In its free Lunchtime Classics series in the Perkins Library Rare Book Room, the Ciompi Quartet has been exploring the works of Mozart. On Tuesday, their performance of the String Quartet No. 19 in C Major, nicknamed “Dissonance” for the weird Adagio at the beginning, left me puzzled. Not “there must be a mistake in the score” puzzled, as 19th-century publishers would often hear from people trying to return their purchased sheet music. And not “I need to start a fistfight in the aisles” puzzled, like the audience at the premiere of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” in 1913. The piece simply left me curious, squinting, thoughtful.
In the brief Adagio, Mozart builds a series of chords with the cello, viola, and violin entering in turn—and then the first violin places a grating note on top of the chord. A descending figure makes a little rhythmic twist of the disharmony over the cello’s thrum. And then, very quickly, it’s gone. A lovely Allegro trots you away. The rest of the quartet repeats the four-note theme established up front, but never with the jarring top note. The dissonance echoes in the second movement, but it’s glimpsed in the middles of chords, hard to latch onto. But I was always listening for those harsh notes to reappear. It’s like when someone says something strange or offensive when you first meet them, so you’re wary of them henceforth. It’s hard to take the person at face value. You’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
These lunchtime Ciompi performances are wonderful because the musicians treat the audience to a brief introductory lecture in lieu of program notes. Violinist Hsiao-mei Ku set up this Quartet, focusing on its Adagio, which she noted is only the first 22 measures of an over 800-bar piece. She unpacked the dissonance musicologically, having the other musicians play phrases and then explicating them, noting that they foreshadowed Romanticism. But she was careful to point out that no one really knows just why Mozart wrote this opening.
Is it an expression of pain? Certainly Mozart had plenty of that. He was, in a word, a hustler. Limited by the stingy and demeaning employment of Archbishop Colloredo, he spent the late 1770s pounding European pavements looking for work and not really finding it. The archbishop moved Mozart to Vienna, but they argued and Mozart quit, scrawled “Will compose for florins” on a spanch of cardboard, and hit the streets again. He wasn’t on the streets for long, taking a room with a family and marrying one of the daughters, Constanze, in 1782. Mozart found financial success holding concerts. He and Joseph Haydn became friends as well—the “Dissonance” quartet (sixth and last of his “Haydn quartets”) was composed in 1785, the same year that Haydn famously told Mozart’s father “I tell you before God, and as an honest man, your son is the greatest composer known to me.” Mozart’s success was brief though—after sinking back into dire financial straits, he was dead within six years.
Is the opening a threat? Could it have been pointed at someone? Perhaps the archbishop—a kind of musical middle finger to the old man, now that Mozart had found success on his own? More likely a gesture to impress Haydn, who had quickly become a father figure to him. The violin note evokes aspiration—reaching for something unknown, as opposed to sadness, anger, or longing. Haydn played lead violin at the premiere, with Mozart on the viola. Mozart could have been gifting Haydn with the dissonant note.
Could it be some weird Freemason thing? A ritual greeting? Perhaps the figure is a secret, aural handshake to other initiates in the room. Mozart had just become a Mason the year before, and wrote Masonic music in his last years. The Masonic initiation ceremony begins with a candidate knocking thrice to be let in—the three notes of the chord, or three steps of the descending figure. The fourth note could the creak of the door opening upon the mysteries of the society within, an aspirational resolution writ large.
Although it’s fun to imagine the Masons in the parlor glancing meaningfully at each other from beneath their powdered wigs during the Adagio, threes and fours generally have a relationship of development and resolution—three elements build conflict and ambiguity which the fourth completes, providing conclusion and resolution. Triangles are pushed together to form a quadrilateral; odd numbers added together give an even result. It’s a string quartet, not a trio.
Is it a prediction of things to come, as Ku suggested? Certainly string quartets, which were social entertainments in Mozart’s day, would soon be put toward larger, more innovative ends by composers like Bartok. But these kinds of observations are easy enough in retrospect, now that the history of music is well-documented. In Mozart’s historical moment, there’s no compelling reason to believe that he was firing a shot across the bow of music itself. At the end of Ciompi’s hour, it was apparent that no one really knows what Mozart was trying to do in this quartet. But it sure is fun to wonder about it.