packaged with the CD defines apotheosis as:

“1. Elevation to divine status

2. The perfect form or example of something”

With its references to “divine status” and “perfection,” that definition indulges in superlatives:

“Something of the highest quality or degree.”

Statements of superlatives are dangerous because they can ride roughshod over important details, 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 statistics 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.  For those of you who are not baseball fans, I would tell you that these are crazy good numbers!) 


But Babe Ruth’s statistics 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 pretty much never had to face middle and late-inning relief pitchers throwing 100 mile-per-hour fastballs.  Would the portly Babe Ruth of 1923 (one of his greatest seasons ever) dominate the game today in the way he did exactly 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 (1756-1791) in 1789, drawing by Doris Stock
Wolfgang Mozart (1756-1791) in 1789, drawing by Doris Stock

Having thus discussed and acknowledged the problem with superlative statements, it’s time for us to take the leap and make one:  in terms of the number of works he composed, their variety, and their sheer quality, Wolfgang Mozart was the greatest composer of chamber music ever to have 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 ever to have 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 from amateur to professional musical vehicles, by rendering their individual 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.  (As for the genre of string quartet: with the greatest respect due to Joseph Haydn – the erstwhile “father of the string quartet” – it was Mozart whose mature quartets that forever elevated the genre and thus set the stage for Beethoven’s string quartets and all that came after.)

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 a fairly 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.…

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