EXPLORING MUSIC : Lovely Sounds
The MHS Review 377 VOL. 10, NO. 17 • 1986
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David M. Greene
Despite the snorting and other tokens of disapproval from those for whom "truth" must be factual, I've gone and purchased a videotape of the Shaffer-Forman film Amadeus. For me it remains a superb piece of filmmaking, and I think it works on the small screen as well as, or better than, it did on the big one. Though, where convenient, it uses some historical truths about Mozart and Salieri and their world, it is not really about Mozart and Salieri, however much characters called by those names may posture in its foreground. It is rather a meditation on the nature of that curious phenomenon that we call "genius" and have never satisfactorily explained.
What (besides desperation) occasioned that lead-in was not that Mozart's "Haydn" Quartets are featured in the film (they aren't), but that at one point Abraham-Salieri says to Hulse-Mozart, "Before God, you are the greatest composer known to me," in what may be intended as mockery but which veils an anguished sincerity. In essence the statement is historical. In full it should read something like this: "Before God and as an honest man I tell you that your son is the greatest composer known to me either in person or by name." But in fact the speaker was not Salieri and the speakee not Amadeus. The pronouncement was made at a Viennese soiree on a February Saturday in 1785 (when Amadeus had just turned 29) by the 53-year-old Joseph Haydn to Leopold Mozart, on hearing three of the quartets from the set under consideration. So much for "truth": at least it's closer to the real thing than what you get on commercials!
Haydn, who gets the credit for developing the modern string quartet, started writing such works probably around 1760 when he was in his late 20s. Mozart followed suit a decade later, when he was just half the age at which Haydn had begun. The first efforts of both men were essentially music for amusement-divertimenti, a generic name applied to several of them. For the next 20 years Haydn was kept busy at Eszterhaza fullfilling his patron's demands and did not, in fact, write quartets for the decade of the 1770s.
After 1780 he began to emerge as a "public" composer, and in 1781 wrote a set of six quartets which he advertised as having been written in a "new and special way." Some writers see nothing new here, but the consensus is that there is. Reginald Barrett-Ayres sees it as increased airiness and humor learned from none other than young Mozart.
But Mozart's admiration for Haydn was reciprocal, and so he reciprocated. He sat himself down and wrote six quartets (K. 387, 421, 428, 458, and 464-65) which he rather fulsomely dedicated to the older man as "protector" of his "children:' And, like Haydn's set, these were a landmark in the development of the genre. For once Mozart did not toss them off; he worked hard over them, as the erasures and changes show. On this record we have the first and the fourth of the set.
The other day I reviewed a local orchestral concert in which a Respighi piece won my praise. An acquaintance asked me in all seriousness if it was played on "authentic'' instruments. Soon Boulez will be so offered. The Classical Quartet prides itself on being the first into the "period instrument" gap. Well, in fact they make some very lovely sounds, and the quartets seem to profit from the clarity that results from their approach.
Review of Hunt Quartet pg 46