Comparing two Mozart chamber works in Bb

As I set out to make a surface-level comparison of two Mozart works, I will first make two background observations.  First, an 18th-century composer’s choice of key was often quite intentional.  Each key was considered unique and had its own connotations of mood/affect.¹  For instance, C and D, although only a step apart, would have suggested different moods: the first, perhaps pompous and regal; the second, more exuberant and joyous.  Therefore, my choice of two works in the key of Bb makes for a closer comparison than works conceived in different keys.

Second, it may be interesting to know that, in some of the chamber scorings of Mozart’s culture (e.g., string quartets, wind sextets, and later, wind octets), wind instruments were most often heard in pairs.  Moreover, this was not “classical” music in any stuffy, go-to-a-concert sense.  Chamber music was typically more casual evening entertainment for large, well-to-do homes.  Compositions for these ensembles bore a variety of names such as Serenade, Partita, Divertimento, Cassation, and Notturno (Nocturne).  The minuet (menuet, minuetto) frequently shows up in this kind of suite since folks apparently liked to dance it.

  1. Mozart’s Cassation in Bb, K. 99 was written in 1770.  The work, scored for string quartet plus pairs of oboes and horns, comprises seven movements, including an opening march and two minuets.  It lasts approximately twenty minutes.
  2. Mozart’s Serenade No. 10 in Bb, K. 361 was written ten years later and is known as the “Gran Partita.”  This latter work, scored for pairs of oboes, clarinets, basset horns (something like an alto clarinet), bassoons, and contrabassoon or upright bass) is still frequently performed and is widely considered to be among Mozart’s two or three masterworks for the medium.  This work also includes seven movements, including two minuets and a theme/variations movement.  It lasts approximately fifty-five minutes.

Below is a listing of the movements titles in each work with rough tempo markings.  It should be noted that, in the 18th century (and beyond), movement title words such as “Moderato” and “Largo” were not taken as mere tempo markings, though.  These words originally designated a great deal more than tempo.  For instance, “Allegro” was not only moderately fast; it was lively and cheerful.  With that said, I present the tempo numbers below as reasonably indicative of common practice.  They are, within a beat or two per minute, those used by the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, respectively.²  In the context of comparison, the numbers can reveal a kind of tempo “shape” of each work as a whole.

Cassation, K. 99 Tempo & Meter Serenade, K 381 Tempo & Meter
I.  Marche 124 duple-compound I.  Largo – Allegro Moderato 56 (8th note) duple 152 duple
II.  Allegro Molto 144 duple II.  Menuetto 108 triple
III.  Andante 60 duple III.  Adagio 72 duple
IV.  Menuet 148 triple IV.  Menuetto – Allegretto 144 triple
V.  Andante 50 duple V.  Romanze – Adagio 66 8th note – 92 duple
VI.   Menuet 152 triple VI.   Tema Con Variazione 72 duple
VII.  Allegro – Andante – Allegro – Andante – Marche 120 duple |    60 duple compound | 120 duple |  60 duple compound |  124 duple-compound VII.  Rondo 140 duple

I might observe a few things in analyzing the performance tempos and character of the movements of each work.  First, the strict numbers themselves are not always indicative of the tempo or the feel.  In some cases, as in the example shown here, there is a lot of “black” on the page of music—generally meaning there are many 8th and 16th notes in the parts, leaving little white space—yet the basic pulse unit may be quite slow.  Above, I also note the pulse groupings in twos or threes.  For example, a duple andante that gives way to a faster, triple minuet shows variety and contrast.

One may also observe balance and even symmetry.  In the Cassation, the work quite obviously comes full circle:  the “Marche” music heard at the beginning is quoted at the end of the 7th movement.  The even-numbered movements of this work are all relatively fast, while movements 3 and 5 are the slowest.  The minuet (menuet or menuetto) tempi are intriguing in their own right; these four minuets exhibit at least three different moods.  There is more to the technical makeup of minuets than this, but generally, a slower minuet may be considered more courtly and/or stately, whereas a faster one often connotes peasant or country dancing of the time.  The most subdued, elegant minuet of the four would be Movement III of the Serenade, being performed at roughly 72 pulses per minute.

In music of this period, tempo and key tend to be related.  For instance, rarely would one find an Allegro (generally “lively”) in C minor, because C minor carries a funereal association and wouldn’t be performed in a moderately fast, lively manner.  Keep in mind that most works of art music in this time modulate to different keys as a matter of course, but note below the primary key of each movement.

Cassation, K. 99 Key Serenade, K 381 Key
I.  Marche Bb I.  Largo – Allegro Molto Bb
II.  Allegro Molto Bb II.  Menuetto (courtly) Bb-Eb-Bb
III.  Andante Eb III.  Adagio Eb
IV.  Menuet Bb-F-Bb IV.  Menuetto – Allegretto Bb-F-Bb
V.  Andante Bb V.  Romanze – Adagio Eb
VI.   Menuet Bb-Eb-Bb VI.   Tema Con Variazione Bb (includes minor)
VII.  Allegro – Andante – Allegro – Andante – Marche Bb VII.  Rondo Bb

Both works come full circle in terms of key, and that is no surprise.  Each creation is successful and worthwhile.  (That may go without saying for Mozart, but it is not always the case with even the best composers.)  The Cassation was the product of a 14-year-old prodigy, and the Serenade was written when the composer was 24; the latter work does seem to manifest more maturity, more depth.  Its tempi and character show a greater range of emotion:  the opening Largo is deeper, and the presence of an adagio, in comparison to the andantes of the Cassation, seems to reveal a progression in Mozart’s explorations.  Moreover, the Theme and Variations, sometimes an exercise through which a composer challenges himself to be creative, was (wisely? ³) not included in Mozart’s teen work.  The Serenade’s Rondo is a rollicking finale that might not have been as effective if written ten years before.

Both these Mozart chamber works could have provided good “dinner music” for a wealthy family (and guests) in the Austrian countryside, and I’m glad I get to experience them still today—sometimes, during my own dinner.  I listen to these and other Mozart chamber works multiple times every year, and that is saying a lot for a guy who’s not really a Mozart aficionado and who has as many listening options as I have on hand!  Within the next two or three years following the “Gran Partita,” Mozart would go on to write a Serenade in Eb and the Serenade in C Minor.  The Serenade in Eb contains some truly sublime chamber music, and I consider it a chamber-music must-listen for the true music lover with any breadth of taste.

¹ Arguably, this sensibility stemmed from the non-equal-tempered tuning of the time.

² In actual performances not governed by electronics, there will naturally be some variation in tempo.  Also, it bears mention that there were no metronomes of any kind in the time of Mozart, so there was no absolute standard, although historical research has shown generally acceptable windows for most such markings.

³ I myself wrote an elementary Theme and Variations for Horn Quartet as a college student, and it’s not very good.


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