MOZART K478 AND ME

Mozart's first piano quartet (for violin, viola, cello, and piano) in G minor, K478, is an imposing and somber work, in spite of its classical grace. It manifests some unusual attributes.

Mozart's usual texture consists of independent parts, each with its own character, and a free interchange of parts between them. But in this work, the texture half the time is a sort of antiphony: the piano alone, the three stringed instruments alone, or alternation between the two. Every theme is presented in this kind of antiphony.

Normally with Mozart each musical idea engenders a new idea. That is also the case in this work, with one conspicuous exception. The first theme in the first movement is the subject of a lengthy, intense elaboration before the second theme appears, and this is repeated in full in the recapitulation.

The whole work is crowded with scales which rip through the fabric of the music at every turn. The development section of the first movement hardly deals with the themes, but consists mostly of these scales. In addition, there are many unison passages, and sudden sforzati. All this produces a dramatic effect, which might mistakenly be called "Beethovenesque" -- but that would be an egregious insult. This is Mozart -- the mature Mozart.

I entered the Juilliard School of Music in 1946, when William Schuman had just become president and had revolutionized the curriculum. A series of courses called "Literature and Materials of Music" replaced the old theory, harmony, and history of music. Everyone without exception had to sing in a choir. Everyone without exception had to attend chamber music classes. For pianists (I was a pianist) the four-year chamber music curriculum was: 1,piano and strings; 2,accompanying a singer; 3,violin sonatas; 4,piano duets.

Thus, from the very first I found myself in a piano-and-strings class, taught by Irwin Freundlich. We were eight first-year students, comprising two piano quartets. In the first semester each quartet would study one of the Mozart piano quartets; in the second semester each quartet would study one of the Brahms piano quartets. That week I spent hours practicing and rehearsing with my partners, hoping to play Mozart's K478 in class without disgracing myself.

At the second lesson, my three partners and I played the first movement of K478 gently and daintily, and provoked Freundlich to make a passionate speech. (Looking back at the beginning of this essay, I see that I am still paraphrasing that speech.) He said that it was a crime to think of Mozart as "cute," as "rococo." Mozart's style was always impeccable, but that does not mean he was a bloodless china doll. He said: "When you play those scales, don't think scales -- think steel cables!" We played it again, and it was a different piece altogether. For me, it was an earth-shaking experience. A week later, I asked him to accept me as a piano student. He was pleased, and arranged it forthwith. Irwin Freundlich became my piano teacher and my mentor.

I emigrated to Israel and lived on a kibbutz. I performed in kibbutzim, and made an impression. At that time, most of the members of kibbutzim were Europeans, and devotees of classical music. In the federation to which our new kibbutz belonged there was a full-time official in charge of music: teaching music in the schools, amateur choirs, concerts, etc. His name was Abraham Pintus, and he was a member of the largest kibbutz in the country, Giv'at Brenner.

Then my group founded our own new kibbutz in the Negev. At the beginning, our living conditions were extremely primitive. We slept in old leaky tents in the middle of nowhere, and had almost nothing to eat. Pintus came to our encampment, and told those in charge that it was a terrible waste not to exploit my musical expertise. He struck a bargain with them. His kibbutz would pay for me to spend one day a week giving piano lessons in their school.

Giv'at Brenner was luxurious compared to my own new kibbutz. I was given a pleasant room that did not leak. It was close to a communal shower with unlimited hot water. The food in the communal dining room was a welcome improvement. My base of operations was the cultural center, containing a large hall, a rehearsal room with a piano, and a library. Before lunch I gave piano lessons to two indifferent obtuse teenagers. After lunch I catalogued the music scores in the library. It seemed suspiciously like make-work, but in the evening the real point of the exercise was revealed to me.

After supper I met Pintus in the rehearsal room. He brought two other members of his kibbutz. It transpired that all three had been music teachers in Germany before they came to Israel, and they had habitually played chamber music together. Pintus played the violin, and the other two viola and cello respectively. Now they continued to do so, but they had no decent pianist. Would I like to play with them? With pleasure, I answered. Was I perhaps familiar with Mozart's piano quartet K478? Certainly; I had studied it at Juilliard. Was I able to master those terrifying scales? Nothing terrifying about them, I replied. They could hardly contain their elation. We went at it hammer and tongs until midnight. We played chamber music throughout that school year. We played other things, but we always came back to K478, because it was our first love. Thus the hardships of pioneering in the Negev were mitigated for me.

Years later, when I was no longer a performing pianist, but a student of musicology, I learned that K478 was a groundbreaking work. It was the first serious work for this combination of instruments, and it was a model for many composers, from Beethoven to Copland and Piston. I also learned about the circumstances surrounding its composition.

In Vienna at that time, it was a common pastime for amateurs to play chamber music at home. They were often frustrated, however, by the lack of players to make up the standard ensembles. In 1785, the publisher Hoffmeister conceived the idea of publishing albums of pieces for unusual combinations of instruments, for the convenience of such amateurs. He contracted with Mozart for a work for piano quartet. The unusual challenge intrigued Mozart, and he composed two: K478 to fulfill the contract, and another one in reserve. When the time came for the publication of the second album, he offered Hoffmeister the second piano quartet, but the offer was rejected. K478 had displeased the amateurs, because it was so difficult, with all those scales.

If my three partners and I at Giv'at Brenner had known this story, it would surely have amused us. In a way, moreover, we were giving Hoffmeister his belated comeuppance. Those three amateurs were improved and enhanced by the experience. I suspected that they were all practicing scales at home, so as not to be the weakest link when we played together, and they were all the better for it.

Even more years later, I came across a CD of the Mozart piano quartets in the university bookstore, and I snapped it up. I listen to it often. However, I hope I will be excused if I find it difficult to concentrate on the music, because the memories come flooding in when I hear it.